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New plan on the Block unwelcome to owners - 10 February 2006

Bonnie Malkin and Sherrill Nixon Sydney Morning Herald February 10, 2006 report that: THE symbolic heart of Sydney's Aboriginal community - the Block in Redfern - will be transformed into a bustling commercial hub under a State Government plan to attract investors and reverse the fortunes of the troubled inner-city site.

The new vision for the Block alters the site's zoning from residential to "mixed use", increasing the height limits on buildings from two to three storeys and encouraging business developments.

The draft plan, released yesterday by the Minister for Redfern Waterloo, Frank Sartor, also flags a revamp of Redfern train station to make it safer and more attractive, with shops at ground level and disabled access.

An "urban boulevard" will be created to link the station and the Redfern town centre at nearby Redfern and Regent streets, where shops, other businesses and accommodation will be encouraged. Developers will be able to build office towers up to 18 storeys along Gibbons Street near the station.

Mr Sartor said the plan was a "measured and sustainable approach" that would provide the Redfern-Waterloo region with 18,000 new jobs, 440,000 extra square metres of employment space and 2000 new dwellings in the next 10 years. "Unless we do this we will not break the cycle of poverty and lack of opportunity in this area," he said.

But the Block's owner, the Aboriginal Housing Company, has accused the minister of trying to bribe the company into building shops and offices on the site of the first urban land rights claim in Australia.

It has previously put forward a plan to build 62 new homes on the Block, but only 30 houses would be allowed under yesterday's plan developed by the Redfern-Waterloo Authority.

"He's saying if we build commercial we'll make much more out of it," said Mick Mundine, the head of the Aboriginal Housing Company.

"That's his carrot. His stick is if we choose to remain with residential he reduces the floor space ratios and the height."

The zoning changes killed any hope for affordable home ownership for Aboriginal families on the Block, he said.

"They want to stop us from living on our own land; however, we are determined to fight to the end to deliver our commitment to provide 62 homes on the Block," Mr Mundine said.

He has the support of a local community group, REDwatch, whose spokesman, Trevor Davies, said 30 homes was too few to encourage a good community at the Block.

Mr Sartor defended the efforts to lure commercial developers to the Block, saying the main aim of the plan was to provide employment for locals.

He said the Aboriginal Housing Company, as the land owners, had the right to decide the site's fate."Whether the Block is ultimately demolished or redeveloped is still up to them."

Yesterday's standoff over the Block is the latest chapter in the souring of relations between the Aboriginal Housing Company and Mr Sartor, after the minister demanded on Koori Radio in September that Mr Mundine "bring his black arse in" to discuss a dispute over redevelopment.

Also under the new plan:

■ Business and residential buildings would be allowed on the site of the former court house and police station on Redfern Street, although the heritage court house would be retained;

■ Houses would be built on the old Rachel Forster Hospital site;

■ Serviced apartments, hotel and other accommodation would be encouraged on the former Redfern Public School site.

The public is invited to comment on the plan over the next two months.

Diagram: Future shock … an artist's impression of how the area near Redfern station will look.