In this town called Sydney there is this crazy idea that wrecking a beautiful city in the name of economic growth somehow makes the city big time, that slippery oxymoron, a ‘global’ city. Instead of building places which promote beauty, sustainability and public participation we get the kind of ‘built profit’ which is too witless to even be kitsch. It’s the Australian Ugliness on steroids, everywhere, as charmless and unimaginative as it is profitable. Even the greediest New York developer would never expect to build a forty five storey hotel in the East River, let alone the Hudson, and yet exactly such a monstrosity has been approved for construction in Sydney Harbour, at Barangaroo, the ne plus ultra of Sydney urban planning disasters. Now a group of over fifty eminent Sydney architects, planners and academics has produced an alternative design for the site. Their scheme, A Better Barangaroo, is a serious contribution because it visualizes an alternative: less greedy, less wasteful, more logical with more public space, smaller buildings, more sunshine and just as much profit as the notorious Lend Lease scheme. The best argument against bad architecture is good architecture, not just a good argument. A Better Barangaroo is not magic; it is a correction rather than a vision, too conservative, too accepting of a flawed premise and yet the scheme’s conservatism is part of the point — the fact that this is what is possible following true blue tried and true urban design principles demonstrates how bad the official plan is, and how stupendous a really visionary design could be. Any number of architects, planners, students or architecturally-trained chimpanzees could produce any number of alternative Barangaroos better than the official Barangaroo, which is more of an advertising campaign than a neighbourhood. The alternative is here for all to see. This is one of the world’s great urban sites and we can still get this right. Many smart people have made every conceivable argument against the unfolding travesty of Barangaroo. They have been wilfully mischaracterised at every turn and fobbed off with sham “public consultation” while the real decisions were made behind closed doors by the so-called “experts” which have ruined other parts of this fragile and irreplaceable city.
Is anyone with any power even listening anymore?
Today’s Sydney Morning Herald provides an answer to the above question. In November, Australians for Sustainable Development (ASD), an alliance of community groups, activists and the National Trust sued the Barangaroo Development Authority in the Land and Environment Court on the grounds that the developer’s plans to remediate the severe pollution on the site were inadequate and that the planned excavations could pollute Sydney Harbour. This was the last and best chance to stop the development. A ruling was due in the next 48 hours until this morning’s extraordinary and distressing news that the Planning Minister, Tony Kelly, had unilaterally and retrospectively exempted the Barangaroo project from contamination laws. ASD, presumably on the verge of winning its lawsuit and a major victory for democracy and the environment, now finds the law which was the basis for its case no longer applies.
In the case of Barangaroo, the government is not only allied with the developer, they are indistinguishable from them. Just look at the cheerlessly propagandistic official website, graced with the Government logo.
The NSW Labor Government is on its last legs. With an election due on 26 March they are polling at the lowest level ever recorded in the Nielsen poll. They are about to lose big time and for them it’s senior spring, time to shower last minute favours on their mates. At Barangaroo, not only are we likely to be stuck with an architecture which unites banality and profligacy, we have nothing but the good will of a private developer to prevent a toxic plume in Sydney Harbour, the timeless gift which increasingly seems the only good thing left in this city.
The next Government not only needs to take whatever steps, however expensive or convoluted, are necessary to start over on Barangaroo, it needs to heed John Hatton’s call for a Royal Commission into the planning system. The problems in NSW are so serious and so obvious that it is not enough to merely vote Labor out of office.
Those who continue to defend Barangaroo should think very carefully about the various toxic plumes which underpin it. No legitimate project would ever require such crimes against democracy.
Unsurprisingly, the Government and Lend Lease have won their court case against Australians For Sustainable Development. In a scathing opinion, Land and Environment Court Judge Peter Biscoe made it clear that ASD would have won their case had the Planning Minister not conveniently exempted Lend Lease from the law on which the case was brought. Incredibly, the judge even ordered the Government — the winner of the case — to pay ASD’s legal costs. Beyond Barangaroo, it is unclear how exactly citizens are supposed to have any influence whatsoever about planning in their city. We live in a moment in which you can have logic and the law on your side and still not stand a chance.
None of this is mentioned in the Barangaroo Delivery Authority’s infuriating press release.
It’s worth remembering that this is not an academic argument. Here is a list of the contaminants on the site, all of which Lend Lease plans to remediate using a conveniently quick, cheap and untested method:
- Total Petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH)
- Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene (BTEX)
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Semi-volatile organic hydrocarbons
- Chromium III and VI
Going for a swim in the Harbour at Nielsen Park is one of the nicest things you can do in Sydney. You can float in the clean water, watching ferries, sailboats and cruise ships pass by at eye level, all just 5km from the city. Enjoy such simple pleasures while you can. Tomorrow they’ll probably be mining coal underneath it.