Barangaroo: the loss of trust?

The saga around the redevelopment of Barangaroo on Sydney’s harbour has undermined our belief in the NSW government’s commitment to transparency. AAP supplied image

Welcome to our series on Barangaroo. Sydneysiders know this spot well: 22 hectares of former industrial land sitting on the western edge of the CBD, not far from some of the city’s most coveted landmarks.

But the transition from disused wharves to a much vaunted $6 billion waterfront precinct has hardly been a smooth one, marred by accusations of a serious lack of transparency.

In the first of our series on the site, UTS Professor and Director of Terroir, Gerard Reinmuth, charts some of its tortured history and argues the flawed process of land procurement has potentially marred its legacy and seriously undermined citizens’ trust in its government.


The redevelopment of the former East Darling Harbour site now known as Barangaroo could have been the dawn of an optimistic and productive era of development in one of the world’s great cities.

The relocation of Sydney’s container terminal opened up a large area of land right on the doorstep of the CBD giving a “once in a generation” chance to rethink the future of Sydney on a grand scale.

However, the optimism that met the initial design competition for the redevelopment of the site in 2005 quickly gave way to controversy, which in turn has become a flashpoint for the articulation of the endemic mistrust the citizens of New South Wales feel for our political processes.

Via a series of controversial decisions around procurement – the latest chapter of which is the current fracas over the Packer casino development – Barangaroo has now come to stand for all that is wrong with the way our city is governed and the intersection between politics and commerce in Sydney.

Describing how we got here is impossible in a short piece, given the years of debate and negotiation and the hundreds of thousands of words already written on the topic.

So I will mention some of the key events in the development of the project that coalesce around a single theme – trust, and the absence of it at any point in our contemporary political landscape.

The contract between a government and its diverse constituents relies on trust, won or lost on the basis of transparency of both the processes used and of the decisions which result. A trustworthy process addresses the multitude of views, voices and agendas which exist and reframes these into a reliable and well-articulated position.

Simply, it can be a lens through which all this complexity can be understood.

The distrust we all feel now for what is happening at Barangaroo first stirred when the Bob Carr-led Labor government selected a winner from an international design competition that, in the views of many, had a generic quality which could be deployed for an “anything goes” process in the coming years.

I recall that even one of the authors of the winning entry revealed their cynicism and awareness of the way public assets are developed in NSW by describing the design as “Sydney-proof” - which I took to mean that it was so generic that no matter how badly it was implemented, its legacy of streetscapes and modestly scaled buildings would survive.

Subsequent processes led to the termination of the winning team’s further involvement in the project, the circumstances of which are less relevant that the broader sense of distrust it engendered in a government that chose to dump the team, no matter how reasonable it may have thought its reasons for doing so.

With the termination of the winning team’s involvement in the project came an awareness that the government were not going take the lead in developing the site and its base infrastructure of streets and parks, so that smaller development packages could be let to the market.

Instead we learnt that the Government could not in fact trust itself to run a process where the structure and key public domain elements of the site could be procured.

The first part of the project – known as Barangaroo South - would be tendered to a single development agency, with the claim that the site was too big to be developed in any other way.

We therefore learnt to further distrust the government as we simply knew this not to be true, with many other examples around the world procured via alternate methods where the Government laid down the key elements and sites were sold to individual developers.

With this realisation came a new wave of distrust, this time related to the way we perceive business is done at the big end of town between government and big business. This distrust in Government and its defence of the public interest is not unique to Barangaroo – this week’s activities at the Independent Commission Against Corruption spring to mind.

Following the news the project would be awarded to a single proponent in Lend Lease, a suspicious public were confronted with a loss of harbour area to a new proposed hotel (an extra element in the Lend Lease bid).

Then we were presented with illustrations that showed the building to be completely transparent. Thus, we had not only lost trust, but were angered that the Government thought we were so stupid that we could believe a multi-story hotel to be see-through.

Subsequent calls for information about how this came to be were cast aside because of confidentiality clauses in their arrangement that did not allow the Government to reveal the nature of the contract with Lend Lease.

A public that, at every turn, felt it was becoming unable to trust any of the key players in the project were then subjected to additional steps where the key towers on site – one of most disappointing projects to have been proposed from one of the innovative architects of the 1980s – were constantly widened and height increased, without the public being able to see or understand how this could possibly happen.

The most recent chapter in this process happened in February with the unveiling of an audacious proposal by James Packer to build a casino and hotel directly in the centre of the public space that would define Barangaroo Central.

In the months since, this has evolved into an exclusive contract between Packer and Lend Lease for a casino and hotel, now located in the Barangaroo South precinct.

Trust in all parties has reached a new low with key changes to legislation made by the Barry O'Farrell-led government in the weeks before the unveiling of the new arrangement, the timing of which seems just too coincidental.

Of course, this has just reinforced the loss of faith in all governments given the previous one made legislative changes in the days before calling an election with equally suspect contents and timing.

Barangaroo is the story of an extraordinary opportunity to make a large and catalytic addition to our city, both financially and socially.

Yet, at almost every turn, the process has had the effect - whether deliberately designed or not - of minimising the trust our citizens have in their governments and those they choose to work with and represent them.

This extraordinary case in how to spectacularly mismanage public expectations, consultations and communications stems from a key conceptual failure – the prioritisation of the property (and now leisure) industry over its citizens.

While this Government persists in prioritising the business of consuming the city rather than making the city (with the involvement of its citizens) we will only continue to distrust our leaders and the places they impose on it.

For now, we can only live through the unfolding nightmare, looking in vain for a glimmer of quality, integrity or transparency. As the following essays in this series will show, even as the excavators do their work on site, we are still looking.