OPINION: The state election last weekend returned the Liberal/National government in NSW, so we can expect little change in the way planning and development is done. A close outcome may have put some pressure on rethinking the processes that caused so much concern in the community.
Issues like the refusal to take the Heritage Council of NSW’s advice on heritage listings, the poor communication with the community on major projects like Westconnex, the sale of public assets, the pushing through of unpopular projects such as the demolition of Sydney Football Stadium, or the approval of the Crown Casino that sterilised any comment from the Planning and Assessment Commission. They signal a develop-at-all-cost approach, and seem to place economic return above community values.
But let’s be hopeful. Let’s imagine that some of those concerns have filtered through and that a newly confident government now has the time to rethink its approach to development.
Waterloo would be a good place to start. Here an alternative to the government’s proposal has been developed by the City of Sydney. It provides an opportunity to re-examine and rethink not just how Waterloo could be developed, but also a potential model for the ongoing densification of Sydney.
Both the state government’s and the city council’s proposals for Waterloo are very dense, with the state proposing 6800 apartments and the council 5300 on a 19-hectare site.
Two comparisons are helpful here. Bondi Beach has approximately 6500 dwellings in 118 hectares. In the City of Sydney, where density is higher, the area around Kings Cross has 7400 dwellings in 49 hectares.
So if both proposals are dense, which of the two would people prefer to live in? And which is a better model for future development across Sydney?
The state proposes 17 high rise buildings between 16 and 40 storeys high. Studies show that clustering this many buildings at these heights will shadow nearby streets, parks and lower buildings, and will block residents’ views making the site much less liveable.
Compare this with the council’s proposal. Its highest new buildings are 13 storeys and these are positioned around major new and existing parks. The majority of buildings are eight storeys or lower and are arranged so the apartments receive good sunlight.
Conscious of the need for liveability and community, the streets widths have been designed in relation to the building heights and allow winter sun into the public park. The proposal also keeps much more of the existing tree canopy.
Balancing building heights with very high density means all the apartments would be pleasant places to live. This has the added bonus of opening up the development to builders other than the major players who specialise in high rise construction and financing. Perhaps this is why the more vocal members of this sector have been so critical of the council’s proposal. In fact, the Urban Taskforce has been strident in it’s support for the state government’s proposal.
Chris Johnson writing for the SMH on behalf of the development lobby group he heads describes the choice between the two proposals as a comparative question of style. But the differences are far more fundamental. They are about height, density and community engagement.
He labelled the City of Sydney’s proposal as “rigid colonial geometry” and the NSW government’s alternative as “a more organic, Indigenous interpretation of the landscape”, because among other things it has variable tower heights. Neither label is correct, or meaningful.
In fact, the city council in its resolution to support the alternative approach also committed to consult with the community and in Point 28 to specifically consult and work with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community within the development; that is, to provide meaningful engagement, not some developer’s idea of “indigenous design”.
The state’s proposal has the standard solution of podium buildings with towers varying in height from 8 to 40 stories with 70 per cent of the dwellings being in the 13 to 40 storey range. The state’s proposal also has a mix of 70 per cent market housing to 30 per cent social housing. With the proposal being market driven it is reasonable to assume that the more expensive market housing will be in the towers which will have the best access to light, ventilation and some views.
The lower buildings will have lesser amenity and will more likely be for social housing, negating the desire that one housing type will be unidentifiable from another. And yes, the towers do cast shadows on the parks, streets and lower apartments. The east west orientation that Johnson decries in the council’s scheme means that more apartments get either morning or afternoon sun and so meet the state’s own SEPP 65 amenity guidelines.
When the council’s proposal to keep and refurbish the two existing high-rise buildings was announced at a public meeting on 6 March, it was greeted with cheers of appreciation. It also keeps the spaces around these buildings, maintaining open space of real significance to that community.
Right across Australia, communities are concerned about density in our growing cities. People are concerned with overdevelopment, high-rise apartment buildings and losing the character of their local areas.
The fact is, our population is growing and we need high-quality affordable housing as well as employment opportunities. But urban sprawl cannot keep chewing up valuable farming land and isolating communities in outer fringes.
The City of Sydney, which will maintain the public spaces and services, has tested the state’s proposal and presented a well-thought out and practical alternative.
It proposes high density without new towers, it provides better amenity and a better public realm, but importantly it also provides a different model that can be replicated; high density and low rise, an outcome based on amenity, inclusion and equity. It needs careful consideration not glib dismissal, and spurious assumptions.
Are we yet again to see public land hostage to an agenda that best suits part of the development industry or one that seriously considers the broader public interest? The state government and the City of Sydney must come together and work to create the best outcome for all its citizens.
Peter Mould is a former NSW Government Architect, he currently serves on a range of design advisory panels in Sydney and interstate and is Adjunct Professor at UNSW.
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