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New thinking needed to address Sydney growth constraints

Anzac bridge

If government won’t explore innovative ways to grow Sydney’s CBD, perhaps the private sector – with all its faults – may be our only hope.

It sometimes seems that planning is as much a concealing and evasive discipline as it is a coordinating and enabling one.

As explained recently in The Fifth Estate, Pyrmont is one of the most carefully considered development precincts in New South Wales. There has, in consequence, been widespread indignation about a proposal from The Star casino operator to build a massive tower complex in Pyrmont.

In response to that proposal, the minister for planning and public spaces very sensibly instructed the Greater Sydney Commission to review the planning framework around the Western Harbour Precinct, including the Pyrmont peninsula (See Figure 1).

Figure 1

There are a couple of striking features in this image. The first is the harbour itself.

Unlike other mainland capitals, Sydney’s CBD is constrained by peninsulas of land jutting into the harbour. This defines both the beauty of and the limits to, its growth and accounts for the fragmented character of its business centre – think North Sydney and Central Sydney. The harbour presents very real challenges to the CBD’s growth.

The second feature is the extent of land devoted to a through-road, running from the Sydney Harbour Bridge at the top of the image to Glebe Island (and beyond) on the left.

Were this corridor relocated below grade the scarce and expensive land it currently occupies could be released to help address growth constraints.

The minister instructed the Commission to provide advice and recommendations on the following:

  • The capacity of existing infrastructure to accommodate new residents, tourists and workers within the precinct;
  • The integration of significant projects planned and underway within the precinct, and;
  • Any other relevant matters, including the East City District Plan.

Completed a month ago, its report included 10 findings and made three recommendations, which can be found here.

An extract from the Eastern City District Plan was included in the Commission’s report as Attachment 3. These priorities are worth reading but are well summarised by the title: “Planning Priority E7: growing a stronger and more competitive Harbour CBD”.

Its brief was confined to matters occurring “within the precinct”, but the open-ended expression of the last dot-point might have encouraged the Commission to reflect on the configuration of major infrastructure projects being planned or underway surrounding but affecting the precinct.

These projects include Sydney’s $4 billion WestConnex Rozelle interchange and the MetroWest rail project.

Encouragingly, Finding 4 of the report observes: “The quality of place is impacted by regional traffic corridors, including cross regional traffic and freight.

However, rather than linking these impacts to the traffic the WestConnex tunnels will deliver to surface and elevated roads, the report coyly observes that WestConnex and other announced projects will “provide for the opportunity to consider changes to road space allocation, network configuration and travel expectations for private, commercial and freight travel”.

In other words, if the Rozelle interchange proceeds unchanged, WestConnex looks set to lock-in the existing land-hungry road decks for the longer term, thereby constraining the growth of the “eastern city” even more.

Please explain, WestConnex

Of course, due to the intimate relationship between urban growth and infrastructure provision, there is a symmetrical and equal obligation on WestConnex to account for the city-building benefits of the Rozelle interchange.

The Commission’s Finding 9 expresses this issue very clearly:

“The main opportunities at present for development are found in the significant projects located on the periphery of the Review Area. These projects are proposed by both the NSW government, private sector and institutions and are at different stages of the planning process…(B)eing located on the periphery of the Review Area means the ability to realise cumulative opportunities and benefits can be limited and disconnected … Urban renewal projects should capitalise on opportunities to deliver the Innovation Corridor Vision … (T)aking a place-based approach and improving the coordination of significant projects will contribute to better place-based outcomes… ”.

From this, it is reasonable to expect the promoters of WestConnex to explain how disgorging its tunnels of traffic onto the surface and aerial road decks of inner Sydney is the best way for government to deliver on its growth visions for “a stronger and more competitive Harbour CBD”.

Government legacy?

Previously reviewed here, the City of Sydney considers expansion south to Redfern and west to the Bays precinct as the best way to accommodate CBD growth (See Figure 2.)

Extract from City of Sydney study

Extract from City of Sydney study

It is understandable that the minister and his Commission may not be able to comment on projects that are the responsibility of other ministers. Yet these niceties mean little to the public, who expect government to act holistically, particularly when it comes to the growth of “a stronger and more competitive Harbour CBD”.

Broadly, governments should be assessed not only by what they achieve but also by what they should have attended to, but didn’t.

A government that prides itself on its economic management and its infrastructure program might be expected to apply these energies to its own “Planning Priority E7: growing a stronger and more competitive Harbour CBD”.

Having pressed the controversial WestConnex project despite taxpayer-borne cost blowouts, questionable benefits, disruption, and voter resistance, it would – in millennial patois – be “an epic fail” for government then to deliver its traffic on land-hungry roads through the very centre of this nation’s premier business district, now approaching growth capacity limits.

Private sector role

Yet if government is unable or unwilling to explore these opportunities then the private sector – with all its faults – might see commercial opportunity in doing so.

The Canary Wharf development in London’s docklands is a notable and controversial example of urban renewal largely defined and driven by private sector interests.

Greatly expanded from a much-reviled expression of corporate greed into London’s second business district, Canary Wharf now houses the headquarters of many global financial institutions and is still growing.

