The battle to save Rozelle

22 October 2012 | Posted In: #117 Spring 2012, Civil Society Issues, Planning Campaigns, | Author: Chantel Cotterell

By Chantel Cotterell

Walking up Waterloo Street in Rozelle, you would be struck by a few things: the relative quietness, considering the street is a couple of minutes walk away from the main shopping strip of Darling Street; the quaint weatherboard workers’ cottages that have weathered (and benefited from) the storm of gentrification that first engulfed the suburb in the 1960s, and if you looked a little closer, you would notice the signs of protest against what has become an all-too-familiar experience of inner Sydney living: a group of residents battling developers over an unsympathetic development.

“Don’t let big business destroy Rozelle!” is scrawled in black marker on a cardboard sign hung from a tree, while flyers from a public rally that attracted six hundred people earlier this year are affixed to windows and doors, demanding “SAY NO! to 32 storeys in low-rise Rozelle”. On one fence, the neatly painted words “” direct passers-by to the Rozelle Resident Action Group (Rozelle RAG) website. Mimicking the impact of the development on the suburb, the double l’s in Rozelle extend upwards, towering over the other letters.

The development in question – named Rozelle Village – is on the prized Balmain Leagues Club site, bounded by Darling Street, Victoria Road and Waterloo Street. A perusal of the proposal reveals that the plan is to knock down the dilapidated clubhouse and build two or three towers, with a proposed height of between 25 to 32 storeys. The towers cater for 304 apartments with none set aside for affordable housing, 834 car spaces and 13,971 square metres of retail space.

Placing these numbers in context, you start to understand the opposition from local residents. Picture the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the much-maligned, yet architecturally designed Blues Point Tower in McMahon’s Point, variously described as an “eyesore” and an “ancient railway carriage, stood on its end”. At 32 storeys, this development is bigger than both. Meanwhile, the 13,971 square metres of retail space is greater than the existing Darling Street shopping strip.

If you turn left after leaving Waterloo Street, you will come to the old clubhouse – surrounded by a chain wire fence and covered with a banner bearing the words “HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS: Bring the Tigers back home”; the Balmain Leagues Club logo with the tiger’s mouth ready to attack is snug inside a love heart. In truth, however, there is no love lost between many Tigers supporters and the developers.

“I am ashamed of the propaganda emblazoned over my Club. I am not sold on the development, despite what the football celebrities say. There are many questions unanswered – like whether there is a legal arrangement to bring the Club back”, says Lisa Smajlov, Community Development Officer at Rozelle Neighbourhood Centre and lifelong Tigers supporter.

Founder of Tigers Against the Towers and recently elected Leichhardt Council Mayor, Darcy Byrne, has also been a vocal opponent, “We are desperate to see our Club return to its spiritual home, but we will not stay silent while Rozelle Village turns our neighbourhood into Bondi Junction”.

How the home of the Tigers came to be in the hands of developers is mired in controversy, with all the alleged wheelings and dealings by the developers and former Tiger of lore, Benny Elias, well-documented in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) earlier this year. The end result is that many Tigers supporters like Lisa and Tigers Against the Towers have been left feeling cheated, unaware that Benny Elias, as the SMH alleges, was set to financially benefit from the proposed development, while the Club continues to struggle with mounting debts, some from the relocation costs. After all, the sale was meant to improve the Club’s financial position.

“The area is Tigers and that has been used to get support for the development. Benny Elias was going to marches earlier in the year, getting people to sign a petition to support the development – people weren’t told about his financial interest”, David Anderson, spokesperson for the Rozelle RAG and resident of Waterloo Street explains before outlining the position of local residents, “The development is completely out of proportion for Rozelle; the area is low-rise. This will bring overshadowing and a loss of privacy for local residents. The towers will also bring more people, more cars and effectively gridlock the traffic. How’s the area to cope? We already live in one of the densest LGAs in the country”.

The overwhelming majority of local residents and community groups who made submissions to the NSW Department of Planning and Infrastructure vehemently opposed the development. When the exhibition period closed in June, 2,539 public submissions had been made, some typed, some even handwritten – only 115 were in support.

