Mon, 25 Jun 2018 - 16:22
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My views on the proposed development of the commercial heart of Lindfield

Increasingly we are seeing examples around Australia of high amenity urban design, bringing together shops, public facilities like libraries, parks and public open space, and good transport connections.

For several years community group Support Lindfield has been making the case that we can have similar high amenity urban design in the commercial heart of Lindfield - through an intelligent redevelopment of the land behind the row of shops on the western side of the Pacific Highway in Lindfield.

The genesis for Support Lindfield’s advocacy work was a proposal by the NSW state government, in 2012, to spend around 34 million dollars to build a multi storey car park in Lindfield for rail commuters. Community members came together with a strong message: more car parking makes sense – but is that all we get?

Why could Lindfield not have a development similar to those seen in centres like Double Bay and Lane Cove where a large supermarket anchors a multipurpose development which also brings plenty of car parking (typically in underground or multi story car parks so it is not particularly visible from the street); other smaller shops, cafes and restaurants; community facilities such as a library or childcare centre; and open space or parkland?

This is a point many community members have made to me – and having visited both the Double Bay and Lane Cove developments, and seen how vibrant and active they are, it is a question I have wondered about myself.

In my work as federal Minister for Urban Infrastructure and Cities, I have seen similar successful projects in cities around Australia – and around the world. Yes, such projects involve multi story buildings and greater density than we would want in most areas of Ku-ring-gai – but we are not talking about most areas of Ku-ring-gai, we are talking about one specific area in the commercial heart of Lindfield.

And of course such density, in this specific location, can bring with it benefits through good design, public spaces which are welcoming to the community, public facilities, and a wider choice of shops, cafes and restaurants.

Through its advocacy Support Lindfield successfully made the case that the proposal for a standalone car park should be put on hold while better alternatives were explored.

Since that time Ku-ring-gai Council has made some progress towards this vision of a redeveloped Lindfield commercial heart, purchasing some land to add to its current holdings (where the present ground level car park sits) and releasing concept plans.

These concept plans feature a supermarket, multi-story car parking, parkland and public open space, smaller shops, and a residential apartment block.

The advocacy of Support Lindfield has been vital in encouraging Council down this path. But it has been fairly slow going.

Recently, the giant supermarket company Woolworths – developers of the successful projects in Double Bay and Lane Cove I mentioned earlier - put forward an unsolicited proposal to Ku-ring-gai Council. This sets out its plans for a development which Woolworths argues would realise the vision set out by Ku-ring-gai Council in its concept plans.

Last Friday I met with Support Lindfield and later with Woolworths to better understand Woolworths’ proposal.

While I am not privy to the financial terms that would apply, on the materials published by Woolworths there is much to like.

The development would include not just a Woolworths supermarket but an Aldi supermarket – increasing choice for those shopping in Lindfield. There would be a bridge across the Pacific Highway from the Lindfield Railway Station into the development.

There would be space set aside for a municipal library (to be fitted out and maintained at council expense) and a scouts hall.

And there would be 848 parking spaces – compared to the 554 proposed in Council’s concept plans. This means more capacity not just for commuters wanting to park and use the station – but also for people visiting the shops in the development.

Thanks to a design which takes advantage of the way that the site slopes down to the west from the Pacific Highway, the development would be relatively unobtrusive from the Pacific Highway, and there would be accessible open space and garden areas.

Of course the decision as to how to respond to this unsolicited proposal is one for the elected councillors of Ku-ring-gai Council to make – and they will have access to information about the financial implications for Ku-ring-gai Council which is not publicly available and which I have not seen.

I am certainly not in public life to advance the interests of Woolworths or any other private sector property developer.

But I do think the unsolicited proposal is something that should be considered carefully by council.

I think Council could reasonably regard the proposal from Woolworths as evidence that a credible, experienced developer can put forward a financially viable proposal which delivers on the key objectives Council has identified (although I repeat the caveat that I have not seen the detailed financial terms.)

Council at the same time might want to ask itself the question: is this the best deal we can get for the community, or could we get a better deal?

That in turn squarely raises the question: what is the right process forward from here?

One option for Council would be to announce that it intends to go out to market to call for proposals from any interested private sector party – with Woolworths of course free to put its proposal forward under that process.

Another option would be to enter into a period of exclusive negotiations with Woolworths – with a view to carefully checking all aspects of the proposed deal, and seeing whether it can be improved from Council’s perspective if there are issues of concern. (On a project of this scale, almost certainly there will be.)

Both processes are routinely used by governments at local, state and federal level in determining whether to enter into a contract with a private sector player.

In my view, it would be a shame if Council failed to engage in any way – and if an opportunity to speed up progress towards a redevelopment of the commercial centre of Lindfield was lost.

One other aspect of this issue causes me some concern.

A paper prepared for Councillors by Council staff, available on the council’s website, states that if such a redevelopment is to proceed and be financially viable, Council will need to agree to a floor space ratio of 2.5. 

Increasing the ratio to 2.5 for this development would mean buildings quite a lot higher than the highest buildings which presently exist in Ku-ring-gai.  (It is a technical issue and there is some dispute as to exactly how much higher.)

When Council published its concept plans in 2015 it specified a floor space ratio of 1.3:1.  The Woolworths proposal would somewhat exceed this, at 1.57:1.    

I would not want to see a development which is notably higher than existing buildings in Ku-ring-gai. That is not what I understood was proposed in the concept plans issued by Council, nor in the Woolworths proposal.

So it is not clear why Council staff are now proposing a markedly higher floor space ratio.

This Tuesday night the elected Councillors will consider the way forward on a potential redevelopment of the commercial centre of Lindfield.

How the Council chooses to handle this opportunity is a matter for the elected Councillors – and I wish them well as they take this important decision.