Sydney risks becoming a dumb, disposable city for the rich

Development is underway all around Sydney harbour – but has the public interest been well served? AAP Image/Dean Lewins

The New South Wales government has announced plans to sell off the Ultimo site of the Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and use the money to fund a new museum in western Sydney. The last part is positive – the rest would be a mistake.

It is commendable that the government is proposing major cultural institutions in western Sydney, particularly in centres like Parramatta. As David Borger, Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, has argued persuasively in The Sydney Morning Herald, there has been chronic underinvestment in the city’s populous west.

But to sell the Ultimo Powerhouse is wrong-headed – a mishmash of wedge politics and bad policy. Governments should understand that cities take decades and centuries to evolve, and that such rash decisions are at the expense of future generations.

A city of mistakes

As reported, the Ultimo site would go to developers for an optimistic A$200 million or so, most likely for apartments. However, the Powerhouse’s rare grandeur makes it manifestly unsuited to such a conversion. It’s ideal for its current purpose – as a major museum or other cultural institution.

To gut such a public asset would perpetuate recent blatant mistakes such as Darling Harbour and Barangaroo. In such characteristic parts of the city we need a balance of public and private. Yet increasingly government is missing in action, wantonly trading prized public places and forgoing the role civic elements play in intelligent city making.

Look at the smash-up at Darling Harbour. Why fashion a dumb, disposable city, where speculation is prioritised and where a slew of major public facilities are treated as discount commodities? As the best contemporary urban projects demonstrate, building a vibrant city balances economic decisions with thought-through cultural, social and environmental priorities.

For Sydney, Barangaroo represents the nadir. On 22 hectares of public land stretching along 1.2 kilometres of our city’s most available waterfront, the favoured developers have been gifted seemingly unfettered rights to build as they please. James Packer’s proposed tower, stuffed with a hotel, casino and units, poses as the pinnacle of greed.

It should not have been like that. In our international competition-winning design for the Barangaroo site in 2006, we proposed that the entire foreshore be inalienable public parkland, linked to the city by a network of generous public streets and new public transport. But this plan was soon sold out by dubious ministers and their inept agencies, bent on promoting development interests at the public’s expense.

Get the balance right

People are attracted to places that mix public and private spaces and activities, a theme explored in our book Public Sydney. Instead of the sterile concept of a CBD (central business district), the city centre is really our social heart, all the better for being a magnet for events and demonstrations, the centre of politics and religion, our most historic place and the epicentre of public transport. There’s plentiful research that supports culture’s role in making cities attractive places to be.

Too many government advisers dishearteningly lack public imagination – the ability to conceive and articulate engaging ideas to make a better life for all. Instead, a stymied agenda is held captive by cartels of self-interest that so dominate many aspects of life in Australia, be it the media, banks, airlines, supermarkets or infrastructure.

On urban issues, the real estate industry’s spivs and spruikers declaim that development drives all. But why let their spin profit at our expense? People make the city and it belongs to us – people involved in all modes of exchange, in living, walking, creating and visiting public places. Developers reap their benefits from places already teeming with life and enriched by public transport, institutions, spaces and natural beauty – that is, underpinned by public investment.

The Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, belongs to a culture and science precinct in Ultimo. Threthny

The Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, belongs to a culture and science precinct in Ultimo.

Some suggest that the Museum’s Ultimo location is inconvenient. While Harris Street remains dominated by traffic, access is improving with the construction of the Goods Line pedestrian corridor and the extension of the nearby light rail line through the inner west.

There should be a great synergy of important institutions along Harris Street with the Powerhouse, the ABC, the University of Technology Sydney and the TAFE coming together to form a science, design, media and education precinct. Fantastic connections wait to be made between those institutions. Removing the museum would delete a crucial part of that grouping.

Couldn’t the museum be in both Parramatta and Ultimo? The Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences collection has well over 500,000 objects, with only a fraction on display. Surely there’s enough material for an expanded Powerhouse with two genuine bases, each with its particular focus. After all, many such major institutions around the world occupy multiple sites in inventive ways.

Sell, sell, sell – why this obsession?

The major political parties seem wedded to an ideologically driven obsession to privatise public spaces – including the Powerhouse Museum site in Ultimo, other harbour-front sites, Bridge Street’s magnificent array of sandstone heritage buildings, public housing at Miller’s Point. Such sales are peddled on the thinnest of short-term economic analyses, discounting the broader values of such assets over longer time frames.

Public assets are hard won and once sold, or leased, near-impossible to reclaim. Surely the well-documented unpopularity of asset sales is because the public intuitively understands that you don’t willingly flog your assets at bargain prices – rather, you patiently save for them. That attitude should prevail for unique treasures like the Ultimo Powerhouse.

Some in government seem to think that beautiful buildings on prime public land seem to be somehow wasted on us citizens, we who are the actual owners. But why vest the privileged parts of our city as playthings of the affluent, exclusive enclaves of high-priced consumption? We should instead proclaim our rights to the equitable, sustainable, democratic mix of the open city.