city of sydney waterloo
City of Sydney Waterloo proposal. Image: City of Sydney

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. 

Urban Growth’s Waterloo proposal. Image: City of Sydney

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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  1. Thank you for bringing strong attention to the proposed Waterloo development
    We wrote to, and then met with, our local MP Rob Stokes, and subsequently wrote to Premier Berejiklian, expressing serious concerns about this development – in brief, building heights up to 40 stories (of course) – density 6,800 apartments on 19 hectares (absolutely).
    We commented – it is not apparent whether critical aspects such as those raised by Jan Gehl (‘Cities for People’) had been addressed – it would appear – not!
    We also raised the seeming lack of serious research with the stakeholders, especially those who would be likely to want to live there.
    We asked for a copy of the research which has directed the design thinking – no response to date.
    We agree entirely with Peter Mould’s ‘Opinion’ and certainly with his comments regarding Chris Johnson. One cannot rely on Mr Johnson for well considered comments on developments, and certainly not on his comments regarding Peter Mould’s reference to ‘height, density and community engagement’. A ‘ comparative question of style’? – an extraordinary comment.
    It is Mr Johnson’s job to push for stuffing as much building quantity into any given space. If the State government indicated that it might double the density, Mr Johnson would be ecstatic, as would the development group he works for.
    We are members of Sustainable Northern Beaches advocacy group, a community group driving for good, quality design at appropriately high levels of sustainability – levels that should apply to Waterloo and all developments. Peter Mould’s reference to the ‘develop at all cost’ is also our concern.
    As well, the distressing action by the NSW government to welcome and support developments that are clearly unacceptable to the people of NSW – classic examples including the Casino and now the stadiums. It is very upsetting.
    We well recall speaking to the PAC against the Casino – to no avail.
    Having said that, we say – it is fine to have developments – done well!
    Waterloo is a very good opportunity to ‘do development well’ – ensuring it contains all the elements – very good research (community engagement), good design, a high level of sustainability, addressing the real needs of the people.
    Jan Gehl says – ‘Life, Space, Buildings – in that order’.
    The City of Sydney appears to be much closer to getting it right.
    Their plan presents a more equitable, enlightened, considered urban planning solution to an area that needs to address the mix of peoples’ needs that already live there regarding social and affordable housing.

    It is wrong to have the developers selling off expensive apartments, forcing the locals to move out – an awful thing to do to people who have lived there for many years.

    Keeping the existing towers makes more sense in terms of sustainability. Refurbishment will have less impact on the environment.

    Also the City of Sydney plan also offers many more opportunities to create a ‘green’ Biophillic precinct – like Singapore.

    We really hope the NSW government will ‘do this development well’.

    Linda Haefeli, Alan Yuille, Greg Roberts

  2. In the City’s approach the new streets are wider with more trees and light; and, the buildings are lower, easier to build, have more equitable amenity, are less expensive to maintain and allow smaller, easier to manage body corporates. Studies show that smaller apartment buildings contribute to a finer urban fabric which in turn help to make communities that are resilient, durable, walkable and enjoyable. The 5300 dwellings proposed by the City have far more potential for amenity than 6800 dwellings.

  3. Peter Mould adds a useful input to the Battle of Waterloo but it is misplaced. The NSW Government owns the site and looks after the social housing tenants so they must determine any renewal plans that will help break up the social housing and mix it with affordable and market housing. I only intervened on Waterloo when the City of Sydney after being involved in meetings with all stakeholders over 2 and a half years waited until the Caretaker mode of government when there could be no response from public servants to launch an unfunded alternative scheme. I believed this was unfair on all the work todate (including input from the Government Architect) for the City to then stop working with the team and to attack the work through an unfunded and unrealistic scheme.
    Peter talks about density as dwellings per hectare BUT those closely involved know that social housing at Waterloo only has 1.3 people per dwelling for over 2,000 dwellings. No where in Sydney has this so you must measure PEOPLE per HECTARE. The City of Sydney has raised the hopes of these 2,600 people that Clover will somehow fund a low rise scheme but where will she get the billions of extra dollars. I only stepped in when the state public servants were muzzled during the Caretaker mode to try to give reality an opportunity to win over unfunded hype.

  4. It is time for significant engagement with local communities, the reason really we have local councils. If we embrace the need for densification to ensure sustainable growth and the ability to retain green space, quality agricultural land to feed local communities, then the NSW planning laws need to reflect this change. It is tie to stop growing uncontrollably and put people and communities, not developers first.