Labor's High-Rise Legacy


Luckily for Labor, Kristina Keneally is one of the few NSW Labor politicians who could afford to spend this election campaign on a bus trip around the state, cheerily confident that her own seat was safe. Keneally holds her seat of Heffron by a large 23 per cent on a two party preferred basis. She looks secure, although as the election-watch blog Tally Room predicts, if the Greens improve on their 2007 vote of 20 per cent, the seat could become marginal. Next to Heffron in Marrickville, Deputy Premier Carmel Tebbutt is on only an 8 per cent margin and is worried enough to take the word "Labor" off her leaflets.

Whatever happens at the polls, voters living inside these two electorates will be living with some big Labor planning decisions about which they were not consulted, or, for that matter, even officially told. While their experience is not unusual, it provides a good case study on how planning has worked in Labor’s NSW.

Just inside the electorate of Heffron, on the border of Marrickville, lies the seven hectare Ashmore Estate, a huge low-rise site in the terrace-lined streets of Erskineville. A few hundred people work in the estate’s warehouses and small businesses. It is owned by multinational company Goodman, owner of 60 properties in Australia and Europe worth nearly $3 billion.

Less well known than some NSW developers, CEO Greg Goodman — whose company paid him $1.9 million in 2010 — is well connected in the property world. The Urban Taskforce, which is supporting the Liberal/National parties’ urban development policy in this election, chose him as Property Person of the Year in 2007.

Most Erskineville residents realise that sooner or later the workers at Ashmore Estate will go and developers will move in — medium-rise apartments are gradually spreading across the area. What many of them don’t know, however, is that Goodman has a vision for the site that is similar to the controversial high-rise development that is soon to overshadow inner city Chippendale.

Informed by a local development study, Sydney City Council had put a maximum height limit on the area around Ashmore Estate of nine stories — so the company decided to by-pass the council and go straight to the Labor government.

In June last year, Goodman’s company wrote to the NSW Planning Department explaining that for the site to reach "its potential" and "make economic sense", the zoning needed to more than double to allow 19 stories. Two people from the NSW Department of Planning and four from Goodman had a meeting to discuss the Ashmore plan.

Goodman’s plan is for four buildings up to 19 stories, nine of more than 14 stories and many more of about nine. Asked who attended the meeting, a department spokesperson responded: "The Department does not see the relevance of naming the individuals who attended the meeting."

Several months after the meeting, the department instructed the council to raise the height limit for Ashmore in its draft City Local Plan to 19 stories. The department told New Matilda that the decision was made "solely on good planning grounds to allow public debate on this issue" while the plan is on exhibition.

The residents, who had been consulted for the earlier study, knew nothing about any of this until two weeks ago when Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore distributed an invitation to a public meeting to discuss the new height limits which the Department of Planning was "outrageously" instructing the city to insert in the plan. The council is concerned about overshadowing, high-density towers, extra traffic in already choked main streets and loss of regional views from nearby Sydney Park to the City.

As far as New Matilda is aware, neither Tebbutt nor Keneally have mentioned the Ashmore Estate during their campaigns.

Both Greens candidate for Heffron, Mehreen Faruqi, and Marrickville candidate Fiona Byrne say it’s similar to decisions being made all over the state. "This development is similar to the nearby Marrickville Metro expansion plan. The height and girth keep expanding and the developer knows if they go straight to the State Government, whether Labor or Liberal, they will get their way," says Byrne.

"While the Greens do support urban consolidation, many in the community resent having no say in the decision-making process," says Faruqi.

The only big park in this area is Sydney Park, which has views north across to the city. If this development goes ahead the view will be of high-rise apartments. And if another Labor-endorsed plan comes to fruition, in the other direction you will be able to see gas drills. Read on to find out about plans to allow coal-seam gas driling in inner-city Sydney.


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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.