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Redfern/Waterloo: Land grab plan announced - 8 March 2006

Two weeks ago at a gala launch, the NSW government revealed the draft Redfern/Waterloo Built Environment Plan, the first stage of a blatant attempt to commercially redevelop these suburbs, and incorporate them into an enlarged Central Business District writes Peter Mac in The Guardian.

The Plan intends to authorise 440,000m² of development in Redfern, with five 18-storey towers, and 2,000 new dwellings, with no more than 30 on the Block. The Block, as it is known, is an Aboriginal housing complex in Redfern. It was returned to Aboriginal ownership by the Whitlam Labor Government in the 1970s. The proposal for the Block halves residential capacity as formerly planned by Aboriginal leaders, and nearly trebles the commercial yield.

The Plan would rezone the Block from residential to mixed use, including commercial, cultural, educational, retail as well as some residential use. This would effectively eliminate the possibility of Aboriginal families finding affordable housing in Redfern, and would put unceasing financial pressure on the Block’s owners, the Aboriginal Housing Company, to sell out. The proposal is a ruthless attempt to eject the residents of the Block which has been continuously occupied by Aboriginal people, longer than any other site in Sydney’s history.

The Aboriginal Housing Company was not invited to the launch.

That other plan

The government has overridden the Aboriginal Housing Company’s own proposal, the Pemulwuy Plan, which envisaged a four-storey redevelopment of The Block. This would have provided new housing for low to middle income Aboriginal families, as well as a public space, commercial area, artist markets, student hostel, sporting facilities and an Indigenous business college.

The Pemulwuy Plan was developed over six years by a team of architects, urban planners, Aboriginal community leaders and local business owners, all chaired by former Federal Minister for Housing, Tom Uren.

The 62 new homes proposed under the Pemulwuy Plan is equal in number to the local Aboriginal groups wiped out by smallpox after European settlers arrived in the Sydney area.

However, this did not impress the Minister for Planning and Waterloo/Redfern, Frank Sartor, who sneered: "Symbolism is laudable, but it can never be a substitute for sustainable planning".

For the government, "sustainable" means commercial with a vengeance. Of the eight precincts envisaged under its plan, six are commercial. Only the former Rachel Forster Hospital site would be rezoned as residential, but in practice this means that the government would sell it off to the private sector, which will not be interested in providing housing for underprivileged people.

Priceless real estate

The Redfern/Waterloo land grab has many historical precedents, including the attempt to demolish the historic suburbs of the Rocks and Waterloo, in the 1970s. These initiatives were eventually defeated by the action of local community groups, with the support of unions and heritage organisations, as well as left and progressive political parties.

However, Redfern and its adjacent neighbour Waterloo are of potentially huge real estate value. This latest land-grab attempt was foreshadowed after the 2004 Redfern riots. Liberal leader John Brogden immediately advocated "bringing in the bulldozers". Not long afterwards, the super-powerful Redfern-Waterloo Authority was created, to be run by Frank Sartor.

Sartor has used vandalism and the demolition of houses in the Block as an argument for taking it over, rather than dealing with the area’s severe social problems of chronic unemployment and poverty, lack of affordable housing, health care and other essential services.

Other victims

Under the government’s plan, heritage sites within the Redfern/Waterloo area would lose protection from redevelopment. Even the historic 19th Century North Eveleigh railway yards could be demolished. The Sydney Electric Train Society, which has struggled for years there on a shoe string to preserve Sydney’s oldest electric train carriages, is likely to have to find other premises. One of the magnificent siding sheds is already being converted into a contemporary arts centre at the government’s behest.

The scoundrel’s second-last refuge

Jobs and Opportunity! The government has claimed that redevelopment will boost employment in the area. After the launch, the Minister trumpeted: "Only jobs and opportunity can make a lasting difference to all the residents and allow true self-reliance and self-­determination."

The government declares that developers would be required to provide a certain percentage of the employment on the site for local people — a promise described by one commentator as "unachievable and unenforceable".

The coming storm

Relations between the government and the Aboriginal community have been frozen for a year, because of the government’s arrogance and lack of concern for the Aboriginal community. The situation was not helped last year by Sartor’s unforgivable comment that Mick Mundine, the manager of the Aboriginal Housing Company, should get his "black arse" over to see him.

The message that the poor have no right to live on potentially valuable real estate is most evident in the proposals for Redfern, formerly described by The Guardian as "a place where greed, racism, callousness and philistinism all intersect in the interest of developer megabucks".

Moreover, the saga of the Block reflects the ruthless historic drive of conservative Australian governments to dispossess Aboriginal people of their land.

But this is not 1788. The Aboriginal people of Redfern, and their supporters among the Australian community, will prove a match for the land thieves of Macquarie Street.