Image by Kaysha

As any punter knows, the most reliable indicators of future performance are not to be found amongst superficial claims or promises, but by close inspection of past performance. This approach might fruitfully be applied to recent government announcements concerning the Parramatta Powerhouse.

Let’s start with an outrageous proposal: the Parramatta Powerhouse will become SYDNEY’S NEXT CASINO!

This author previously offered the ludicrous suggestion that the Parramatta Powerhouse project might profitably be reconfigured to broaden (rather than merely relocate) the state’s museological offer by drawing on existing under-exhibited collections, and hence expand Parramatta’s cultural distinctiveness and the state’s tourism appeal.

“Ludicrous”, because the suggestion partly appealed to reason rather than the deep unvarying calculus of vested partisan interests.

So, here is a corrective re-analysis based on recent urban policy evidence.

Prognostication reliability

Horse racing enthusiasts know that the best predictor of future performance is past form – breeding, trainer, jockey, past wins, contents of pre-race meal – rather than promises or assertions of success.

Let’s apply the same approach to the Parramatta Powerhouse project, keeping in mind the adapted aphorism that “no one ever lost an election underestimating the wit of voters”.

The project thus far

The competition-winning Parramatta Powerhouse proposal required demolition of Willow Grove, the historically important house occupying part of the site. 

Many outraged objectors pointed out the obvious: revise the design to retain Willow Grove. 

This was simply not possible, government claimed to sceptical grumbles.

In the meantime, and in response to the clamour of support for the original Ultimo Powerhouse, government eventually funded its renewal, allocating some $500 million to the task or about half that originally allocated to the Parramatta project.

So, if the nexus between project brief and competition-winning form has now been broken, by the revival of the Ultimo Powerhouse, the fundamental unanswered question is this: why must the Parramatta facility remain unchanged if it has an entirely different brief to fill? 

Follow-up questions immediately spring to mind.

Why must we demolish Willow Grove now if all we will get is an empty shed?

What new uses are now proposed to fit a building not yet commenced let alone constructed? 

Then the penny drops… we’ve encountered all this behaviour before.

Past form #1 – “the WestConnex sell”

The ever-expanding WestConnex motorway project was originally introduced as a mere necessary appendage to a long-overdue urban renewal project to reverse the blight along the Parramatta Road corridor and increase inner-Sydney housing capacity.

The first hint of a ruse came when it was revealed that the project would be divided between a road delivery arm and an urban renewal component, each under separate agencies. This anodyne announcement was greeted with gasps of knowing disgust.

Now years later, WestConnex has been partly transferred to one of this nation’s largest private toll-road operators and the balance metastasises northwards beneath Sydney Harbour, yet the Parramatta Road corridor remains as unloved as ever.

Past form #2 – “the Allianz Stadium – lock it in”

Replacement rather than refurbishment of Allianz Stadium in Moore Park attracted much controversy with supporters of both options lining up along party political lines. The more expensive replacement was favoured by the football codes, but entailed greater expenditure of taxpayer funds.

Replacement was ensured by the rapid part-demolition of the existing facility just before a state election. The logic was clear; create “facts on the ground” that would be impossible to reverse in the event that the party favouring refurbishment won the election.

Are we witnessing something similar with the imminent letting of a demolition contract – errr dismemberment and storage contract – for Willow Grove?

This is despite the project web-site suggesting the Parramatta Powerhouse project has been “paused”, to allow the “careful deconstruction and storage of Willow Grove” only after “a Relocation Framework and Methodology Plan for the process of site selection, consultation and deconstruction has been developed” – whatever that means.

Past form #3 – “the virtuous veneer of planning”

Pyrmont renewal was the result of a decade of careful master planning and public consultation, which eventually led to broad community and government support. 

Similarly, Barangaroo underwent many iterations. Though the original master plan was junked for the current large towers scheme, it offered a quid pro quo of extensive public parklands in a form partly negotiated by a former Prime Minister. 

More recently, the Greater Sydney Commission released its “three cities” model to accommodate Sydney’s growth. This would entail significant redevelopment within the core of Parramatta, much already underway, along with the development of a new “city”, the Badgerys Creek Aerotropolis.

Past form #4 – “casino-led urban improvement” 

Despite the careful planning of Pyrmont’s renewal, The Star casino landed as a fait-accompli late in the planning process, as Frank Brown reminded this author.

Similarly, just as Barangaroo’s revised urban form congealed around a new public park, the Crown proposal landed in the middle, with a thud of state support. 

A pattern is emerging here. It seems that for every careful, lengthy master planning process entailing significant renewal and public consultation, it can always be improved late in the day by the addition of a casino.

If so, where and when might a new casino arrive in the Parramatta “second city”?

A hint can be gleaned from past examples – on prime water-front land controlled by the state.

Hmmm, sounds like the Parramatta Powerhouse site…

Past form #5 – “deus ex machina”

But the community will NEVER buy that…

Like the toxic chemical plumes that seep through Sydney’s bedrock to sensitive locales like kindergartens, gambling interests have an uncanny knack of finding a path to the very core of governmental urban decision making.

Indeed, following the fallout of recent gambling enquiries, a few consultants that previously tickled governments’ pro-gambling thrill-gristles – deftly yet discreetly beneath its sober regulatory overcoats – are now hireable again.

Hmmm, watch this space (or not; it will be very unobtrusive)…

If it happens, this author suggests a graphic design cost saving. A facility rebadge might simply add 4 letters to become the Parramatta Powerball House

Past form #6 – “user pays”

The treasurer recently clarified government’s approach to funding a post-pandemic jobs recovery. Core principles will be greater asset recycling and increased state borrowing.

Asset recycling is the go-to method to reduce taxpayer burdens on key voting cohorts for unpopular policies. Cutting-and-dicing existing social housing assets (decanting some to the private sector) is now the preferred funding mechanism to “grow” this burdensome sector, despite the need it addresses being much larger than the mechanism can ever hope to satisfy.  Thus conceived, social housing is entirely self-funded through internal financial synergies.

Administrative synergies account for sometimes odd conjunctions of ministerial responsibilities, such as the arts with sports (presumably because they are each a class of public entertainment). 

Operas are great to attend but they cost a bomb. Gambling is an indirect tax on the poor that the private-sector administers, paying the government a flat franchise fee, typically 2 per cent of profits.  

Why not combine the two?! Burgeoning profits from abject gamblers could be poured into the bottomless arts pit and also neatly silence poncy anti-gambling nay-sayers under threat of funding loss for their favourite art company. 

Besides, nobody could reasonably object to the name; the Ministry for Painting, Prancing and Poker.

Furthermore, the mix of gambling and art has a precursor in Hobart’s wildly successful MONA, though admittedly in the opposite conceptual direction – from gambling to art.

Ka-CHING!

So, if past form is a gambler’s best guide, would the Parramatta Powerball House really be that unlikely? 

For museum enthusiast quibblers, maybe an annex could be devoted to small exhibitions of poker-machine technology, though certainly NOT an explication of the mathematics of chance.

Brrrrt, click, brrrrt, click, ka-CHING!

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.

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