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10 Lessons from the Revival of Ultimo - Pyrmont

Russell Olsson defines the key elements that ensured the success of this benchmark redevelopment.

“The city in all its grandeur and beauty is made from many parts, each different from the other … if we can read the city as having continuity, it is because of the predominance of its formal and spatial character.”

Aldo Rossi, The Architecture of the City, 1966

The Ultimo and Pyrmont area was desolate in the 1980s; it was an urban precinct peppered with empty warehouses, redundant powerhouses, uninhabited terraces and vacant sites. The residential population of 19,000 in 1901 had dropped to 1,591 by 1981. In the past three decades, the population has grown dramatically, returning to its 1901 population of 19,000. This turn around was achieved by coordinated state, federal and local government planning that provided a clearly demarcated framework for private sector development. The success of this redevelopment can be summarised in 10 key points.

1. A statutory plan – the 1992 Sydney Regional Environmental Plan No. 26 City West (REP26) – guided the social, economic and environmental outcomes in the peninsula’s re-development.

2. REP 26 was backed by an urban design precinct plan, a public domain plan and comprehensive building envelope designs for every site sold by the government.

3. Many sites were sold with approved development applications that were the result of limited architectural competitions. These competitions set benchmarks for residential design on the peninsula.

4. Affordable housing was provided by City West Housing, which was set up to implement the State Government’s Affordable Housing Program. This resulted in 365 dwellings being provided in 11 locations to house 800 people.

5. The community was regularly consulted. Input to public domain and built form designs was gained at regular meetings and information sessions. In 1996 and 2000 there were 620 post–occupancy surveys conducted.

6. Public transport was improved (with assistance from the Commonwealth Building Better Cities Program), including a new light rail line with eight stations and new ferry services, to complement existing buses and the Monorail.

7. New parks were provided at a rate of 19.8sqm per resident, which was a 24% increase on the target originally set in the 1991 plan.

8. Heritage was identified and conserved, with the number of listed heritage items increasing from four in 1994 to twenty-one in 2004.

9. Many architects were involved in the planning of the peninsula, including the preparation of REP No 26 (Cox Richardson); the Ultimo-Pyrmont Precinct Plan (Michael Harrison of Architectus); the Public Domain Plan (Conybeare Morrison); urban design at the City West Development Corporation (Jan McCredie); the Building Envelope Designs for CWDC (Ted Alexander and this author); and the Ultimo-Pyrmont DCP (Margaret Petrykowski).

10. Population density was achieved with a high quality environment: Pyrmont- Ultimo is Australia’s most densely populated suburb. It had 13,850 residents per square kilometre in June 2012. This was achieved with well proportioned streets, extensive parklands and the retention of heritage items.

Urban design considerations informed decision making at every level. An important principle was that the desired type of urban space influenced and generated the built form framework. Urban space was viewed as positive, continuous, and unifying. In Ultimo, for example, many 20m wide streets were formed with a 1:1 proportion, by continuous nine storey buildings, with seven storeys built to the street and the top two storeys set back. In Pyrmont Point, view corridors were created to the harbour, and to icons such as the Harbour Bridge or the REVY building (Royal Edward Victualling Yard) tower. These view corridors sometimes cut across development sites and were defined by building envelopes before the sites were sold for development. The creation and retention of view corridors minimised the sense of density inside the peninsula, by opening views to distant places. In Pyrmont west of Harris Street, public streets provided the basis for the City of Sydney development controls of the Lend Lease re-development.

A low-rise, partially empty and underutilised peninsula has been transformed into the most densely populated part of Australia, with well proportioned urban spaces, extensive parklands, many heritage items, enhanced public transport, affordable housing and a strong sense of place. This has been established by a cohesive set of urban planning instruments suffused with design thinking and complemented by the vital input of the private sector and the community.

Russell Olsson
Director, Olsson & Associates Architects
Registered architect and urban designer

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