Ian Stephenson, President, Bulletin 10/2021, December 2021

On Wednesday 24 November 2021 Sydney City Council’s Local Planning Panel approved a Development Application (DA) by the NSW Land and Housing Corporation (LAHC) to erect two eight-storey apartment towers and five three-storey terrace houses in the St Phillips estate.

This represents the most serious threat to Glebe’s scale and community in almost fifty years. Its impact on the urban landscape is similar to the home unit towers which were starting to be built by private developers on the ridges of Glebe in the 1970s. At that time residents of Glebe and Balmain took control of Leichhardt Council through the ballot box and changed the zoning. We have a lot to thank them for.

This time round it is the State Government who are the greatest threat. On that Wednesday night they used their powers under Division 6 of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act to force through the development by preventing the Local Planning Panel from applying conditions which the applicant did not endorse, thus paying scant regard to the Objects of the EPA Act which include promoting ‘the sustainable management of built and cultural heritage and promoting good design and amenity of the built environment’.

Since the mid-1970s governments have acted for the public good in Glebe by conserving and refurbishing the old houses of the former church estates and then adding beautifully designed infill to increase density while preserving the urban and social fabric.

It is the combination of the urban fabric – the amazing range of historic buildings comprising a townscape whose scale remains largely intact, and the social fabric – the range of people from wealthy, middling and poor income brackets including freeholders and tenants, all within three kilometres of the CBD, which makes Glebe so wonderful.

The low-rise houses with front verandas close to the street make it a sociable place. The buildings and mix of people and picturesque streets foster interaction. It is the wellspring of our community and is based on a long tradition. This is our heritage, the buildings, the topography and the people.

While government once nurtured this, now it is government, the NSW government, which is destroying it. They are a much more powerful threat than the private developers of the 1970s because they are Glebe’s largest landowner and control the planning system.

It is deeply ironic that the purchase of the church estates in 1974 to preserve the historic townscape and protect the low-income community, and the addition of low-rise infill in the 1980s, has created a toxic threat whereby government sells off the old houses and redevelops the low-rise infill for high rise, thereby cutting at the very heart of our heritage – the urban and social fabric.

Readers will recall that back in March Sydney City Council approved a spot rezoning of 2A-D Wentworth Park Road and 17-31 Cowper St to remove the sites from the St Phillips Heritage Conservation Area and increase the height limits and the floor space ratios.

On the day the application was going to its first Council committee the Minister for Housing, Melinda Pavey, sought to ease its passage by issuing a press release announcing that:

the NSW Government is continuing to deliver more new, high-quality social housing across Sydney, by reimagining its visionary housing development on Cowper Street and Wentworth Park Road in Glebe to now deliver 100 per cent new social housing. The $34 million project, initially expected to

increase the number of social housing dwellings on site from 19 to 35, will now deliver more than twice that number again, with a total of 75 new social homes to be completed, including five three-bedroom terrace homes for larger families.

It was still a bad development and certainly did not, as the Minister claimed ‘complement and enhance the character of the Glebe area’, however a number of Sydney City Councillors observed in respect of the rezoning application that it was good that the government was departing from their usual approach and making the development all social housing.

From the DA for 17-31 Cowper St and 2A-2D Wentworth Park by NSW LAHC (image: City of Sydney Council)

Let’s fast forward to the determination by the Local Planning Panel on 24 November, 2021 of the Land and Housing Corporation’s DA for the site. The panel explored what guarantee there was that the development would be 100 per cent social housing. The site-specific amendments in the Local Environment Plan provided no reassurance. They stipulate that the northern tower must be used ‘for the purposes of affordable housing’ but have no such provision for the southern tower. The site-specific development control plan provided no reassurance, either. Its future character statement stipulates that ‘the future development has social and affordable housing occupying the northern lot’ but is mute regarding the type of housing on the southern lot. Nor did the DA itself contain any word which would commit the use of both lots for social housing.

The Local Planning Panel rightly saw this as anomalous and sought to integrate into the approval words which recognised that both towers should be social housing without imposing a condition to that effect (something the LAHC representative reminded them they were not permitted to do). Two members of the panel also noted the differences between perspectives and elevations, and lack of other details which made it difficult to understand exactly what they were approving.

The Panel’s deliberations are on the Council’s website.

Prior to lodgement Sydney City Council negotiated with LAHC to make a number of changes to the development. However, reducing its height and having the DA for 100% social housing were not part of that.

It is wrong for the Minister for Housing to make a public commitment that the development would be all social housing but for the DA lodged by her department to make no such commitment. As the development is a Crown application the consent authority had no capacity to add this as a condition, although, I believe, they could have rejected the DA.

The Society has also lodged submissions in relation to development applications for 3 Avenue Rd, Glebe and 188 St Johns Rd Glebe, as well as a submission on the draft plans of management for some of Glebe’s Crown Land reserves managed by Sydney City including Johnstons Creek and Wentworth Park.