Barangaroo is a symbol of squandered opportunities to make a better Sydney
Philip Thalis asserts that
Barangaroo is a symbol of squandered opportunities to make a better Sydney. I was part of the winning team – Hill Thalis Architecture + Urban Projects, Jane Irwin Landscape Architecture and Paul Berkemeier Architect – for the 2005-6 international competition for this 22 hectares of publicly owned foreshore, a 1.2km-long stretch of the city centre’s harbour front. Of 137 entrants, this scheme was unanimously selected by the NSW government-appointed jury.
The foundation of our plan was that the entire foreshore – 50 per cent of the site – be transformed into a continuous and inalienable public park. To tie this long-isolated area into the broader city, we proposed new public transport and a generous and connective street system, including a new park-edge street (now debased as Barangaroo Avenue) as the western complement to Macquarie Street.
A range of new public places and facilities was proposed, including theatres, community buildings, outdoor event spaces, major site-specific public art, a playing field, and floating harbour pools beside the green headland.
Development would include a significant percentage of affordable housing and work spaces. Logically, the government would progressively build the amenable and characterful new public spaces, enabling enhanced individual development sites to be marketed to a broad range of competitors.
Instead, Barangaroo over the past 15 years has become the antithesis of our winning plan.
Would any jury have selected the current scheme with its fragmented and diminished parks atop massive car parks, mean streets with no connection to the harbour, cursory cultural investment, dictated by development cartels delivering a shiny 75-storey casino hotel plonked right on the foreshore and a phalanx of bulky commercial and glassy residential towers hogging the foreshore and despoiling historic vistas?
Any self-respecting jury would have tossed it straight in the bin. Yet this is precisely the outcome that successive NSW governments have imposed on us at Barangaroo.
Spanning eight premiers and a revolving door of planning ministers, the public interest at Barangaroo has been manifestly betrayed. The agenda has been so easily subverted by sinecured developers fixed on their own exclusive benefit. The result is an enclave for the moneyed, devoid of options and interest if you don’t have a credit card.
The three government agencies and their backroom advisers who have had carriage of Barangaroo have been particularly culpable. But behind them have been an ineffectual Department of Planning, which has rubber-stamped every development excess. And above them all has been NSW Treasury, demanding to extract profit while minimising “risk” as it narrowly perceives it, in the process foregoing transparency and a long-term dividend to the people of NSW.
This is systemic failure.
But the negative effects of Barangaroo go well beyond its site boundary. Its bastard offspring are now spawning across greater Sydney. Currently, in the inner city alone, gross plans are on display at Bays West, White Bay, North Eveleigh and the Central Station over-development. The wanton demolition of the public housing at Waterloo also looms large.
Like Barangaroo, all these proposals are “development-led”. That is, without a committed, compelling and strategic public-space plan at their heart, and with scant public program to make these vast tracts of public land benefit the wider city.
Rather, they are conceptualised primarily as sites for exploitation. An exploitation that squanders opportunities for public land for future generations.
Contrast this with Green Square, where the City of Sydney has invested more than $1.3 billion in new public streets, parks, pools, a library, a school, infrastructure and community buildings to sustain the emerging community there – surely the model for density done well.
Barangaroo stands as the physical manifestation of an opaque and corrupted process.
We the people must ensure this is the last such alienation of our precious, irreplaceable public land. We need a more intelligent and long-sighted approach to “planning”, a renaissance of public agencies that can deliver us better cities and places fit for the climate, affordability and equity challenges of the 21st century.
We need much more sophisticated measures than the short-termism of blinkered “business cases” to guide city-making public projects. We must elect politicians who understand these challenges, who stand against the developers’ self-serving monologues, who act with “public imagination” to champion better cities to serve our society’s future needs and aspirations.
Philip Thalis is an architect and former independent City of Sydney councillor.