Submissions were also received from public authorities. Leichhardt Council paid a reported $100,000 plus to independent consultants with expertise in urban planning, design and architecture, social impact, transport and traffic management to write their submission. The submission was damning on all accounts, concluding that it was “in essence… an overdevelopment”. Other public authorities expressed their concerns. Roads and Maritime Services wrote that “significant changes” would need to be made before it would grant approval, while Sydney Buses noted that there was no plan for how traffic would be managed during construction. Sydney Airport said development would protrude into the airspace.

In many submissions, residents expressed the concern that there was inadequate community consultation. Howard Packer, President of the Parents and Citizens’ Association at Rozelle Public School says, “From the start, there have been concerns about the dust and noise during excavation, and the privacy and safety of the school children; the towers look directly into the school playground. What we would like is to speak with the developers about this – it feels like we’re talking to a void”. David from Rozelle RAG echoed similar sentiments, “The developers held around five consultations. It seemed a box ticking exercise. The proposal that went up didn’t take into account the concerns raised by the Rozelle RAG”.

These voices have recently been given extra resonance. After sifting through the submissions from the public exhibition, the Director-General of Planning and Infrastructure, Sam Haddad, wrote to the developers in August this year, saying the proposal was “unacceptable” and cited a litany of issues that needed to be addressed, including the building height and scale, the density and the impact on traffic, parking and the existing retail precinct of Darling Street.

The conclusion reached about the development, however, is far from new. Back in 2009, before the Balmain Leagues Club sold the site to the developers, the Club submitted a development application to Leichhardt Council for a much smaller development; the proposal took the shape of towers between 5 to 11 storeys high, accommodating 145 new dwellings and 467 cars. Considering the development had a capital investment value hovering at $98 million, the Joint Regional Planning Panel (JRPP) made the final decision.

The development was refused. Multiple reasons were given that would come to be repeated by successive decision-makers: the development exceeded the floor space ratio and the number of storeys allowed in the Local Environmental Plan, the negative impact on traffic in surrounding streets such as Waterloo Street and the quality of the architectural design, which was considered lacking.

After the Balmain Leagues Club sold the site, the developers bypassed the JRPP’s decision and successfully applied to have the development declared a Part 3A project – a controversial (and now repealed) part of the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 (NSW) that allowed developers to sidestep local councils and regional decision-makers and apply to have the Minister for Planning and Infrastructure appointed as the decision-maker, if a development was deemed of State significance. All sides of politics have levelled criticism at Part 3A, with claims it is underpinned by a ‘government knows best’ philosophy and is open to corruption.

When declaring Rozelle Village as a development of State significance, the then Minister, Tony Kelly, expressed similar comments to the JRPP, noting that the height of the towers – then around 18 storeys – needed to be reduced. The developers, however, went bigger to 32 storeys – ignoring the recommendations of both the JRPP and the then Minister.

Considering this manoeuvring around previous objections, the question begs: what will happen next now that the development has come under a barrage of more criticism? The developers need to go back to the drawing board and make changes that take into account both the public submissions and the Department’s assessment. The clock is ticking; the developers have 60 days to submit their revisions, as the NSW Government seeks to speed up the assessment of the remaining Part 3A projects. Once the revision has been received in the form of a Preferred Project Report, the proposal will be formally re-exhibited to the community for comment.

Rozelle RAG is waiting to see if a more appropriate development will, finally, take shape. Reflecting on the site, David said, “We’re not against development of the Balmain Leagues Club site, we’re against this development. The interesting thing is, this development is called Rozelle Village, yet the proposal on exhibition would kill what village actually exists in the area. This isn’t what the community wants”.

Postscript: The new proposal has come back. Still 27 and 25 towers overshadowing low-rise Rozelle. New submissions required. Public meeting: Monday, 19 November 2012, 6.30pm at Balmain Town Hall.

For updates, you can like the Rozelle RAG’s Facebook page or visit the Save Rozelle website.

Originally published in Inner Sydney Voice, Issue 116, Spring 2012