Artists impression of Macquarie Towers. Photo: Macquarie Group.

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BY MICK DALEY

Sydney’s Macquarie Bank have drawn a storm of high-level protest against their planned $637 million developments in Martin Place – already at the Stage Three approval phase.

Perhaps their escape from scrutiny by the banking Royal Commission has emboldened them to think they’re bulletproof. As the somewhat opaque ‘fifth pillar’ of Australia’s banking community they’re certainly well positioned in the upper echelons of business.

Their proposal for two enormous towers in Martin Place comes with the full endorsement of the Government Architect and is integrated with the planning for the CBD’s new $2 billion light rail and $12.5 billion metro railway projects. NSW Planning Minister Anthony Roberts insists the plans are all above board, but then as a development-at-all-costs advocate he would.

In the grand old tradition of politicians insisting that black is white, he’s claimed the proposed new towers, one of which will resemble a gigantic bluetooth speaker dock, are in the public interest, being consistent with the historic buildings that define the aesthetic of Martin Place. This seems fanciful, as they’re perhaps best represented by a heritage-listed Beaux-Arts revivalist-style building designed by Ross and Rowe, completed in 1928.

The plan has already ignored adverse reports from the Independent Planning Commission and the Department of Planning and Environment and drawn the ire of Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore, who told the ABC she suspected planning rules had been bent to accommodate the wishes of the bank.

Planning law dictates that any building over 55 metres in height should be more than 25 metres from Martin Place.

Planning Minister Roberts has pointed out that Moore’s objections are rather disingenuous, considering she backed a 33 storey redevelopment that has a minimum setback of 4.8m to Martin Place.

City of Sydney Labor Councillor Linda Scott is the latest in a long line of public figures to condemn the Macquarie Bank towers. She says they will significantly impact the heritage significance of Martin Place, views to the GPO clock tower, and reduce sunlight, daylight and wind protection to surrounding streets.
“The decision of the NSW Government to overrule the City of Sydney and approve the Macquarie Group Towers in Martin Place is not in the public interest,” she told the City Hub.
“I am seriously concerned by the willingness of the NSW Liberal State Government to circumvent existing planning agreements to approve these towers.”
“Here we have a Liberal State Government acting to approve an unsolicited proposal against the advice of two independent reports, and the public are losing out as a result.”
“Public open space is rare and valuable in our City. Public spaces, and pedestrian areas, need to be preserved, not threatened by poor planning decisions.”

Considering it comes on the back on an unsolicited proposal just last year, this massive development, integrated with ongoing public works does seem a rather ad hoc arrangement.

The Planning Minister’s abject willingness to accommodate it could perhaps be explained by Macquarie Group’s hefty financial muscle – they recently announced a net profit after tax of $A2.557 billion for FY18 to 31 March.

The Group’s own argument for the immediate approval of their plans was that it “could have negative implications for the commercial viability of the development”. Net result: a late proposal a few years into a historic public transport redevelopment is approved because a bank says that otherwise its profit margins will be affected.

The amenity of Martin Place is not restricted to the commercial convenience of oligarchs; Sydney’s homeless have long had a presence there.

Spokesman Lanz Priestly, the erstwhile Mayor of Tent City, says the plight of our city’s most vulnerable people has not been factored into this glittering development.
“I looked over their plans and unsurprisingly there’s nothing to accommodate the homeless community, who have used that space since 1991,” he told the City Hub.
“There’s still services up there but they’ve been told they’ll have to relocate and some have felt under pressure to move. Some aren’t moving but others are quite meek.”

But while Macquarie Group insists its brand spanking monoliths will improve convenience for customers, as an investment bank its track record warrants a second look.

And while the Planning Department’s claims of 10,000 jobs to be created, it seems that the interests of the top end of town will be best served by a compliant State authority in this instance.