Likewise, although it too has its detractors, Sydney’s Barangaroo is largely the result of the energies of a single developer.

In both these examples, community outrage was partly directed at government, which was viewed as abandoning public interest to the whims of the market.

However, a sub-optimal but improved urban outcome by the private sector is better than no improvement at all.

How then might private sector agencies commence exploration of the opportunities in Pyrmont and Glebe?

Drawing on the City’s suggestion, the first question concerns how land currently encumbered by road decks might be recovered.

The second question concerns the potential “yield” – or valuable development capacity – that could be accommodated on Glebe Island and Pyrmont, unencumbered by roads compared with the yield if the road decks remained.

This generally entails hypothesising how the land could be used and what ancillary factors might influence value.  From this design, options and feasibility studies can be undertaken.

If the yield is greater than land recovery costs then the idea it is worth exploring.

Land recovery

As previously reviewed here, the WestConnex interchange currently nearing construction might be reconfigured by the addition of a 2.5-kilometre tunnel from the proposed Rozelle interchange to the Darling Harbour road network just beyond Fig Street in Pyrmont. The cost of this work can be compared with the existing $4 billion projected cost of the interchange.

For the cost of this additional work, land directly and indirectly affected by this corridor could be released for redevelopment in Pyrmont and Glebe Island (See Figure 3).

New road tunnel (dashed white) between Rozelle interchange and Fig Street, Pyrmont; corridor land recovery (shaded red)

Development yield

As to development yield, there are a number of “moving parts” that may influence its value.

Recently announced WestMetro station locations include one at Glebe Island, which, like existing CBD stations, would result in all of the business precincts within the Commission’s “eastern City CBD” being no more than a stop or two apart.

If extended to Badgerys Creek, the MetroWest line could become the international and national “front door” to Central Sydney, linking the “three cities” envisaged by the Commission.

Should an east coast fast rail ever eventuate – and reports in The Fifth Estate are not encouraging – a station at Parramatta with a terminus at Glebe Island, rather than Central Station, would make the “front door” even grander and with excellent Metro links to the rest of Sydney.

The Singapore terminus of the (now cancelled) fast rail planned to link to Malaysia was similarly located away from the existing CBD to generate a new precinct tailored to benefit from the service.

If the line were eventually extended to Canberra the precinct would also then become the “front door” to the federal government, with the opportunity to host some of its functions at Glebe Island.

Construction of a fast rail tunnel over the last 10 kms – the costliest part of most fast train builds – might even be undertaken more economically if it occurred at the same time and along the same alignment as (but separated from) the WestMetro system.

These rail connections and the configuration of the Commission’s Central “GPOP” (Greater Parramatta/Olympic Park) and Eastern cities are depicted in Figure 4.

Central (GPOP) and Eastern cities; Metro and fast rail links

Figure 4. Central (GPOP) and Eastern cities; Metro and fast rail links

Relieved of through-route road functions, Victoria Road could be developed to accommodate “feeder” professional services for an intense CBD on Glebe Island, particularly if the existing Pyrmont light rail was extended to Callan Park.

Assembled around new transport links, CBD growth demand could then be accommodated with intense development – similar to that in Central Sydney – on Glebe Island (but not Balmain’s White Bay).

With longer-term increases in Central Sydney development pressures and the aging of the new exhibition/convention facilities in Darling Harbour over the next two decades, its relocation to White Bay next to the second Overseas Passenger Terminal would stimulate the development of a new trade-based precinct benefiting from “front door” links to air, sea, and land transport modes serving both business and tourism markets (See Figure 5 and title image (looking south).

That would release the Darling Harbour land for more intense development.

Expressed as commercial “super blocks” (coded blue), with areas of residential (mauve), transport hubs (red), convention and tourist facilities (yellow) and existing buildings (brown), the precinct would exemplify the highest standards of sustainability.

Car, delivery, taxi and bus access would only be allowed directly from WestConnex tunnels below grade to the basement of each super block with pedestrian-only access on grade.

Figure 5. Summary of suggested development (above ground)

Figure 5. Summary of suggested development (above ground)

The combined effect of these moves would be to expand the eastern city pattern of harbour-edge business districts. It could also broaden its economic base from financial services to include a stronger trade focus, based on its improved transport connections, and thereby complement the Commission’s “GPOP” Central city.

The people of NSW would benefit from the jobs of an expanded CBD and new transport infrastructure.

It would be interesting to explore if this would be a better use of the

$14 billion announced for the northern beaches tunnel, which will only serve to decrease slightly and briefly the travel times of car-borne northern beaches commuters at little net jobs growth.

Oh, other than redevelopment of road corridors, there would be no need to fiddle around with the established development patterns in Pyrmont, including The Star.

Hmmm, in the deathless argot of development, there’s a mozza to be made here.

Masters of Urban Design and Development students at the University of NSW examined these ideas in their final project over the last semester of 2017. Along with a number of other external contributors, this author participated as a tutor. Other NSW universities conduct similar programs that explore urban improvements holistically.

Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design, and strategic roles for 15 years. He is also a graduate of the Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy program at the University of NSW.


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