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The Good, The Bad and the BE2

The Built Environment Plan 2(BE2) focuses on renewal of the two principal estates of public housing in Redfern and Waterloo writes Bruce Lay in The South Sydney Herald of April, 2011

The estates were developed (from the late 1940s until the late 1970s) with a mix of walk-up flats and medium- and high-rise. This was seen as slum clearance, creating better housing and a leg-up for mostly young families, following European and particularly UK post-war reconstruction models. By the early 1970s, however, high-rise social housing for families was being questioned in Europe and then in Australia, and the last of the high-rise towers in Waterloo were for the elderly.

A battle erupted between the older estates with the last of this development in Waterloo, south of Phillip Street, over the comprehensive and slum clearance model, in which Margaret Barry was a leading activist. This resulted in a shift to rehabilitation and the infill of this area, now a Conservation Area. The irony is that the much older housing stock there is not considered obsolete according to BE2; much of the newer housing is. There are 3,500 public housing units in the two principal areas.

The tenants are now mostly elderly or single people on welfare, with few children; a massive shift from the original demographics. The proposal is to retain 2,800 “social” housing units in the area, displacing 700, and to build 3,500 new private dwellings, including 700 which are “affordable” for service workers including nurses, transport workers and teachers who would be otherwise displaced to the outer suburbs. This is to be done over a 25-year period.

The stated intent is to replace the obsolete with better housing and to create healthier mixed communities. To do this they pick “the low hanging fruit”, the clusters of walk-ups as lower-density development, and leave the high-rise alone. But are the walk-ups really in worse condition than the high-rise, or is the goal the release of land to fill the pockets of developers and empty public coffers?

It is proposed that the walk-ups will be replaced by denser “more efficient” development – higher, bulkier with less “wasted” green swathe between. This is kept down to four storeys where it adjoins the Conservation Areas (albeit gentrified terraced streets) but rising up to eight storeys as a desirable “transition” between the low- and high-rise. But can you really transition between two storey terraces and 30-storey towers?

The Plan makes much of community building, active streets, breaking down the social divide, and the policy of dispersal and mix. This only stands a chance if there is equity of provision and common ground in terms of public parks, recreation and cultural facilities, and if gated estates with exclusive facilities are precluded by the planning controls.
The Plan does not commit to the provision of such public goods – no new open space in deficient areas, no new facilities as has occurred with community building in Pyrmont/Ultimo and Surry Hills, for example.

The new urban villages in Victoria Park and Green Square as well as Pyrmont have swags of new parkland, generally adopting a planning standard of 10m2 of new open space for the added population. In Leichhardt their standard is 22m2. No new open space is shown in the Plan.

The half of Redfern Park alienated for 50 years for the stadium was returned, recognising the extreme deficiency of the area. A massive population increase requires a commensurate increase in public services and parkland.

Looking at the ledger, the land value per unit for the proposed 3,500 new private dwellings may well be $500,000. That is a yield of $175m. Will we get a guarantee that all the money raised from the real estate will be returned to achieve these worthy goals? And pay for the 700 units displaced from these areas?

BE2 is seriously flawed in terms of equity – there is at least a threatened loss of critically scarce public housing in the inner city and there is no commitment to commensurate public services and parkland to serve the new population. The proposed density and heights are not compatible with the area; the new City Plan has struck a much better balance in terms of floor-space and height. This Plan releases a lot of public land for development. The Plan should commit to allocating all funds raised to the upgrade of public housing as well as to provide commensurate new public services. The Plan should be rejected in its current form as principally real estate marketing, and be more serious about building viable new communities with improved public services and open space.

The following principles should be embodied in the Plan:

Maintain the supply of public housing in the area and use levies on the private development to also achieve the “affordable housing”.
All profits should be returned to achieve the social goals.
Social infrastructure, including community and cultural and recreational facilities and open space should be public and should meet the prevailing standards of the other inner development areas. They should also be managed by the City, but joint funding by Housing and the City, may be a reasonable balance.

Bruce Lay has worked as an architect on urban renewal and public housing in North America and London from 1968-74, and, following his London experience, did feasibility studies on the rehabilitation of Waterloo.

Source: The South Sydney Herald April 2011