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A coloured etching showing the township of Parramatta (looking north up Marsden St from the current location of Westfield Shopping Centre) c1888 (shortly after Parramatta hosted its last World Fair in 1883.) A coloured etching showing the township of Parramatta (looking north up Marsden St from the current location of Westfield Shopping Centre) c1888 (shortly after Parramatta hosted its last World Fair in 1883.) Featured
12 July 2015 Posted by 

COMMENT: IMBALANCE OF ARTS FUNDING

City centric bias, squandered opportunity

By Jason Burcher

WESTERN Sydney is Australia's third largest economy behind Sydney and Melbourne and the engine room of New South Wales' economic output.

However a severe shortfall in state government funding for social and cultural infrastructure in Western Sydney threatens to stymie Parramatta's future as a regional centre for the economy, culture and the arts.

As the population of metropolitan Sydney continues to grow, with Greater Western Sydney set to accommodate a disproportionately large increase in density, the importance of Parramatta on a regional, state and national basis will become increasingly important.

Western Sydney will be roughly equivalent in size to the current metropolitan communities of Sydney and Melbourne by the year 2050, by which time Western Sydney is expected to be home to more than four million people.

However, if Parramatta is to meet the needs of what will by then represent well in excess of one in 10 Australians, a focused strategy must be formulated to facilitate the development of attractions and institutions capable of delivering the type of cultural vibrancy and diversity enjoyed by its sister CBD to the east and cosmopolitan cousin to the south.

Recently declared Sydney's second CBD, Parramatta is exceptionally well placed to deliver these necessities thanks to it's central location and existing scale, however Parramatta must also develop adequate infrastructure for cultural and social attractions or continue to suffer the 'brain drain' created by the mass emigration of highly trained or qualified people.

This will require a co-ordinated plan to drive the economic, social and environmental outcomes essential for a second CBD and failure to do so will threaten the economic development and social cohesion of the region.

Planning must provide for a comprehensive and diverse range of experiences for both residents as well as visitors alike.

This is vital not only for attracting and retaining businesses and management class employment but also to support Western Sydney's arts community.

Deliberate investment in cultural facilities and programs is essential to meeting this need both now and into the future.

Pivotal to the realisation of Parramatta's future role as a regional centre are some 360-acres of publicly owned land located adjacent to the Parramatta CBD and north/south growth corridor.

This public land is also steeped in Indigenous and European history and every bit as historically and culturally significant as any other landscape found elsewhere in this nation.

Here we can find Australia's oldest public building, its most scientifically significant astronomical observatory, its first productive farmland, one of it's oldest private residences, its first female factory, one of Australia's last remaining Edwardian gardens and this convict nation's longest continuously operated Gaol - to name just a handful of the great national assets massing this incredibly significant open landscape.  

It is a veritable treasure trove of family silver just waiting to be dusted off and showcased to the world.

Already partially a UNESCO world heritage listed area since mid 2010, an application on behalf of it's sole custodian is all that has stood in the way of this esteemed level of international recognition spreading right across the site - from the confluence of Toongabbie and Darling Mills Creek and Parramatta Gaol in the north, right down to the old gatehouse, cattle grid and driveway on the edge of the Great Western Highway to the south.

Sadly, successive State Governments, both Labor and Liberal, have resisted calls to initiate such an undertaking.

Admittedly and due to a range of reasons, such as the continued occupation of the site by resource strapped medical and disability support services and the ongoing use of the site by the department of corrections, activating the site for public use and accommodating a broader world heritage listing would have been somewhat problematic at that time.  These former barriers to renewal however no longer exist.

In the last few years the State Government has consolidated the formerly fragmented management of crown land serving different government departments and reorganised planning.

The Parramatta Gaol and Norma Parker Centre now lay empty, and a path for the future consolidation of health and medical services at Westmead hospital has been formed to facilitate the organised migration of related services away from the eastern campus of Cumberland Hospital.

The declaration of the Parramatta North Urban Renewal Study Area as a State Significant Site by the Minister for Western Sydney, Premier Mike Baird, back in August 2014 has allowed the State Government to put forward a plan for this site that effectively ignore important heritage and environmental protection mechanisms enshrined in State Legislation while paying little regard to any objections raised by Parramatta City Council, the Western Sydney arts community, heritage advocates and local residents.

The Planning Framework Application put forward by the proponent coupled with it's State Significant Site status removes established processes and protection mechanisms vital to the survival of Parramatta's most important and intact heritage landscape, while squandering the one opportunity we have to restore Parramatta Park to it's formerly much broader proportions to deliver a grand public space befitting what was once, and may one day again become, a great world city.

Adding insult to injury, the National Trust has highlighted the fact that the state government's plan also threatens the existing UNESCO World Heirtage listing of Old Government House.

The plan nullifies fundamental protections, locks out the rights of relevant stakeholders, slices up the land and its assets and disposes of it's dismembered pieces while stacking the interests of both present and future stakeholders against each other along with that of the remaining flora and fauna, open space and built heritage.

Unit blocks to accommodate some 3900 apartments are to be imposed on the site, including where buildings deemed to be of high significance now stand and in place of ecologically and scientifically significant trees - crowding out what will remain present in the shade of the surrounding tower blocks and in direct competition with new priorities which must inevitably be balanced against the site's other 'potential' use(s).

While the narrative championed by Member for Parramatta Dr Geoff Lee and the NSW Planning Minister, Mr Rob Stokes, is one of activation and adaptive reuse, the stated objectives for what was once known as the Fleet Street Heritage Area, as articulated by the state government's developer arm UrbanGrowth NSW,  is to provide a pathway to unlock value from real estate assets deemed surplus to requirements through a process of de-risking, dismantling and wholesaling to the market for the purpose of meeting urban growth targets for new dwelling construction.

While the renewal and adaptive reuse of these priceless assets presents a once in two century opportunity to develop a world class public space able to attract and house artisans, designers and digital engineers while providing a focal point for contemporary art and tourism in Western Sydney, the state government's plan to relinquish public ownership of the site presents significant barriers to this opportunity and permanently alienates this strategically important site from public ownership.

This divestment in Parramatta's publicly owned assets also comes at a time when the Baird government are investing heavily into the Sydney CBDs cultural ribbon in a bid to reinforce Sydney as Asia's leading cultural hub.

This includes the delivery of the Barangaroo Headland Park and grand event space, development of an all new arts and culture precinct at Walsh Bay, upgrading of the Sydney Opera House, revitalisation of Centennial Park, Hyde Park, The Royal Botanic Gardens and The Domain as well as redevelopment of Sydney's convention, exhibition and entertainment venues.

In total, the Baird government are set to inject well in excess of $1-billion dollars into Sydney while allocating just a fraction of that for simular arts and culture projects in Western Sydney.

About the author: Jason Burcher is marketing and communications professional and science and technology writer specialising in electronics and robotics. A self-confessed geek, Jason also has a strong passion for history, heritage, planning and urban design. He lives in Parramatta.



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Michael Walls
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Western Sydney Business Access (WSBA) covers the business and community issues of the Greater Western Sydney region of Australia. WSBA is the popular media source for connecting with the pulse of the region and tapping into it's vast opportunities and networks.