(3) Every which way at St Leonards

Quick tutorial in city planning (3):
Strategy or adhocery?

This combined site at 617-621 Pacific Highway (corner of Christie Street) has seen big swings in planning controls in the past six years.

It’s difficult to see a coherent strategy in the recent planning of North Sydney’s St Leonards ‘peninsula’ – the area around Pacific Highway, Christie Street and Chandos Street.

  • The 2001 LEP rezoned the above site at 617-621 Pacific Highway from Commercial A (no residential) to Mixed Use, encouraging about ten floors of apartments above four or five floors of commercial uses.
  • The 2013 LEP changed the zoning back to Commercial Core, permitting commercial offices and shops while precluding apartments.
  • In 2015 the North Sydney Council’s St Leonards/ Crows Nest Planning Study (Precincts 2 and 3) switched again, recommending for 617-621 Pacific Highway an extremely high-density apartment tower — with no change to the zoning that disallows apartments — if the owner provides a public benefit in the form of an arts centre.
Proposed development complying with the pre-2013 LEP (see Ben Graham in the Mosman Daily, 2 August 2017)

The present owners bought the site in 2014 for $40M (Mercedes Ruehl in the Financial Review, Oct 21, 2014).

One of the two existing (pre-2013) DAs is shown at right, but that was not what the new owners had in mind for the site. They subsequently proposed exactly what was indicated in the 2015 planning study and prepared a voluntary planning agreement offering two podium floors for an arts centre to be planned, designed and fitted out by the owner’s architects.

Apart from the NSW Government also requiring an unspecified contribution to state infrastructure, the voluntary planning agreement (read it here) and the consequential LEP amendment 24 (read it here) gave them the switch to residential and the density and the height that they wanted.

In June 2019, 617-621 Pacific Highway was spot rezoned for this hyper-dense tower — shops, five floors of offices and 195 apartments on a quarter-acre block.

Are the planners/councillors being strategic or reactive? Do they think that the St Leonards ‘peninsula’ should be primarily commercial, or residential, or both? Do they plan for its needs — activities, services, civic functions, greening, public space, community resources – and think about its relationship to the rest of North Sydney?

Not on the evidence.

Of all the possible forms of public benefit to demand in return for a massive uplift in value, why an arts centre? Why here, at the extremity of the municipality?

  • If the St Leonards ‘peninsula’ is the best place for North Sydney’s only public arts centre*, you’d expect it to be identified in the North Sydney Community Strategic Plan 2013-2023. No mention — only vague aspirations, nothing specific, nothing localised.
  • If the best place for North Sydney’s only public arts centre* is in a tower that occupies the entirety of its small block, you’d expect some policy on whether an arts centre should or shouldn’t be associated with a public place or other community landmark. There is no policy, either way.
  • If there are compelling reasons for an arts centre, and for this site, it would be in the explanatory document related to the voluntary planning agreement. It seems instead that there were no plans for an arts centre, and no thought about its location, prior to the deal with the developer.

Like so much of North Sydney’s planning, the strategic documents are confined to statements impossible to disagree with (‘healthy community’) and aspirations without content or location.

Meanwhile, actual plans, as for St Leonards and the Ward Street ‘Precinct’, seem to be just one-off bright ideas. The former proposes that a developer donate an ‘arts centre’. The latter proposes a deal involving council land to get a branch library and ‘cultural hub’ (a ‘multifaceted destination experience’).

Where are the real, material, site-specific plans for the whole district? Where are the policies for leveraging Council land and for negotiating public benefits from developers? Why are the mechanisms used for St Leonards and the Ward Street Precinct not applied across North Sydney?

Above all, why is the most important location for public places, civic spaces and community focus — the heart of the city at the Victoria Cross metro stationnever the subject of the Council’s lobbying, negotiations, deals and every other lever available to the Council, and not even referred to in any of the recent planning documents???

* The nearest equivalent to an ‘arts centre’ is Primrose Park Art and Craft Centre (established in 1991). It is described by the North Sydney Council as an independent, incorporated organisation supported by the Council, comprised of art and craft member groups (Primrose Park Photography, Primrose Paper Arts Inc, Artists in the Park, The Australian Society of Calligraphers and Basketry NSW Inc).