Pemulwuy battles critics over student tower
REDFERN: The Block nears a critical juncture as the Pemulwuy Project secures departmental support, but critics are angered that student housing takes pride of place.
The origins of the Pemulwuy Project go back over 40 years. The Aboriginal Housing Company (AHC) as landowner has devised at least five plans to redevelop its land. Like so many Indigenous-led initiatives, those plans have suffered from difficulties securing adequate sources of finance. Politics, black and white, has also played a part in suspending the organisation’s ambitions.
“We’re not dealing with the government no more. We took the reins ourselves,” says the AHC’s longtime CEO Michael “Mick” Mundine, “and I think that’s why it’ll go ahead.”
Between 2010 and 2012 the state government approved the Pemulwuy Project in three “precincts”. Precinct 1 comprises a six-storey building of two- and three-bedroom housing units above a new Tony Mundine gymnasium and a retail space on the land west of Eveleigh Street alongside 36 two-, three- and four-bedroom terraces – a total of 62 affordable dwellings – all managed by the AHC as housing for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Precinct 2 contains a childcare centre and additional three-storey retail and office space, including the new AHC offices. Precinct 3 – the most contentious element of the project – was originally to contain up to eight storeys of student accommodation as an ongoing subsidy for the affordable housing.
In October 2018, the Department of Planning and Environment (DPE) recommended the approval of modifications to the project and, concurrently, a student housing development in Precinct 3 that would far exceed the controls under previous approvals. All retail and commercial uses are removed from Precinct 3. The gallery will be relocated to replace retail space in Precinct 1 and a secondary “land bridge” over the railway corridor is deleted.
What will remain unchanged is the number of units for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander housing in Precinct 1 and plans for Precinct 2. Critics have objected to the changed balance between student numbers and other tenants, with the department now recommending the approval of an additional 442 student beds on top of the 154 originally planned, effectively quadrupling the student population.
The increased height of Precinct 3 and its 99-year lease to Altira Student Living is being justified by the AHC as a source of financial independence, permitting it to develop Precincts 1 and 2 without government intervention. The 24 storeys of student housing emerged from the Design Review Panel set up to assess the AHC’s original 16-storey proposal and has the tick of approval from the office of the Government Architect NSW.
Under the modified proposal, around 100 of the 596 beds in the student housing development would be made available for use by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students at a discounted rate. The AHC could not provide the SSH with the exact discount.
Mr Mundine says the critics of student housing on The Block should first acknowledge how the nation and the city have changed. “There are so many people of different nationalities here now. Just look at the students walking past Redfern station. How is our student housing any different?” he asks. “It’s time to come together and mix with one another,” he says. “We’re building a community within a community.”
The proponent of the Pemulwuy Project on behalf of the AHC is developer Deicorp, which owns the two existing 18-storey mixed use buildings and the soon-to-be residential “TNT” buildings on the eastern side of Redfern station.
Joel Sherwood-Spring, a Wiradjuri man who grew up around Redfern, and an architect by training, says the proposal does not respond to the historic, cultural or built context of the site. “If you’re going to build a tower on a ridgeline you will create a wind tunnel. From an Indigenous perspective this is re-storying the way the land operates and is read,” Mr Sherwood-Spring says of the large student housing tower that will dominate the view of the city from Redfern station.
Mr Sherwood-Spring attended pre-school at Murraweena on Eveleigh Street in the 1990s and views the Pemulwuy Project as undermining the legacy of the diverse Aboriginal communities in the Redfern-Waterloo area, despite making “economic sense” to the AHC.
The DPE argues that the proposed heights are consistent with the proposals of the Greater Sydney Commission and UrbanGrowth NSW in their Central to Eveleigh Transformation Strategy. Those views were favoured by the department over the many objecting voices, some critical of the impact more student housing will have on the social fabric of Redfern.
“It definitely now looks like Redfern is going to turn into Fitzroy,” says Mr Sherwood-Spring, “and we’re just going to have plaques telling us where things were, commemorating a legacy but essentially putting a full stop on it.”
Mr Mundine’s view of Pemulwuy is decidedly unconcerned with the past. “I’m a believer in the future,” he says. “This is about the next generation of our children.”
As more than 25 objections were received, the final decision was referred to the Independent Planning Commission. The three-member panel will hold a public meeting at 10am on Thursday November 15 at Rydges Sydney Central (Oxford Room 1, Level 1), 28 Albion Street, Surry Hills. It will be open to the public to observe the proceedings but applications to speak have already closed.