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Indigenous heartland under threat

Redfern's Aboriginal heritage could be lost to a restoration project that favours business, writes Verity Firth in SMH February 15, 2006

THE State Government's revitalisation plan for Redfern and Waterloo is a long overdue initiative. Decades of neglect have created complex social and economic needs. While this regeneration of the area is welcome, the Government's single-minded focus on high-density commercial development as a solution is misguided.

Under the Draft Built Environment Plan released last week by Frank Sartor, the Minister for Planning and Minister for Waterloo-Redfern, 444,000 square metres of commercial development will be created. Developments of up to 18 storeys will be permitted, and parts of the Block - the spiritual and actual home of the indigenous community in Redfern - will be rezoned from "residential" to "mixed-use".

Of the eight precincts identified in the plan, six are rezoned as "business zones" of varying descriptions. The only rezoning to "residential" is the Rachel Forster Hospital site, which was formerly zoned "special uses" and looks like it won't last much longer in the public's possession.

It follows that the draft plan provides developers with significant incentives to concentrate on commercial rather than residential projects. In effect, this plan will transform the heart of Redfern - the area surrounding the railway station - into another central business district.

The Draft Built Environment Plan is but one of many that are to be implemented by the Redfern Waterloo Authority but, at this point, the "vision" seems mundane. This is an opportunity for the Government to create innovative and interesting urban renewal at the heart of our city. It is also an opportunity for Redfern's cultural heritage to be celebrated and captured by such renewal.

Redfern was the site of urban land-rights when, in 1973, the reforming zeal of Gough Whitlam brought about the Aboriginal Housing Company and affordable homes on the Block.

It is an area with significant architectural heritage including the railway yards, tracks and the warehouses of north Eveleigh, which date from the late 19th century and which are placed under threat by the draft plan.

Residents don't want a bland, gentrified copy of what already exists in the central business districts of North Sydney and Chatswood. They want urban renewal - but they want it to recognise the unique character of Redfern.

Residents want Redfern to retain its eclectic social mix, and its sense of community. They also want the Government to recognise the work that has already been done in Redfern. Not everything has to be re-invented from scratch.

Take, for instance the Pemulwuy Housing Project, which calls for the Block to be redeveloped to create 62 affordable homes for middle- to low-income indigenous families, a public civil space and commercial area, artist markets, a student hostel, sporting facilities and an indigenous business college.

Under the Government's plan, which allows for a maximum of 30 homes on the Block, Pemulwuy - a project that is six years in the making - is no longer viable.

The project's taskforce is chaired by Tom Uren, a former minister for housing, urban and regional development in the Whitlam government. It consists of a broad coalition of architects, urban planners, indigenous community leaders and local business people.

Apart from preserving the Block as a centre for Aboriginal identity, culture and spirituality, Pemulwuy would have also acted as a catalyst for culturally appropriate economic development in the Redfern area.

Part of the project was the creation of a "civic space" to be located across from Redfern railway station. The area would have provided for market stalls, community enterprises and a performance space run by indigenous residents of the area. It also provided valuable open space for an inner-city community where it is at a premium.

The Pemulwuy project may have required modifications, but it is an idea stemming from the local indigenous community and it deserves better consideration that what it has apparently received.

For this project to be discarded with the stroke of a pen is very disappointing.

Most residents want a renewal that keeps the indigenous heritage of Redfern alive, that involves local people in its planning and that doesn't just mean a skyline littered with skyscrapers.


Verity Firth is the Deputy Lord Mayor of the City of Sydney.