Barangaroo is one of the last waterfront development sites in the City of Sydney. Its controversial redevelopment is starting a brushfire of protests because of the way it is being handled.
Once the heart of the docklands, was the birthplace of the bubonic plague in the early 20th century Barangaroo, which led to the takeover of much of the area and its wharves by the government-appointed Sydney Harbour Trust.
It is ironic that the current development will see the area transformed into a precinct for the elite, while the battle for affordable housing and workers’ rights is still raging a century on.
A gasworks operated at Millers Point from 1842 to 1921, and some of the wharves were used for unloading coal. After the decommissioning of the gasworks in the early 1920s, the newly built Hickson Road was extended over the site. This extension left layers of contamination under the road and adjacent lands.
As a result, in May 2009 the Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water declared parts of Barangaroo and Hickson Road a “remediation site”.
However, the excavation planned for Stage One of the Barangaroo Development could release the contaminants and toxins that lurk under the site and cause them to leak into the harbour. This is now the subject of a court action against the developers by the Environmental Defenders Office and concerned residents.
The area was historically a hotbed of working-class politics. Workers on the wharves played an important role in working class politics from the Great Maritime Strike of 1890 to the Great Strike of 1917 and other iconic industrial actions that culminated with the actions against Patrick’s Stevedores in the late 1990s.
In 2005-06, the NSW state government held an international design competition for a concept plan that would transform the area into a new, mixed-use, commercial development. Australian architects Hill Thallis won the competition, but soon after they were sidelined by a secretive process and removed from having further input into the design.
Secrecy and a total lack of transparency have since soaked this redevelopment in controversy.
In 2008, the Barangaroo Delivery Authority (BDA) was appointed to oversee the future of the development. The members of the BDA were drawn from the usual suspects who make up the Labor government’s boards and authorities. It included Sydney’s Lord Mayor Clover Moore, which has led to members of her own council calling it a “conflict of interest”.
Over the next year, the plans increased in size — 120,000 square metres of commercial floor space were added and the buildings grew in height. Any resemblance to the original concept plan disappeared and, after another highly secretive process, Lend Lease was chosen as the winning developer in December 2009, a contract worth $6 billion.
The appointment of Lend Lease as the sole developer for such a huge contract has outraged critics of the development who believe the whole process has been tainted by a lack of transparency and favouritism that is against the public interest.
At every step there is a level of secrecy that is protected by confidentiality agreements, blacked-out documents and the refusal of the government to release information to fellow parliamentarians.
Even before Lend Lease were announced as the official developer, new plans appeared that included a “landmark” building jutting out into the harbour — a luxury hotel which could easily be turned into apartments for the elite at a later date.
This appropriation of a public waterway for private profit is hotly opposed by many who believe the harbour belongs to everyone and that this building could create a precedent for other intrusions into the harbour.
The scale of the current plans will create a wall of skyscrapers that will dominate the western edge of the city, throwing shadows from Darling Harbour to Pyrmont. It will create a chasm-like precinct that is at odds with the original concept plan that stepped the buildings down to a human scale near the water’s edge.
Behind all the spin around environmental sustainability claims, there is a shocking lack of detail that belies the claims of both Lend Lease and the BDA. Their promises and consultation process have been as empty as the vast concrete slab that is currently the Barangaroo site.
Barangaroo is a contested development with two community action groups, construction workers, the National Trust and the Environmental Defenders Office all protesting elements of the development.
The City of Sydney Council is split over the Lord Mayor’s role and details of the process and plans. But still the juggernaut rolls on, under the notorious state planning laws that strip the elected council of its powers over the site and vest them with faceless bureaucrats.
Look out Sydney; we are in for a bumpy ride!