Sydney's master plan to get bigger and better

In various city towers, bureaucrats are pondering to whom and when they should gift hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps even billions, by the stroke of a rezoning pen. Meanwhile, ex-bureaucrats in developers’ offices are focused on how to become the main recipients of their former colleagues’ gifts, trying to second-guess the public servants and subtly – or not-so-subtly – guide their decisions.

The prizes – and therefore the efforts – are greatest in our major cities. Just the most recent example: the NSW government considering rezoning the Canterbury Park Racecourse in anticipation of its eventual sale.

You can get pretty much anywhere in 20 minutes and are guaranteed a parking spot if you go by bike. Photo: Brendon Thorne

“Anticipation”? Rezoning the 35-hectare site would dangle several hundred million dollars under the nose of the racecourse’s owner, the Australian Turf Club. As Lisa Visentin reports, the 2010 sale of the 11-hectare Harold Park Paceway netted NSW Harness Racing Club $187 million and Mirvac a 1250-unit, billion-dollar development. If it’s rezoned, it will be sold.

This dubious rezoning game is estimated to be worth some $11 billion a year to developers. What makes it worse is that it is carried out in a piecemeal fashion, where insiders have or make the running, instead of within a publicly available, publicly-developed, long-range master plan.

That in part explains why the NSW government is in a spot of bother over major roads without designs or funding – Sydney itself lacks a credible overall plan.

Frenzy for developers

It is very encouraging that plans are evolving from the Greater Sydney Commission – the most promising NSW planning exercise in generations – but they are prey to rapid disruption and in need of greater coordination. Without a scheme to get ahead of immediate needs, the city’s requirements and directions change in the considerable time it takes to conceive, plot and fund a major road.

And nothing drives rezoning windfalls and developer frenzies like transport infrastructure.

The ambitious 424-page NSW Long Term Transport Master Plan was unveiled in December, 2012. Just four-and-a-half years later, it looks almost quaint. The CBD-centric volume was primarily concerned with fixing 2012’s considerable existing problems. Sydney has moved on. Quickly.

Nothing drives rezoning windfalls and developer frenzies like transport infrastructure. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Beyond the CBD, the 2012 transport vision for greater Sydney was anchored by three “regional cities” – Parramatta, Penrith and Liverpool – identified in a draft “Metropolitan Strategy for Sydney” as Western Sydney’s three largest employment centres.

The evolving GSC plan, “Towards our Greater Sydney 2056”, is for a metropolis of three cities – the eastern CBD, the central greater Parramatta, and Western Sydney Airport. Badgerys Creek, a game-changer for Sydney’s future, didn’t exist when WestConnex was being planned.

There is no easy fix for Sydney’s traffic problem. Photo: Peter Rae

Another game-changer is the GSC plan chasing the jobs of the future rather than of the past. The challenge for transport planning is to follow those future jobs.

Cue a submission by Cox Architecture on the GSC’s draft district plans. In a single map, it outlines a transport and urban renewal plan for Sydney to make the city both bigger and better – the urban planner’s holy grail.

 

It’s effectively a treasure map for real estate investors, should the proposed public transport and urban renewal areas be adopted. From an economic point of view, it would provide certainty and long-term confidence for business that the current surge in infrastructure investment is not a passing phase, that a reliable channel of investment will continue to substantially underwrite the city.

The social impact would be greater again. Sydneysiders’ angst over population growth and gridlock could be eased by knowledge that, yes, there will be metro lines and heavy and light rail picking up where the current announcements leave off, connecting and enabling the great metropolis to work.

But the planning required is bigger than that. The Sydney region has to integrate with its neighbours.

“A Plan for Growing Sydney seems silent on Sydney’s relationship to the surrounding parts of NSW,” observes the submission. “The Central Coast, the great parks, Lithgow and the west, the Southern Highlands, Wollongong and the Illawarra are important to Sydney as Sydney is important to them. The interfaces, future connections, bypasses and growth could be identified in A Plan for Growing Sydney. The edges are important.”

Infrastructure seen as the key

One of the Cox submission’s authors, Philip Graus, stresses infrastructure is the key.

“Overseas research by groups like the Brookings Institution show that innovation clusters or districts require fast connections, excellent amenity and fine grain built form,” Graus wrote in New Planner magazine. “With better, faster connections, Newcastle in particular with its harbour and beaches, climate and built heritage and proximity to vineyards can meet all these criteria.”

There is much more to the Cox submission, led by John Richardson, one of Australia’s most experienced planners, than the transport and urban renewal areas plan. There are no less than 40 recommendations ranging from mandating “at least 20 per cent” affordable housing to a proposed structure for the Western Airport City.

“International benchmarks of comparable global cities show that a 10 per cent requirement for affordable housing in new development is too low,” Cox submits. “New York’s new zoning provisions are 20 per cent, London is higher. New York has just removed the “20 per cent if viable” by removing the density bonus for affordable housing and mandating 20 per cent.”

“Sydney CBD is clearly Australia’s global financial and services hub and well serviced by transport,” says Graus. “Parramatta has Westmead Hospital, the largest health agglomeration with some 1,000 scientists on campus, as well as Western Sydney University. With a faster rail link to the Sydney CBD as well improved connections to surrounding centres this ‘city’ could attract and grow high value health, education and research jobs.

“The real question is the third, or Western ‘city’. What are the economic drivers here? Are they logistics, high value technology, and related industries? Just as importantly, what transport educational and social infrastructure will be needed? What precedents are there? The much discussed case study of Schipol ‘Airport City’ is less than 10 kilometres from Central Amsterdam. We should therefore carefully examine the West, West Central and South West draft district plans that will set the framework for the ‘third city’.”

The necessary trick will be to set that framework and its vital transport requirements well ahead of time, rather than playing catch-up as we have been doing, dealing with yesterday’s bottlenecks.

Yet flexibility is still required. Plans need to change. The first of the 40 Cox recommendations is:

“That the Metropolitan Plan and the District Plans be formally reviewed every five years, in sequence with the Census.”

Source: Michael Pascoe, “Sydney has no master plan to become bigger and better”, The Sydney Morning Herald, July 12, 2017

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Sydney's master plan to get bigger and better