Tactically cynical, the proposed revitalisation of Blackwattle Bay strongly indicates what this government’s legacy will be
Over their life, governments might be conceived as concerned either with tactics or legacy.
Tactics define the activities governments deploy to press agendas and mandates; to get things done or prevent them from occurring. Tactics entail the expenditure of political capital, most typically early in a term. They are controlled by those who deploy them, often marked by a pragmatism that borders on the devious.
Legacy is a sunset concern
Legacy is almost uniquely a government obsession – what will be the 25-words-or-less summary of its time in office – yet is mostly defined by those who come after; those who remember the distinctive features of what was done or not done. Like the vanity projects of now forgotten despots, governments attempt to shape their legacy by what they leave behind, but it is the judgement of others that will define that legacy, appraising what values those artefacts actually convey.
The title and final images powerfully express these two impulses. The first image is all tactics; the final points to a disturbing legacy.
The Blackwattle Bay announcement
InfrastructureNSW (INSW) recently announced the latest stage of its Blackwattle Bay project.
The announcement was accompanied with the usual images, reports and upbeat press release, all seeking to cast the exercise as another great leap forward for the people of Sydney.
Of course, few believed this tripe. Following its recent history with social housing, most saw the announcement as just another stunt to feed the property development project pipeline with government largesse.
The responses were swift and predictable.
Sydney’s Lord Mayor, Clover Moore, observed that the development was “a Trojan Horse for large apartment towers designed not with people in mind, but maximum developer profits”.
Sydney MP, Alex Greenwich, claimed “The plans are ignorant to the needs of a global city”.
Local resident action group chair Elizabeth Ellenius called them a “a wall of high-rise buildings”.
Elizabeth Farrelly again drew attention to the literal/metaphorical fusion of repetitive phallic forms – a seeming leitmotif of this government’s urbanity. Noting how naively predictable the designs appeared to be, she took particular aim at the mountains of pointless back-up studies.
The designs certainly seem like something roughed-out over a booze-fuelled afternoon armed with white paper, crayons, a calculator, and a profound indifference to real community-affirming urbanity.
The Fifth Estate reported UNSW’s Professor Helen Lochhead, who pointed out that though not intrinsically bad, high density didn’t require towers, particularly so close to the water’s edge, rather than near the ridgeline for view-sharing purposes, as has become acceptable Sydney practice until recently.
No doubt these responses were predicted by the project’s media managers, probably down to the actual words. Knowing that the project is pretty much locked-in, objections will not affect the project one jot. Maybe during the forthcoming obligatory consultation period, a couple of floors might be symbolically lopped off – originally added just for such sacrificial purposes – to suggest the community was listened to.
Property development and tactics
The property development industry exists to extract profit.
It is defined by the short time horizons and pragmatism of tactics. Vison, ideals, and beauty have no place unless they can be configured tactically to deliver a financial reward. That is why developers engage architects; they are good with that beauty. thing.
Land acquisition is all about obtaining tactical advantage over competitors and massive profit from value uplift. Tactics define how advantageous consents are obtained against planning obstacles and hostile objectors. Community facility offers and anodyne images feature hugely in these tactics.
Selling the “product” depends on marketing tactics. Again, glossy pictures – of kitchens, views and relaxed repose – play a huge role.
Even engagement with government is driven by tactical manoeuvres. Some five years ago they led to the reduction of profit-sapping consumer protection obligations. Their recent re-tightening was not opposed by the industry, but only out of tactical recognition that it needed a community licence to operate.
There is little in these activities that reveals a concern for legacy – other than its expression as profit.
None of this should be taken as criticism of the property development industry.
If one farms crocodiles don’t complain if they snap and eat all the chooks. It falls to government – its agencies and its policy settings – to attend to the public interest.
How do these observations relate to the Blackwattle Bay announcement?
The answer is simple: INSW appears indistinguishable here from any other profit-driven property developer.
What big city-building ideas, which only government can provide, will be delivered here?
If the answer is little or nothing, then INSW’s role is little more than to dole out development capacity at the stroke of a pen to the property industry, while sitting on a comfy pile of self-congratulatory reports.
Ultimo Pyrmont revitalisation – then
It was not always thus.
Starting in the mid 1980s, the rejuvenation of Ultimo Pyrmont was, and is, a laudable legacy of cooperation between a conservative state and progressive federal government that mixed social housing with high-end development, creative industry hubs with junior-to-tertiary education institutions, museums with entertainment institutions – and significant infrastructure investment. On these bones a nationally significant information communication technology (ICT) hub has grown.
