Ultimo Pyrmont – A neighbourhood and community not to be messed with!

Approving Star City’s proposed tower would destroy a rare example of planning gone “right”, when planners, politicians and the community worked together.

The latest Pyrmont debate is an important one and it’s worth putting some background on the table to inform the way forward. 

The NSW Department of Planning established a team of planners in the Ultimo Pyrmont district in 1990 after the state government decided that this area- right next to the CBD should be redeveloped as a mixed-use community. It’s hard to imagine now, but there were very few residents then, with many dilapidated houses, squatters, feral pigs, chickens and the old CSL Sugar factory. 

The team worked closely with the local residents, the City Council and the Federal government through the Building Better Cities program to develop a plan for its future.  The planning concept was for a mixed-use community, with lower heights on the foreshore, rising to the heights (28 metres) of the old wool stores along the ridge. The concept was for the new suburb to be a bridge between the CBD heights and Balmain. 

There were many important features of the design, including views in and out of the area to the harbour, open spaces all around the foreshore, social and affordable housing, and the light rail. The highest standard of design guidance was the subsequent inspiration for the creation of SEPP 65 throughout NSW. A Regional Plan covering Ultimo and Pyrmont was made in 1993 and amended later when Lendlease purchased the CSL factory and persuaded the then government to increase heights at the Pyrmont Point end of the peninsula.

The Star City casino proposal was initiated in about 1994 and opened in 1997. The planners insisted that the casino should not negatively impact the emerging residential use of the precinct. A traffic management system was introduced to ensure that car parking could not escape into the residential areas. Uses such as porn shops and brothels were prohibited to limit the impact of the casino to the foreshore area in order to make it an extension of Darling Harbour rather than a part of Ultimo Pyrmont. That approach has worked. 

The peninsula was specifically planned so that Ultimo Pyrmont would not be a tourist precinct, but a mixed residential and employment hub close to the city. Darling Harbour is the tourist precinct. Creating a quality living environment was the highest priority and those living there now appreciate the open space, the accessibility to the CBD, the access in and out of the city, the views, the relative quiet, the Ultimo public school and, importantly, the sense of community. This has been tested and reinforced with several post occupancy surveys.

Of course, plans must change with new needs. But in Ultimo Pyrmont, the state government and city council have developed a successful urban renewal project that really works and is strongly supported by local residents. The local council has continued to support this planning vision and their persistence in enhancing the neighbourhood and sense of community is also strongly endorsed. 

Every place in the city needs a distinctive role and vision. This precinct is an example of planning gone “right” for once and it demonstrates that when planners, politicians and the community work together, the outcomes can really work. Ultimo Pyrmont is a rare successful renewal project that really works.  

Refusing the Star City tower as currently proposed is good planning and would be the best design outcome for the area. It’s size, height and impact are clearly out of character and not part of the consistently applied planning and design approach in this location. 

Look across the harbour. Barangaroo and the proposed casino building in that precinct ignored and then dismantled the planning rules along the western edge of the CBD. The consequence is that the CBD is overshadowed, and the community and values of Millers Point destroyed.  

We should not do the same to Ultimo Pyrmont.

Sue Holliday is professor of planning practice, University of NSW is and a former director general of Planning NSW and executive director of Honeysuckle, South Sydney and Sydney Harbour Foreshore Development Corporations

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  1. my recollection of the original Star City (you say opened in 1997 ?) was I had just seen a Masterplan for Pyrmont agreed on by the local community after years of work, all of whom had worked hard to develop and finally reach agreement on something for everybody in Pyrmont. Finally signed off, sigh of relief, happy – big job well done.

    Then – shortly after – the state govt announced ‘new casino for Pyrmont’ (why do I recall James Packer here?) – this news arrived like a giant turd on all the local communities years of hard work discussing, working through, negotiation with all stakeholders, and finally reaching agreement on a good plan – and here was the state government dropping a giant turd slap bang in the middle of it all.

    So offensive – but hey since then we’ve understood that the Liberal Government ‘Open for Business’ actually means public assets for private profits for their mates companies.

    To which I’ll call the 60-whatever storey tower proposal – Giant Turd Two !