BY ANITA SENARATNA
Woollahra Council is reconsidering a controversial proposal for youth recreational facilities in Rushcutters Bay Park.
Crs Anthony Marano (Liberal) and Matthew Robertson (Greens) put the issue back on the agenda at a recent council meeting, with support from the Residents First party who has councillors in all five wards.
The proposal, in response to community feedback about the lack of facilities for older children in the area, includes a skate park, basketball court and table tennis tables at the far end of the park near New South Head Road.
When the proposal was first introduced earlier this year, some residents were concerned about the potential noise and environmental impacts of the facilities, particularly the skate park.
“It just sort of erupted when people started hearing about it,” said Dixie Coulton, former Deputy Lord Mayor and member of community group Friends of Rushcutters Bay Park.
“At one point there were three different petitions going around. No one needed stirring up or asking to do anything. It was a spontaneous outburst from all different people of varying age groups and backgrounds.”
Friends of Rushcutters Bay Park was one of many groups in the area who spoke out against the development. The debate got so heated that even federal MPs got involved. The park is located roughly on the border of the federal electorates of Wentworth and Sydney, represented by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek respectively.
While Mr. Turnbull believed the proposal was “not sympathetic to how the park is currently used by its visitors”, Ms. Plibersek was in favour of it, observing that as a former resident of the area, she had noticed it “lacks recreational facilities for older children and young people”, according to a Fairfax article published in May this year.
Residents First councillor Louise Elsing from the Cooper Ward said the Council was “committed to making sure that community spaces are properly utilised.”
“We need to find out what communities want and we need to make sure that’s being delivered,” she said.
Ms. Coulton was critical of the way the media had, in her view, portrayed the debate as a generational war between young people and older residents. Although she has no issue with the prospect of another skate park in the eastern suburbs, she does object to it being in Rushcutters Bay Park, proposing the larger Centennial Park as an alternative location.
“I’m a great supporter of exercise for young people, but it’s just in the wrong spot. It’s not a young people versus old people thing; it’s to do with preserving the green space and quietude of the park. You’ve got to have some space that’s free of structures and that space down there provides for that,” she said.
Ms. Coulton said the park served an important purpose for residents, many of whom lived in small apartments and terrace houses with limited green space of their own.
“People use it as their own garden space, their space to go and walk and talk and have some time out, and to put in another structure would impact upon that. It’s about quietude and space. It’s people’s backyard,” she said.
Clr Harriet Price, the Residents First member for the Paddington ward, where the park is located, said families in the area were “crying out” for more recreational options for older children.
“I know that a lot of young families in the area were disappointed when [the proposal] didn’t go through last time,” she said. “It was a big issue that families raised with me during my campaign during the election.
“What is lovely is everyone loves Paddington so much that we don’t leave, but obviously our children get older and bigger, and small Paddington terrace houses and backyards don’t really have the room. To have a facility like this so close would be fantastic.”
She said there had been “a bit of a misconception” around the proposal, noting that the skate park was only one part of the project, and it would be considerably smaller than the large concrete bowl that currently exists in Bondi.
“What it’s tailored at is the 8-14 year old age bracket, but it’s seen as a family outing,” she said.
“I think there’s a bit of a scare campaign that it would be large groups of youths in the skate park… it was more that families would go down there on a Sunday, they would be able to get a coffee from the coffee shop in the park, enjoy the lovely views and the children would go and use their scooters or shoot a few hoops, then all go home for the afternoon. I don’t think it’s going to be this lawless, graffiti-infested concrete pit.”
The council will prepare a report based on the findings of the needs analysis and survey they conducted earlier in the year, with the aim of minimising the impacts on residents as much as possible. Clr Price said that while she does understand the concerns around the project, the council is hoping to work with the community to create facilities that are in everyone’s best interests.
“People got scared and it’s a shame that happened,” she said. “I think there was a lot of opposition to it, but we hope to be able to work with the community and come up with something that’s going to suit everybody.”