This government can be justly proud of what its predecessors initiated in Ultimo Pyrmont.
The precinct has developed into a genuine urban ecosystem, deeply valued by its inhabitants, which explains the outrage generated by the latest INSW announcement.
What, then, is the INSW project about?
After several decades the precinct is now largely complete, except for a few small sites abutting Blackwattle Bay. These have hitherto proved difficult to redevelop for a variety of reasons. The INSW project is all about overcoming these obstacles.
Ultimo Pyrmont revitalisation – now
Infrastructure NSW depictions of the current project, such as the title image, show little of Ultimo Pyrmont’s past city-building.
Full of thigh-squirming virtue-signalling detail – note the flags, social distancing, and plants on buildings – the water-colour wide-angle shows lots of happy people virtuously engaged in ancient civic rituals on a white amphitheatre, gazing dreamily at the ever-so-tiny towers in the background. Towers too close and disconcertingly over-looming fade fuzzily into the mists of a white border or, perhaps, low-lying cloud.
It might be an hilarious painterly piss-take of property-marketing – just needing the confirmatory signature of a famed cartoonist – except here it’s serious.
Essentially, the title image summarises what many have long suspected; this government is little more than the development industry’s sock-puppet, a thinly knitted layer of half-plausible public interest stretched tightly over calloused graspers.
So, let’s consider urban legacy
On the “plus” side, this government is delivering much-needed rail and other public transport infrastructure, though some may quibble this merely catches up on programs that the previous government failed to deliver.
It is also responsible for developing and pressing climate change abatement policies that its federal fellow-travellers still resist.
It recently funded the expansion of the Ultimo Pyrmont Powerhouse, though firstly threatening to shut it down. It is also enlarging the Art Gallery of NSW.
On the “dubious” side, the Parramatta Powerhouse looks set to continue at its original controversial scale.
Despite having been stripped of many exhibition tasks, the dubious museological fakery of the development will still require the destruction of genuine heritage – Willow Grove – which will be cut up and put into containers awaiting forlorn reassembly elsewhere, stripped of any authentic locational significance.
The controversial WestConnex project was much more expensive than predicted but has deftly avoided post-completion cost-benefit scrutiny, and is now partly transferred to a private international investment house specialising in extracting high returns from profitable quasi-public monopolies.
The city-building promises that underwrote its initial approval have all but evaporated. Its near-completion still generates controversy.
The Crown Barangaroo inquiries revealed shocking corporate misbehaviour but, more alarmingly, that it was so extensively aided by this government, including the provision of prime public parkland and fast-track approvals.
Similarly, the systematic transfer into private hands of public housing in Millers Point, The Rocks (Sirius building), Glebe, and Waterloo, with little additional commensurate public benefit, still continues apace. Will Ultimo Pyrmont and Woolloomooloo be next?
The Sirius building is now being redeveloped into eye-wateringly expensive des-res.
All this despite Australia, and particularly Sydney, being in the grip of a housing affordability crisis, the remedy for which is likely to fall to future governments unless addressed immediately and much more aggressively than hitherto.
“Intergenerational theft” is the dramatic term for the perfect storm of housing un-affordability, job insecurity, rising education debt, precarious employment, increasing climate hazards, aging population costs, and now long-COVID morbidity, all faced by the next generation but little addressed by this state’s or the Federal government.
The final legacy
There is no inevitability that popular estimation of cites will increase in lock-step with their development. Once admired cities can decline with insensitive development, as Liverpool’s world heritage delisting has just demonstrated.
The current Minister for Planning memorably observed that cars are great servants but terrible masters.
Humans need daylight; cars can operate in darkness.
So, the urban legacy of this government is aptly distilled in the final image.
It shows humans scrabbling around on the shadowy undevelopable parts of the site, left to wander and wonder between the pylons in what some venal marketeer will no doubt dub an “urban room”.
Like those in Darling Harbour and WestConnex at St Peters, road decks whoosh overhead, its coddled cars blessed by the daylight craved by the humans beneath.
These road decks will be sacredly preserved by building them into the city, while genuine heritage is destroyed a little upstream.
Meanwhile, the tiny figures huddled in the foreground re-enact Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe” and Seurat’s “A Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” – but in a dystopian very-Sydney guise.
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.