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Sydney council’s Oxford Street planning failure

"A candy-coloured, rainbow painted pedestrian crossing" isn't enough to save Oxford Street, says Andrew Woodhouse. Photo: Wikimedia

Opinion by ANDREW WOODHOUSE

Our City of Sydney Council passed a motion last Monday putting its designs to vivify Oxford Street on public exhibition. 

Oxford Street is an ancient pathway used by the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. But why bother? Today, parts of Oxford Street are covered with black boards and look like a slum.  Poor planning decisions have contributed to this outcome, all under Clover Moore’s prolonged 17 year-old sovereignty.

Her new plans lack fundamental details and lead to confusion and exasperation. It’s no surprise they come just six months before crucial council elections on 4th September 2021 for a new Lord Mayor and a cavalcade of councillors. 

I’ve been in lockdown and locked up, monk-like, forensically examining the council’s 1,358-page, mega-document for two days. I only left my study carrel for food and water. 

What I discovered is frightening. 

This scheme, for “The Oxford Street Cultural and Creative Precinct” would, if approved, recalibrate the council’s current Development Control Plan, Local Environment Plan and Heritage listings. It would lift height limits “from 18 to 29 metres”, ie., nine stories, BUT only if 10 percent of site space is devoted to “cultural” activities. 

But the altered DCP, LEP and Heritage Controls and a new “Statement of Heritage Principles” are not provided. Why not? Is the council hiding something? This isn’t cynicism. It’s a healthy scepticism. 

And 10 percent percent of a building may be not much more than an expansive foyer. 

Where is the compelling evidence these massive alterations will exhume past heritage or “incentivise” or “positively contribute to the evolution and revitalisation of Oxford Street” as claimed? None is provided.

A fluttering flag in Taylor Square or a candy-coloured, rainbow painted pedestrian crossing simply doesn’t cut it. 

Gay history lost

A London study has shown showed that, within 10 years, 58 percent of gay venues were forced to close. This research project focused on nightlife spaces important to London’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and other (LGBTQ+) communities since 1986.

However, in San Francisco specific heritage rules apply to protect and conserve gay history.  

With World Pride 2023 now eighteen months, Sydney, a so-called “global city“, is already red-faced. How embarrassing is it that Melbourne has its approved multi-million dollar, architect-designed glamorous pride space but Sydney, home of Australia’s first Mardi-Gras, has nothing. Zilch. 

Council’s stratagem suggests a gay pride centre is “highly recommended” but when and where this might happen nobody knows.

And just what constitutes a “cultural” activity, the criterion for granting these over-generous height and FSR (site density) exemptions? It is not defined in council’s thought bubble. In my dictionary it is anything or everything we have created or cultured. This includes buildings, streetscapes, parks, buses, cycleways, plazas, cars, venues, pubs, clubs, art galleries, etc. etc.

Cui bono, or who benefits from all this, as Cicero, the Roman lawyer, once said? Developers of course

Council’s computer-generated modelling shows the four-storey Burdekin Hotel, 2 Oxford Street, for example, now celebrating its new rooftop bar, engulfed by a seven-storey extension taller than the current hotel itself and labelled a “growth option”. This is council-speak for, “Go for it, Mr Developer”.

Is this what Robin Boyd meant when he described our architecture in his book, “The Australian Ugliness”? 

The National Art School is not quarantined from all these changes either. 

And the former T2 centre, once promoted as a gay pride centre then a bike hub, is shown with a monstrous height extension also taller than itself. It looks like a hideously bad toupee.

Wait, there’s more. Extra stories proposed as a “preferred option” peer over council’s own heritage-listed, neglected buildings on the north side of Oxford Street, trivialising its once-crumbling sandstone parapet and almost doubling its height.

The state heritage-listed, noble sandstone courthouse, completed in 1844 with its Roman numerals carved into the facade, will be downgraded to a “detracting” element in the streetscape. This is heritage heresy.

Council panel skeptical

Council’s high priests of planning have over-spruiked their scheme. 

Even council’s Professional Design Advisory Panel is not in favour and “expresses concerns about significant uplift [height increases] on identified sites. This is because it could result in significant impacts on heritage significance … as a result of amalgamation of sites and disproportionate additions.” They are ignored. 

And secreted deep in the fine print on page 926 of 1,358 inside council’s magnum opus my microscope discovered this comment by a planner: “It is questionable how feasible or desirable the realisation of new floorspace on these sites would be”. It’s more than questionable. It’s highly doubtful and indicates how unsustainable these changes are.

Council’s limited community surveys were limited noted that “many participants told us they do not want any new development to be out of character and look and feel like Bondi or the CBD”, which is just it what it would look like, and that they “love the historical buildings”, adding there is “not a lot of detail of what all this actually means …increased heights need to be carefully considered.” 

The new planning policies could make Oxford Street more sterile. Photo: Wikimedia

Local resident and Solicitor, Mr Ryan Walker, says “Oxford Street and the Darlinghurst area have been in disrepair for nearly two decades. Sydney Council has been a landlord of Oxford Street and has allowed many vacant buildings to run down.”

“In March this year, Dr Kerryn Phelps, AM, Councillor, showed council had been sitting on about fourteen self-contained studio apartments on Oxford Street left empty for nearly two decades! This is unforgiveable. Council’s “Oxford Street Strategic Review” is too little, too late.”

Mr Walker says that “Sydney is crying out loud for a Pride Museum in this area to both record our painful period in the history of homophobic oppression in Australia and also to celebrate our progress and victories with increased awareness, rights, law reform, marriage equality, and to record and showcase future developments. The unique and oldest surviving underground public toilets in Sydney, built in 1907 at Taylor Square, are an ideal site.”

“At times, I wake in the middle of the night in fright,” he says, “worrying about the possibility that after the 4th September 2021, Oxford Street may have to continue to rely upon the current City of Sydney for its future. Instead of keeping the keys with the current lot, it’s better to vote to change the locks.”

Oxford Street could become even more sterile and a tumble weeded landscape devoid of meaning and purpose. 

It will lack the cheek, chic, pose and poise it deserves.

As social commentator Getrude Stein has remarked, “there’s no point going there if there’s no there there.”

This whole fuzzy, misconceived scheme corroborates the view that town planning is an oxymoron; a contradiction in terms.

To have your own pre-election say email councillors at council@cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au or go to https://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/policy-planning-changes/planning-changes-oxford-street-cultural-creative-precinct

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