By Mara Barnes
It is no wonder the locals of Millers Point are feeling under siege.
Firstly, despite promises from the government of the day that no more public housing properties in the area would be sold, regardless of the community’s desperate attempt to stop further sales, another 20 or so properties are earmarked to go under the hammer.
On top of this, a number of boarding houses, which have been home to many of the area’s working poor have closed, because Housing NSW is choosing not to renew the 30 year leases held by the boarding house landlords. And then there is Barangaroo.
The Barangaroo development will see the old AGL gas works site at Millers Point turned into a waterside public space. Much of this will become parkland. Parts of it will be allocated to office blocks, stores, cafes and bars. The site is currently used as a wharf for incoming cruise vessels.
The Barangaroo Delivery Authority (BDA) claims that the Barangaroo venture is one of the most ambitious and significant waterfront greening projects anywhere in the world and will reaffirm Sydney’s standing as Australia’s global city.
The BDA maintain that the Barangaroo project is supported by the government, the private sector and sections of the community, and uphold that it will attract new investment.
But there is anger in Sydney about the development.
On the 5 May 2011, Clover Moore MP tabled a petition in Parliament expressing the concerns of NSW citizens regarding the process, consultation, design and environmental impacts of the development. The petition’s whopping 11,000 signatures are a reflection of the uncertainty that Barangaroo has inspired among Sydneysiders.
Community groups – who represent Sydney’s concerned residents – are calling for full transparency and better planning controls for the site. The National Trust of Australia (NSW), Friends of Barangaroo, and Australians for Sustainable Development have banded together to demand that the development goes ahead only on the back of thorough community consultation.
And the NSW government hasn’t been entirely non-responsive.
Prompted by the demands of community groups and the petition flagged by the Lord Mayor, the NSW Government promised – and delivered – a review of the Barangaroo development.
On 31 May 2011, the Honourable Brad Hazzard MP, Minister for Planning and Infrastructure, announced the review open to the public. And the review looked relatively favourably on the community. One of its key recommendations was that a peer review be conducted, and that groups such as Australians for Sustainable Development be consulted.
On 22 August 2011, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell announced the commencement of the recommended peer review into Barangaroo’s site remediation plans. While the peer review is an apparent step in the right direction, the conditions upon which it will be conducted leave little room for the say of the community to have much effect. The current review will take approximately three months. While it will be “conducted as a priority”, the Barangaroo Review emphasised that a peer review need not delay work at the site.
This means that laying the foundations for the development as it currently stands – such as the commencement of basement construction at Barangaroo South and the headland park—should begin as soon as possible. Beginning as soon as possible, before the results of the peer review are in, will mean that the community’s concerns are overlooked from the outset.
Millers Point residents (particularly those of Merriman and High Streets) are concerned with a number of aspects of the Barangaroo development, and the changes it is likely to bring with it.
Their primary concern, however, is the im-mediate threat it poses to residents’ health and safety.
Accordingly, they have called for an immediate baseline health assessment of the residents living in close proximity to Barangaroo, in an effort to assess and document any health implications that may arise from the development and remediation process of the site.
The community is concerned that the sandstone extraction involved in the development of the proposed headland park will mean dust, airborne vapours, noise and vibration, and the ongoing usage of heavy machinery for long hours of construction in a residential neighbourhood. There will be very little respite for residents, which presents fears for their health and mental wellbeing.
On top of this, residual waste of the former AGL gasworks site present major threats to human life. A cocktail of toxic chemicals including coal, tar, lead, naphthalene, benzene and cyanide remain at Barangaroo. They are both toxic and carcinogenic, and their physical and chemical properties are largely non-degradable.
The BDA plans to remediate the contaminated soil in-situ, using a trial remediation process rather than the usual excavation method. Remediating the soil in-situ can involve treating contaminants with chemicals in order to neutralize them. These chemicals can cause their own contamination of ground water.
However, the remediating process will take place, the gas site remains will not be left completely free of toxins and carcinogens. Add the remaining (and new) chemicals to the harbor pollution that will be caused when the present existing edges of the slab are cut away to create a fake shoreline, and the present headland park design is an environmental disaster waiting to happen.
Millers Point residents are also concerned about the threats that Barangaroo development presents to their physical safety, as the new park will likely become a space that people will use to drink and use drugs in the evening. The community is fearful that break-and-enters and personal attacks will increase as a result.
And on top of all this, there are other proposed changes that will not only affect the Millers Point community, but also impact the wider Sydney area.
One is the removal of the cruise ship terminal from Barangaroo. Many Millers Point residents want the cruise ships to remain at the Hungry Mile wharf as a link to the site’s rich maritime history.
The proposition that the terminal be relocated to White Bay in Balmain is ill-conceived. Acommodation in Balmain is limited, which would mean that visitors arriving in Sydney on cruise ships would have to get transport to the CBD. Apart from effecting a less welcoming arrival to Sydney, this would also add to traffic congestion on the Anzac Bridge.
The wider implications that the development will have for the city’s public transport infrastructure are just as noteworthy. If the Barangaroo development goes ahead, it will eventually force thousands more workers to have to come into the city. They will come from as far away as the south and north coasts and the far western suburbs.
Hubs like Campbelltown, Penrith, the Richmond line, Blacktown and Parramatta are already at saturation point for workers having to come into the city. Town Hall and Wynyard are now as good as at peak saturation point, much like the York Street bus precinct. Millers Point residents maintain that it would be common sense to build office high rises out closer to where workers live, if for no other reason than to save them hours of travel a day.
While Millers Point residents are well aware that their community is located in the city, the Barangaroo development, especially the northern part, will turn what is a relatively sleepy part of the city into a major vehicle and pedestrian thoroughfare.
Resident parking is already at a premium due to the Hickson Road theatres. Not to mention tourist buses parking in the area, festivals, marathons and filming… the list goes on.
Street parking is already taken up by workers driving into the city. A massive underground carpark, which is part of the current plans for the Barangaroo development, will draw more traffic and pollution into the area.
Historically, Millers Point has been defined by its warehouses and dedicated housing for waterside workers, which has fostered a strong and loyal community with a sense of solidarity.
This community is protective of the unique identity of Millers Point: both its historical fabric and its social significance. The area’s community and character was a key reason for its listing on the State Heritage Register: a clear indication that the whole state considers it valuable, and worth keeping – for what it is and has been.
The Barangaroo development shows little regards for Millers Point and its community, or for the residents of the greater Sydney area.
Above all else, however, there is no justification for putting development above the safety, health and security of the community.
Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 115, Summer 2011