UrbanGrowth NSW held a marathon consultation – the Sydneysiders Summit and related forums – over five days (14-18 May) on the ‘transformation’ of the Bays Precinct. The general public was invited to drop in over the weekend. More specialist groups were invited to separate forums: councils on Thursday evening, community stakeholders/leaders on Friday evening and industry (planners, architects etc) on Monday. We are not quite sure when the big end of town and major developers were invited!

The Glebe Society took UrbanGrowth’s invitation to this consultation seriously and with our ever- optimistic good faith. We paid for 3,000 leaflets advertising the Summit locally, held a well-attended public meeting to discuss the Summit and reminded all members just before the Summit. The Glebe Society was consequently well-represented among the many interested Sydneysiders who dropped in to see what UrbanGrowth had to say.

Glebe Society representatives discussion outside the Sydneysiders Summit. (Image V. Simpson-Young)
Glebe Society representatives discussion outside the Sydneysiders Summit. (Image V. Simpson-Young)

An enjoyable weekend experience …
The Summit was a friendly, interesting and enjoyable experience in a fabulous venue (the refurbished Locomotive Hall of the Australian Technology Park in Eveleigh). It was brilliantly planned and no doubt very informative for those who came without detailed knowledge of the Bays Precinct or the many debates about their future redevelopment over the years.

There was a veritable cornucopia of information: the professional, glossy Discussion Paper, fascinating information displays and videos, repeated short talks on ideas for ‘transforming’ the bays’ and helpful UrbanGrowth staff at every display. This information flow was interspersed with constant exhortations to tell UrbanGrowth what you think: through short Q&A sessions, sticky note boards, electronic gadgets, a video room, talking tables and intimate and informal chats with the UrbanGrowth staff – including the CEO and senior staff. Classy free food and refreshments were available, too.

Sydneysiders seemed to enjoy the experience and made plenty of use of all the feedback options.

Consultation a soft sell
But if you came looking for tangible information about the kinds of propositions UrbanGrowth was exploring for the Bays – 11 months into their mega-urban renewal project – you would have gone away disappointed.

It was a soft sell with the vaguest of indications as to precisely what we, the public owners, would likely get through the promised ‘transformation’ process. It struck me as being designed to generate warm feelings about good things to come.

There is little in the glossy Discussion Paper that is new. (To view the Discussion Paper, go to https://transformingthebays.com.au/ and scroll down to the bottom of the page, where you can download the pdf.) The language and many of the broad proposals repeat community input over the years and much of the rest is planning and marketing jargon. There are lots of broad-brush indications of possible ‘transformations’ for the bays, but few tangible proposals and no information on interested players who may be having discussions with anyone in government.

It does not seem like a lot of progress and is not plausible to many of us.

Strong principles and processes are needed
We urged UrbanGrowth to commit to strong planning principles for the Bays to signal a real break from past practices in NSW. They have responded with a set of principles which are better than most but are, however, alarmingly silent or soft on two critical aspects:

Firstly, there is no mention of the principle embedded in the Sydney Regional Environmental Plan (Sydney Harbour Catchment) 2005 that there be no further alienation from public ownership, by sale or long term lease, of the harbour foreshores. There are 80+ hectares of publicly owned foreshore lands at stake in this project. One can only assume the silence on this principle signals the likely sell-off of much of this irreplaceable public asset for quick returns to the Treasury.

Secondly, much of the corruption that has blighted planning in NSW over recent decades has been associated with behind-the-scenes approvals for unsolicited developments. We have repeatedly urged that ‘all unsolicited development proposals relating to any Bays public land or waters be subject to open competitive tenders and proper public scrutiny’.

UrbanGrowth continues to evade this explicit principle for the more vague promise of ‘an ethical procurement process that optimises value for government and taxpayers while being attractive to investors’. This could mean anything.

UrbanGrowth has been under persistent pressure on this point. In response to questions, they promise a fair and competitive process but the words always leave the process undefined and are suggestive of some internal process that we can ‘trust’.

These are vast, valuable public assets. Sydneysiders should demand a formal, open and competitive tender process for all development proposals.

