Late last month a few dozen inner city activists did what millions of Sydneysiders do weekly: they boarded a bus and headed west to the suburbs. A minibus picked the group up near the Powerhouse Museum in Ultimo and drove an hour inland to Parramatta, the proposed new home of the Powerhouse Museum. After 100 years in Ultimo, the Baird government has decided to sell the existing city site to developers while providing the property market with boundless opportunities to get rich quick in Sydney’s western suburbs.
Up for sale in Ultimo is a heritage building: an old power generation site that was adapted to house Australia’s largest collection of technology and innovation artefacts. As real estate deals go, the $200 million Powerhouse land grab is small potatoes. The Powerhouse sits in the middle of a multi-billion dollar development goldmine. To the north is the $6 billion Barangaroo South project, adjoining the $3.4 billion Darling Harbour redevelopment which flows onto the $2 billion Central Park complex.
The recently demolished Sydney Entertainment Centre, which is just a stone’s throw from the Powerhouse site demonstrates just how much inner city cultural facilities are worth to developers. The former live music arena is being replaced with a billion dollar complex featuring a 40 storey tower and another 25 storey tower complete with 1400 apartments and 22,000 sqm of commercial office space. Imagine what they will squeeze onto a similar site now housing the Powerhouse Museum.
Once the Powerhouse site in Ultimo is sold off, the Baird government will run out of City land to flog to developers. With plans for the massive Bays Precinct redevelopment on hold while various government agencies fight over the future of the Rozelle Goods Yard, the State government’s redevelopment arm, UrbanGrowth has shifted its attention to Parramatta: the proposed home for the Powerhouse Museum.
Thirty five kilometres from Ultimo, UrbanGrowth is flogging a property asset worth $2 billion. In North Parramatta, the State government plans to sell off a vast expanse of open space which contains some of Australia’s oldest buildings. The original Parramatta Female Factory was built between 1818 and 1821 and many women were incarcerated within its sandstone walls. The site also housed a vast insane asylum and is still used by NSW Health. The 146 hectare facility is almost two and a half times larger than Callan Park. In Rozelle, a similar heritage site has been preserved from the threat of development by an Act of State Parliament.
Jack Mundey and the CFMEU have put a Green Ban on the Western Sydney site, the same action that saved the Rocks from redevelopment in the 1970s. The National Trust of Australia (NSW) has strenuously objected to the proposed high rise development. The lush suburban grounds contain Australia’s oldest surviving public building, the Vice-Regal Headquarters dating back to Governor Phillip in 1788 (almost 100 years before Callan Park first opened in 1885). Overlooking the Parramatta River amidst verdant bushland, the Vice Regal Headquarters was once home to 12 colonial leaders.
UrbanGrowth proposes to house thousands of people on the site by building a massive residential and commercial complex complete with 30 story high rises. In response to community concerns UrbanGrowth scaled back the original proposal from 4,100 to 3,900, in what can only be seen as a meaningless gesture.
Speaking to a joint meeting of inner city and suburban activists following a tour of the North Parramatta grounds, Greens MP Jamie Parker said the plans for both the Powerhouse and Parramatta were nothing more than real estate deals. “These proposals are about the developer driven privatisation of public land and have nothing to do with any positive cultural or community outcome.”
The President of the North Parramatta Resident Action Group, Suzette Meade stated that her organisation did not want to see the existing Powerhouse collection relocated to the suburbs. “We would much rather see a museum built on the current site of the Parramatta Female Factory in order to showcase our area’s unique history. New South Wales is the only state in Australia without a museum dedicated to the State’s history. We think this should be built in North Parramatta.”
The Baird government is instead proposing to move the Powerhouse Museum from Ultimo to the site of the former David Jones carpark in central Parramatta, where yet another $1.2 billion real estate project is planned. Community groups in both inner Sydney and the western suburbs fear that a new Powerhouse museum in Parramatta would be much smaller than the existing Ultimo institution.
Jon Hillman, Vice President of the North Parramatta Residents Action Group said that people are starting to connect a raft of mega property deals mushrooming across Sydney with undisclosed developer donations to the Liberal Party. Last month The NSW Electoral Commission announced it was withholding $4.4 million in public funding from the NSW Liberal Party until the identities of donors, which include a number of property developers, was revealed. In 2010, the Liberals appear to have funnelled developer donations from a federal campaign fund to finance the NSW state campaign in violation of a 2009 state wide ban on developer donations.
In 2011, the Liberals won office after 16 years in the political wilderness. In October of that year then Premier Barry O’Farrell famously proclaimed, “We are sending a message to investors that NSW is open for business.” In April 2014 O’Farrell resigned after lying to ICAC about receiving a $3000 bottle of Grange from a businessman. From 2011 to the present, the O’Farrell and subsequent Baird governments have offered real estate developers billions of dollars in investment opportunities across Sydney from Ultimo to Parramatta and beyond. According to Jon Hillman, “people are starting to connect the dots between undisclosed developer donations and all of the property deals in the State and they are greatly concerned.”