Image by Sydney Fish Market

It’s a blessing and a curse in Sydney, to be protective of our built environment to the point where opposing new developments has become basically a local pastime. 

Nowhere are we more protective of than our precious harbour foreshore. (Unless you’re a degenerate gambling mogul of course).

This month, proposed new zoning to allow 45-storey residential towers at Black Wattle Bay, overlooking the new Fish Market precinct, invoked about as much disgust as a bag of prawn heads in a hot boot.

If all that wasn’t Sydney enough for you, it was local terrace house dwellers and the rowing club getting most up in arms. 

Safe to say our knees were also jerked in opposition to the idea of more multi-million dollar harbour-view apartments blocking access to the water and casting shade on green spaces. 

City of Sydney Labor councillor and Lord Mayor hopeful, Linda Scott took the opportunity to throw some choice words around in the media, and told us the government wanted to turn the fish market precinct into a “kraken”. 

She, along with mayor of the inner west council Darcy Byrne are pushing for a redesign of the precinct ensuring public benefit access to the waterfront. 

“This is a 45-storey tower development [12 of them] that risks the residential character of inner city suburbs and it risks reserving the waterfront only for the wealthy,” Scott said. 

It sounds alarming for sure. But are we being too hasty? 

It’s no secret Sydney has a shortage of housing close to the city and jobs, so maybe we should be more supportive of efforts to add more dwellings in a central location close to public space and amenities. 

Scott said the City of Sydney was over-delivering on its state government mandated new housing goals, in suburbs like Green Square, Redfern and Waterloo, but anyone who has played the rental or buyers market game recently knows there is little overabundance of stock. 

What this means is increasing our housing density, particularly closer to the CBD, without ruining the area for existing residents and compromising on quality of life for newcomers. 

Pro vice-chancellor, precincts at UNSW, Helen Lochhead said Blackwattle Bay is well-placed for increasing density, being close to public transport, green spaces, the harbour foreshore and other services. 

But adds the key to high quality, high density environments is diversity of developments. Meaning high rise needs to be balanced by medium and low rise too.

Particularly at the water’s edge, she says, buildings should be smaller to share the sunlight and views with those behind. High rises are best placed higher up on ridgelines as in North Sydney.

There’s nothing wrong with high density, but high rise and high density are not always the same thing. You can have medium rise and high density 

Helen Lochhead

“If you look at Potts Point which is the highest density local government neighbourhood in Australia, very little of it is high rise.” 

With that in mind we suspect the government might be playing a game with us. Rolling out the possibility of 45 storey monsters so when they actually build to 20 storeys we’ll all applaud their benevolence. 

Or as Linda Scott puts it, “I’m really optimistic that a strong community campaign will see the NSW Planning minister crabwalk back from this proposal.” 

None of this means we’re out of the woods. We can put faith in council and government not to royally screw us, but only so much.

“The state government have not made clear what the public benefits are that will flow from this project, and they’ve noted that any public benefit may flow at the end of the project,” Scott said. 

“And this is really disappointing because as we’ve seen in places like Barangaroo, often the promised public benefits don’t actually arise.” 

“When I was briefed on the precinct nine years ago, there was a lot of discussion about an Indigenous underground museum. It’s now a large empty concrete space that as far as I can tell is primarily used for filming car ads.” 

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On the ground in Sydney’s real estate game is Bernadette Rayner, managing director of The Property Business Australia which specialises in CBD apartments. 

Rayner is also highly sceptical that anything even close to 45-storeys will be built at Blackwattle Bay, and questioned the impassioned opposition that had occurred so far. 

“I think they’re jumping the gun a little bit. It hasn’t even been approved and it would blow me out of the water if it was going to high rise,” she said. 

“If you’re going to have something like Barangaroo popping out from nowhere, well then we have a problem. But I think the council aren’t that stupid, they’ll keep it in line with everything else.” 

She said those looking to buy in the CBD were largely doing so for the location and proximity to work and study, over other lifestyle benefits and amenities. 

Rayner said students were her core market for CBD apartments and most of the units she had sold in the Central Park development in Chippendale had been to overseas parents buying units for their children to live in while they study here. 

Who will buy in the proposed Blackwattle Bay development will depend on the quality of the development and the price of dwellings, from overseas investors to young professionals.

Lochhead warned that crucial to the success and social sustainability of the development was to get a diversity of residents living there, and not compromising on quality to try to pump up dwelling availability.

“I don’t think we should be designing the ghettos of tomorrow, today,” she said.

“We should be designing the best quality environmentally and socially and in terms of livability that we possibly can.”

“Sometimes these things get compromised and you end up with very low quality housing.” 

Many of Sydney’s “ghettos” were designed last century, prior to major changes to building codes being introduced. 

In 2002 the NSW government overhauled planning policy with SEPP 65 which played a significant role in improving the design quality of residential apartment developments across the State. 

“If you’re talking about anything pre-1990 there are lots of poor quality residential flat buildings but anything after the introduction of SEPP 65 you’ll see a great shift in the quality of apartment design,” Lochhead said. 

Key changes included improvements to solar access, natural ventilation, higher ceilings, room depth and so on, so Lochhead says apartment living is getting better all the time.

Whether the reality meets the rhetoric we’ll leave up to you. Take a look up next time you venture down the train line, to balconies crowded with wet washing and airconditioning units

Or spare a thought for those in the Opal and Mascot Towers — glad it’s not us.

How far we’ve come with apartments, and how far we have to go.