UrbanGrowth’s immediate priorities for the Bays Precinct
A number of ‘Destinations’ are flagged for immediate (2015-19) action: Bays Waterfront

Promenade, Bays Market District, White Bay Power Station and White Bay including White Bay Cruise Terminal.

Bays Waterfront Promenade
The promenade promises (in lyrical language) a welcome extension of the foreshore walk from Balmain to Pyrmont – in fact to the CBD. This is terrific, although not a new commitment. And one gets an edgy feeling that the foreshore walk might be the big ‘public realm’ sop for the community. Even here there are a few gaps. The promenade stops at Glebe Island Bridge and it appears that the Sydney Superyacht Marina will control public access to its bit of the foreshore.

The Discussion Paper is silent on the future of Glebe Island Bridge. Both councils and community organisations have constantly argued for its future use as a pedestrian and cycle route with a future option for light rail. Developments already approved or seeking approval in Rozelle Bay appear to pre-empt such future uses.

Bays Market District (Sydney Fish Market and Blackwattle Bay)
The discussion paper floats a very attractive future for the fish markets: ‘rejuvenate the Sydney Fish Markets … and connect it to the water, expand the fresh food offering, creating a world class Bays Market District’; ‘Restaurants, cafés and Sydney’s best dining destination’. Yes – a very welcome vision. Although it was a bit of an unpleasant surprise to the Pyrmont/Ultimo community to see that this market district extended along Bank Street where they thought they had agreement for a public park.

More interesting was what is not mentioned on the double-spread glossy pages of the Discussion Paper: large-scale residential development.

It is clear from other information that a significant part of the fish markets will be sold off for residential and, possibly, hotel development. This is hardly a surprise and UrbanGrowth does reveal elsewhere, in passing, that housing is a priority for this part of the bays; and it is not a problem in itself. But questions from the floor could not elicit any further information as to whether there were discussions underway with any developers or any developers with an active interest or with specific ideas. Questioners were assured that no discussion about options was underway with anyone.

Remarkable, given that one major player (the Dahua Group) is reported as having bought the Bidvest site adjoining the Fish Markets for $17.5m in December 2014 in preparation for a $3 billion bid to redevelop Blackwattle Bay. Dahua had already made one (of at least two) secret unsolicited development bid for Blackwattle Bay in 2013. (SMH 24.5.2015). (Apparently city real estate agents are confident that apartments will be available in the not-too-distant future at the Fish Markets).

One could be forgiven for thinking that UrbanGrowth’s assurance that neither they nor the new Minister for Planning have held any discussions with these players might be a technically correct response that obscures the magnitude of current developer lobbying and negotiations.

Expect rapid action on this site later in 2015. We can only hope that multiple players will force the Government to utilise an independent, transparent competitive tender for this lucrative development.

One can also only hope that UrbanGrowth’s nonspecific references to diverse housing will be translated into a formal and binding target for significant social and affordable housing as part of this development.

White Bay Power Station
Somewhat surprisingly, this is scheduled as an immediate priority. Urban Growth’s words are vague but consistent with years of community recommendations:

‘We see it as a statement of the ongoing transformation and evolution of the Bays Precinct. By creating a new landmark for Sydney that draws strongly on the whole precinct’s working heritage, we can enshrine the area’s history while demonstrating a resilience and flexibility to adapt to the future.’

Do they have any tangible ideas or expressions of interest? None that they are telling us about anyway, so we don’t know. But it would be very adventurous to flag this as an immediate priority without any possible players. They give us a few general clues. Housing is given the highest possible priority – as is employment and the public realm – and they give us three overseas developments in planning to think about: London’s Battersea Power Station, Hudson Yards in New York and the Toronto Waterfront.

Rozelle Bay and Bays Waterways – medium term priorities
This destination includes Glebe, Blackwattle and Johnstons Bays. These are medium term priorities scheduled for 2019-22. There are no objectives – just a statement of vague possibilities:

‘the potential to integrate a viable mix of new land and maritime uses, with working harbour industries and on-water recreation facilities. It would also include better public access to the waterfront.’

