Destination Blackwattle Bay

The foreshores of Blackwattle Bay are likely to see a major new development phase in the next few years. As much of these foreshores is publicly owned, the community rightly expects that it will have a strong voice in decisions as to future uses/development and that the public interest is protected. This, of course, is not a guaranteed outcome.

Looking southwest from the fish market along Bridge Rd, Blackwattle Bay (image:
Looking southwest from the fish market along Bridge Rd, Blackwattle Bay

The big catalyst for change will be the likely relocation of the cement operations (Hansons and Hymix) from Blackwattle Bay (possibly to the publicly owned Glebe Island) and the freeing up of foreshore sites for new, non-industrial uses. This has been discussed for some years and was advocated by the recent Bays Precinct Taskforce Report.

The future use of the strategically located Glebe Island itself is also in play – albeit with a few years delay imposed by the Government’s unilateral decision to temporarily re-locate the Darling Harbour Exhibition Centre there.

Not surprisingly, developer interest in these valuable sites will be intense. The community will need to be a strong balancing player.

Intense engagement and lobbying by residents’ groups (Glebe Society and Pyrmont/Ultimo group) and a supportive Sydney Council, have ensured that the community has done well out of earlier phases of redevelopment of Blackwattle Bay: the foreshore walk made possible by imposing a setback on commercial residential development; the restoration of the heritage Bellevue Cottage as a popular foreshore café; the conservation and re-adaptation of the Burley Griffin incinerator as a spectacular community centre; the Blackwattle Senior College (a very fortunate battle to have won – given the current pressure on public school places in the inner west). More recently, resident and rowing/dragon boat groups have protected the public interest in development plans for the Bank St foreshores with new facilities for dragon boating, a planned park and a modified relocation of the Sydney Heritage fleet. The industrial boat repair workshop will remain in Rozelle Bay until a suitable site is found.

However, it will be more difficult for community groups to exercise influence or achieve a similar mix of public and private benefit for the next redevelopment phase in Blackwattle Bay, given the new planning laws proposed by the O’Farrell Government and its general approach to development approvals. It is slightly cheering that the Premier and Planning Minister have just announced a short delay in their planned schedule for this legislation to allow some amendments in response to widespread community opposition; but so far there is no indication these changes will be other than peripheral. The new legislation will remove most existing planning protections for the publicly-owned Bays Precinct foreshores.  In this context, the biggest threat to the public interest will be unsolicited commercial development proposals.

Generally speaking, an unsolicited commercial development proposal does not deliver the best outcome for the public good.

The continuing Barangaroo/Packer Casino saga stands as a stark and depressing example of how the public interest can lose out to private commercial interests when these processes are in play.

The Glebe Society is deeply concerned that the next phase of Blackwattle Bay (and Glebe Island) redevelopment might be driven by unsolicited commercial development proposals without the constraints of enforceable master plans, without an open and competitive tendering process and with no channels for meaningful community input.

Our concern is driven by a deal of current lobbying activity relating to the emerging opportunities in Blackwattle Bay. This centres around the potential freeing up of the Hansons/Hymix sites, the longstanding desire to upgrade the Fish Markets and the ongoing negotiations of the Elias Group to get development approval for their proposed on-shore entertainment, retail and support functions associated with their Occasional Cruises Business at wharves adjoining the fish markets (B1, B2).

Its bad policy to endorse an unsolicited commercial development proposal in relation to publicly owned lands or assets. … It is an uncompetitive, non-transparent process which has no provision for real community input. It is also conducive to corruption.

For some years a local developer, Robert Dean, has been advocating a plan for a commercial redevelopment of these Blackwattle Bay sites –known as FishBank.  As far as I know, it has not previously been supported by any government agencies or Sydney City Council; nor was it supported by the Bays Precinct Taskforce. 

Recently the proponent sought and gained agreement from the Elias group to amalgamate their proposals. An unsuccessful approach was also made to the Fish Market management to join the proposal. Our understanding is that lobbying of the fish market tenants continues. The Glebe Society earlier this year declined an approach to lobby Government in its support.

The FishBank proposal has now transformed into a considerably larger unsolicited proposal titled Destination Blackwattle Bay. (DBB) We have not seen any documentation of this proposal but understand it incorporates the B1,B2, Hansons/ Hymix, part of Bank St – and that there are hopes the fish market can be included eventually.

The lobbyists associated with the earlier FishBank proposal have indicated they have met with Government agencies and ministers and have had a positive reception. We understand they may have intimated that they have community support for their proposals.

Presumably these meetings will be sought in relation to Destination Blackwattle Bay.

The Glebe Society is concerned that this proposal might gain Government endorsement and lead to a development decision prior to the development of the long promised strategic plan for the Bays and without any wider canvassing of options for the future use of this largely public asset and with very limited community input.

This is not an objection to the Destination Blackwattle Bay proposal per se. It is not an objection to private commercial development on the foreshores. We have supported, and will continue to support, appropriate commercial development in the bays, as long as it does not involve the alienation of public ownership by sale or long term lease and is consistent with the community planning principles for the Bays Precinct.

Our fundamental objection is one of principle: that its bad policy to endorse an unsolicited commercial development proposal in relation to publicly owned lands or assets. We have an abundance of historical examples which show this is not likely to generate the best public benefit outcomes. It is an uncompetitive, non-transparent process which has no provision for real community input. It is also conducive to corruption.

As for the specific proposal, there is no public information available for us to have an informed view on it. The previous version (FishBank) incorporated high rise residential and/or hotel development on the fish market site and we had doubts about that being compatible with a sustainable fish market or the most strategic use of this foreshore site. 

 The Glebe Society at its last meeting decided to write to the Premier and relevant Ministers indicating: our opposition to any unsolicited commercial development proposals in relation to public lands or assets in the Blackwattle Bay; our strong support for open and competitive tendering for development proposals for the Bay and the urgency of an integrated enforceable master plan for the Bays incorporating the community planning principles.

We will also be strongly defending the specific public interest principle that was developed about a decade ago to protect the rapidly diminishing Sydney Harbour foreshores in public ownership and incorporated in to the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (Sydney Harbour Catchment) 2005. This principle asserts that in all planning decisions relating to Sydney Harbour and its Foreshores the public good will have precedence over private benefit.