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Improvement of social equity and the interaction of a community have traditionally been held up as paramount in good urban planning. But local Newtown residents and councillors say such principles, along with the voices of the community, have been stricken from the proposal for the new 63-room hotel, club and retail plan set to grace Enmore Road, on the site of the existing Newtown RSL.

While the aesthetics of the present RSL building inspire about as much excitement as a boiled potato, the East Joint Regional Planning Panel (at the core of the NSW Government’s new planning system) has set forth a plan to ‘do it again’, only this time on a larger scale. The major issues opposing the development, besides its appearance, are primarily concerned with its significant departures from parking requirements and non-compliance with the height, floor space ratios, and heritage and design guidelines governing all developments in this Heritage Conservation Area.

Marrickville Greens Councillor, Cathy Peters, is at the centre of this debate, providing fervent opposition. “To build this huge modern style, non-sympathetic building in amongst Newtown and Enmore’s beautiful Victorian and Federation buildings amounts to architectural vandalism,” she said. “It contravenes its own planning laws. Here we are preserving old Victorian houses by law, but then we put forth these large, obstructive building plans. It is unfair to the residents and businesses who adhere to the strict heritage regulations enforced. There’s also a significant lack of parking for a hotel and club of this size, with plans for only 17 parking spots in an area that is experiencing Sydney’s worst parking crisis.”

It is not just the prospect of a beefed-up hotel which has caused the stir – accusations of undemocratic methods have also reared their head. “The NSW Government, by introducing these Joint Regional Planning Panels (JRPPs), have effectively removed power from the local communities, who do the research, the groundwork, and transferred it into the sole hands of these centralised panels,” Cr Peters said. “These hotel and club plans have been passed by the JRPP even though Council refused it on various grounds. It is the councils who are doing comprehensive reports analysing the prospect of such projects, with taxpayer money, to then have them discarded by the panels.”

However, Cr Peters’ position was rejected by Cr Victor Macri, one of Council’s representatives on the JRPP, who voted in favour of the project. “You’ve got to look at your starting point,” he said. “In size, bulk, [and] scale, it’s actually an improvement in sightlines for the building behind it. It will interact with the community – the area needs a boutique hotel – and the impact will be far less than an operational RSL.

“[The hotel] actually represents a deintensification of the site,” Cr Macri added. There was a parking study done – the majority of the use will be from people without a car, using public transport.”

For her part, Cr Peters does not object to the existence of a hotel such as that proposed in the area, but believes the current proposal to be ill-thought-out. This view is shared by local resident, Theresa Archibald, who expressed her dismay at how her opinion was received before the appointed panel.

“The building proposed is too big and inappropriate and has been decided upon with the intentional absence of the community,” she said. “I emailed them to say I would like to speak. During the hearing, I was spoken to with disdain and was hardly allowed to express myself. I was shocked by the undemocratic treatment I received [from] the chair, John Roseth. Also, when an on-site meeting was called, none of the community was invited to attend. Suddenly, with the new system, all projects which miraculously exceed the total of $10 million become a matter for these so-called ‘specialists’ in the panels, and the decision is taken away from the communities.”

Cr Peters likewise claimed her objections were met with “flippancy” by the panel. “The response I received from the panel after I spoke was almost with annoyance and the cynical argument, ‘The plans reproduce the rhythm of the traditional elements of the streetscape’.”

According to Peters, the community needed to remain vigilant against the increased planning powers vested in the state government. “Nobody knows of the government’s intention to extend these laws and further estrange the community from its own future,” she said. “It is not just happening in Enmore. This is just one example of what this new system robs from a community’s right to democracy. Not many are aware of the implications.”

by Jake Moss