I note that the promise is not for a continuous foreshore promenade here.  At the moment it is doubtful that this can be delivered for the Rozelle

Bay foreshores. There is no reference to the Glebe Island Bridge, which is pretty central to what is, and is not, viable in these bays. And one wonders what the diversity of on-water recreation activities will be like with the superyacht marina berths expanded from their current 24 to 43 and the construction of the second dry boat storage building which will lift the number of stored boats to over 1000.

Transport – unanswered questions remain
The massive transport and traffic issues surrounding the Bays Precinct are well recognised. It is therefore astonishing that the Discussion Paper, while acknowledging that ‘an integrated strategy that considers all aspects of movement’ is essential to the redevelopment of the Bays, offers absolutely nothing beyond grand rhetoric and a bundle of questions that have been asked many times, but remain unanswered.

In part, this reflects UrbanGrowth’s lack of control (or influence?) over key elements of this critical infrastructure. The monster WestConnex is outside their control and will have huge implication for the area. It is doubtful they can determine the future of Glebe Island Bridge. The expanded markets, visitors, workers and residents around Blackwattle Bay will exacerbate the existing horrors of the Bridge Rd / Anzac Bridge intersection.

The continued lack of any detail about transport solutions is alarming.

In summary
UrbanGrowth does not seem to understand community consultation. It clearly put enormous effort into this event and its CEO was visibly annoyed and puzzled at the criticism that surfaced from the floor.  It wasn’t just that they would not provide any information as to what the summit was about until the day before – though that seems pointlessly provocative. But why they would think we would be positive about a bland and non-specific vision of possible ‘transformations’ for the Bays Precinct at this point is a mystery.

We know there is much activity and interest from developers and others. It is inconceivable that they do not have a bottom line from Treasury that they are not considering proposals as likely starters, that they have not made pretty firm decisions about what kind of residential development will be predominant. A prominent community leader leant over my shoulder on the Friday night to growl: ‘They are speaking to us like children’!

I can only presume their political masters wants the lid kept on anything likely to be controversial for as long as possible.

Urban Growth staff may well be serious in their stated desire to create a great and innovative transformation of the Bays and to ‘do planning’ in NSW differently – but that is not the point. The public good in such a huge urban development cannot be protected by the good intentions of some officials. It requires strong formal planning principles guaranteeing transparency, strong planning laws protecting the public good and political will. Some optimism has been expressed that the new planning minister might be open to such reform and that he might see the Bays Precinct as an exemplar for good and open planning in NSW. This optimism has been dented by his decision in recent days NOT to send the latest major modifications to the Packer Casino complex to the Planning Advisory Committee – notwithstanding a statement that they would a few days earlier.

‘Trust us’ sounds a bit thin at the moment.

Urban Growth’s next steps
Urban Growth will provide the Government with a ‘Transformation Plan’ in August. One can only hope it will have more tangible proposals than are currently on display. From September they will begin planning for the four immediate priorities.

They promise ‘ongoing public participation in all stages’. 

Our next steps
The Glebe Society will respond directly to the summit and the Discussion Paper by the deadline of 10 July – though many have noted that it is hard to see how one can meaningfully respond to such a non-specific paper. All the general points have been made repeatedly by the community.

In addition, UrbanGrowth has issued a call for ‘Great Ideas’ to achieve the objectives stated for the four priority destinations by the 6 July. This is a strange proposal. It is to have a formal assessment process ‘undertaken by expert panel, overseen by an independent Head of Assessment. A Fairness Adviser will impartially evaluate the assessment methodology and process.’

Though it is open to ‘everyone’, one presumes that major developers will not be relying on this process to get their proposals approved.

We will give consideration to responding with some great ideas – more on this later.

We will also work with other community groups through the Bays Community Coalition (BaCC) and a wider alliance incorporating most community groups around the bays to develop joint responses.

To assist with this there will be Community Workshop on Sunday 7 June, 2.30-4.30pm at Leichhardt Town Hall, to discuss community responses to the Summit.