White Bay Power Station

It’s testament to the growing disquiet around planning decisions made in NSW that the state government’s urban land agency UrbanGrowth NSW has rejected all 13 tenders received for the transformation of the White Bay Power Station, part of the Bays Precinct.

Given the current climate, you can just imagine the tsunami of outrage that would have enveloped the government had it announced the beloved power station were to be transformed into luxury high-rise apartments.

While we don’t know the exact details of the tenders, UrbanGrowth NSW chairman John Brogden pointed to an over-reliance on high-density residential.

In announcing the rejection, he noted that all private sector proposals “relied too heavily on residential development to fund decontamination of the Power Station, and doing so would have changed the nature of the site”.

UrbanGrowth will now become master developer of the site and will break the project into smaller parcels of land “as part of a staged development to attract a diverse range of tenants who will meet the government’s agenda”.

It’s a smart move for government, and most likely a good outcome for the public.

Not that everyone’s happy.

The Property Council and Urban Taskforce took umbrage at the uncertainty created, noting that the same thing had happened regarding Central Barangaroo.

“The large development companies in NSW have previously had two rounds of proposals for the central area of Barangaroo cancelled and with the termination of the White Bay proposal process, tens of millions of dollars have been wasted,” Urban Taskforce’s Chris Johnson said.

Property Council NSW executive director Jane Fitzgerald said the government needed to assess what was going wrong with these large-scale masterplanning tasks because the private sector was paying the price for failure.

The Greens, meanwhile, placed the blame squarely at the feet of an “out of touch” development industry.

“The fact that even the overly generous criteria for development established by UrbanGrowth NSW couldn’t be met shows just how voracious and out of touch the development industry is,” Greens MP Jamie Parker said.

“After the disastrous development outcomes at Barangaroo even this government realised the public simply would not accept another massive overdevelopment on public harbourside land.”

The Australian Institute of Architects shares similar sentiments.

NSW chapter president Shaun Carter told The Fifth Estate that development of large swathes of land should ideally be vested with the government from the beginning in order to maximise public benefit.

“We’ve always known what good city making is,” he said. “You make the public domain, make streets, footpaths, separations, set heights, then sell it off to private interest.”

This allows diversity and maximises public benefit.

“Overwhelmingly, all the cities we like to go to – London, Barcelona, New York, Paris – are fairly fine grain, or mixed grain,” Carter says.

There is a mixture of small, medium and large buildings, and no two architects are likely to have designs side-by-side.

Lost public confidence

The model used for Barangaroo – where Lendlease was given sole contract to develop – is of concern to Carter and the AIA.

“I don’t think that’s the best way to get the best public space.”

The big concern is that with the series of “modifications” to the Barangaroo Concept Plan – which has seen the built space increase from 320,000 square metres up to 680,000 sq m in the latest “Mod 8” proposal still under consideration – public benefit has been gradually whittled away.

The public domain, Carter believes, should have been delivered by the government. Whereas now streetscapes have been narrowed and there’s a proposal to put a high-roller casino where parkland was slated.

“We would argue that if the government had have developed lots for sale, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If there were a casino, it would be where there was development approved.”

Indeed, the original Barangaroo concept plan by Hills Thalis Architects was described by Philip Thalis as “Sydney proof” because it divided blocks of land with public streets so no one developer could take control.

Which brings us to White Bay. Here the risk is the public would see it as another Barangaroo, and a bridge too far.

UTS academic and urbanist Tarsha Finney agrees.

“I think the continual undermining of the design review process in Barangaroo means that the government can’t afford to have this happen again,” she told The Fifth Estate.

“The state government can’t be seen anymore to be approving one thing and having it transform through the development process into something else, which is not in the public interest.”

Finney, who has written about the issue at White Bay for The Conversation, argues that in the public’s mind, the private sector has now “lost its agency to deliver projects that are understood to be in the public interest”.

Was it too soon to go to tender?

Chris Johnson said UrbanGrowth had perhaps been premature in going to tender, and should have derisked the project first before going to the marketplace.

Finney, however, believes it is unfair to lay the blame at UrbanGrowth’s feet, which has expended enormous amounts of political capital rectifying the situation.

“UrbanGrowth has to be congratulated for pulling back,” she says.

The Baird government, Finney says, may have pushed UrbanGrowth over the line too early in going to tender, with the development of a site like White Bay needing major government subsidies, infrastructure and remediation to make it viable for anything other than its highest use.

Carter warns of being too restrictive regarding timelines for development of this scale. If there’s a time constraint put on this – such as the 2019 election – it needs to be unshackled, he says, as you start to get distorted outcomes.

He points to the controversy over the Sydney Light Rail as an example. The light rail paths were not altered due to government time constraints, Carter says, which led to it cutting down 100-year-old trees and the concomitant community fury. What should have been a tick was a disastrous own goal put in the brimming “#casinomike” box.

Is a tech hub even the best option?

There’s also a question of whether the NSW Government’s vision of a tech hub is indeed the best option for the site.

We know there is currently a federal government obsession with innovation, and the idea of a tech hub is definitely appealing at first glance, but White Bay may not be appropriate, according to both Johnson and Finney.

“It would appear that the brief was just too restrictive with the requirement to only house technology companies while restoring a decaying heritage building and to somehow fund this from very limited new development,” Mr Johnson said.

Finney sees the location of the development as restrictive, particularly when there are question marks over connectivity.

“The 1980s taught us that isolated, separate business parks didn’t work as models of innovation,” she says.

She points to the failure of the Australian Technology Park, or that of a number of French technology parks set up in the 1980s and 1990s. Places like SoHo in London – with mixed grain urban fabric allowing for a “dynamic ecology of large and small support and consultant businesses to emerge”, as well as existing strong transport links, are the gold standard.

“It’s a spatial question as much as it is a programmatic question.”

Another challenge is that power stations have been notoriously difficult to revitalise.

“No one knows what to do,” Finney says. “Once you get over the romance of [White Bay], what do you do with it?”

The only successful example that there is is the Tate Modern in London. Even up the river at Battersea there have been myriad problems.

“Battersea as a housing development is entirely unremarkable and has taken many years to resolve.”

The most successful urban renewal projects often have a significant university tenant “anchoring the site and animating it”.

“I don’t know of any of the bidders that had that,” Finney says.

Other options

Another option that has been floated is turning White Bay into an arts precinct. A “non-conforming” tender called “The Generator” by the not-for-profit Sydney Art Zone conceptualised an arts precinct founded on the idea that “technological innovation is accelerated when complemented by art”.

Carter believes a technology precinct can still evolve, given adequate investment, especially since the rumours are that Google is looking for at least 100,000 sq m of space in Sydney.

“I don’t think Google would suddenly stop being interested because Lendlease’s proposal wasn’t deemed to comply.”

He believes the government, however, needs to change the way it thinks and first deliver the infrastructure that will add value to the entire Bays Precinct and attract the best people – things like light rail, ferry stops and public parks.

“It feeds into the value capture conversation and lends even greater weight to idea that government should develop the public domain,” he says.

“Build it and they will come.”

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  1. They could move the powerhouse museum to there