Ben Hills 

From a muddy slope, scraped bare by bulldozers and overlooking the bombed-out ruins of a soap factory, juts the stump of what was once a huge, spreading Moreton Bay fig tree, a local landmark for the best part of a century.

If anything symbolises the issues involved in the battle for Balmain it is this tree, hacked down nearly a year ago and still awaiting the brass plaque the local council insists the developer must screw onto the stump – engraved with a sort of obituary confessing how the dastardly deed was done, in defiance of local planning laws.

Anywhere else this would be a minor sideshow to the massive construction planned for the peninsula, this history-soaked little spit of sandstone sticking out into Sydney Harbour, a 10-minute ferry ride from Circular Quay. On the drawing boards are residential redevelopments on a scale not seen in Australia since the massive “slum clearances” of the 1940s and 1950s.

Balmain has become the proving ground for the entire government strategy for Sydney’s growth into the second decade of next century – of curbing the westward sprawl of the city down the basins of the Hawkesbury and Nepean rivers, and recycling hundreds of hectares of inner-city industrial land across five suburbs and three councils, levelling the docks and the silos and the tank farms for housing.

For the past two years the Government, the council, the developers and the residents have been fighting for the right to decide what this new Sydney will look like.

And, from the Government’s point of view, they couldn’t have chosen a worse place than Balmain to begin. This week’s appeal court decision, overturning the appointment of a planning commissar for the peninsula, was a decisive first-round victory for the residents, and as the Seppelts Fleur de Lys flowed down by the waterfront, they vowed to fight on.

But back to that tree. “People were furious when it was chopped down, and rightly so,” says Issy Weiner, who was mayor at the time. “We could have taken them to court, but instead we made them agree to the plaque and to planting some more mature trees … it’s going to finish up costing them more than$20,000.”

“Them” is Bob Ell’s Leda Group, builder of such wonders as the Tuggeranong Hyperdome in Canberra. In Balmain, it appears to have met its match … at least for the moment. “I have never had such a long, drawn out, frustrating experience,” says the company’s managing director, Hugh Martin.

Leda is the only professional developer involved in the long-running saga of the Balmain redevelopment, and it owns the largest of the five sites involved – more than six hectares, on which once stood the handsome, soaring Victorian brick vaults of the Unilever factory which provided Sydney with its Sunlight soap and its Vim for nearly a century.

Leda has owned the site for two years, but since the execution of that fig tree last April (“a complete mess-up in our communications,” sighs Martin) not much has moved. The building sits there like a Baghdad barracks after a well-aimed cruise missile, with work now halted again because of an asbestos hazard.

The company won’t discuss costs, but local estate agents say the site is worth $20 million, and holding costs must be hitting Leda for around $10,000 a day. Martin says that because of the extraordinary delays by the council, and the so-far successful campaign by resident groups, the company has had to lay off 22 people.

It is 18 months now since Leda first approached the council to have the site rezoned for a residential/high-tech industrial development. The original plans for the site – which proposed what a council planner referred to as “a six-storey curvilinear Cote d’Azure type of thing with tennis courts on the roof” – have been torn up after council objections.

And now, after this week’s court decision, the company is back to square one. “We were hoping to negotiate a return to work on the demolition this week,” says Martin, “But now we just don’t know … ”

Four pounds 10 a week, including a cut lunch which I carry to work across the harbour on the ferry and up Broadway on the bus. Usually a cold beef rissole compressed between two bits of pre-sliced bread. Where else could you get a bargain like that, even in 1962?

It takes a while before I realise that there are some disadvantages to boarding in Balmain. The early openers roaring at seven in the morning as I hunch up Darling Street on my way home from the night shift, hopscotching the pools of vomit on the footpath, just for a start.

It is a rough, tough, dungaree neighbourhood full of wharfies and truckies and blokes who work at the power stations, and blokes who used to work down the coal mines. There’s a flyblown old poster on the hallway wall of some dockers marching up Darling Street bearing a banner which reads: “Eight Hours For Work, Eight Hours for Play, Eight Hours for Sleep, and Eight Bob a Day.”

If you wear a tie to work and have ambitions of being accepted by the middle class you don’t mention where you live – Balmain in the 1960s has all the social cachet of today’s Redfern or Erskineville.

They say that if you live here for a while you will discover the heart of gold lurking beneath the tough exterior, that it is a neighbourly place that looks after its own. I can’t wait to find out whether this is true. After six months or so I socially climb out – to Marrickville.

Alan Coker pulls out his calculator and starts punching buttons. You would think it a fairly simple question: what are they planning to build on the peninsula? But after much multiplication of site ratios, he asks me to give him time to run the calculations through the computer.

Coker is the chief planner of the Leichhardt Council which is in charge of the suburbs of Balmain and Birchgrove and the chunk of Rozelle which make up the peninsula. He works out of an office in the council’s administrative building, a squat grey concrete bunker trimmed with fire-engine red which makes you wonder whether this council should be allowed to plan anything. “It was cost effective,” says Coker, diplomatically.

Coker has been warning the council since last May that if decisions were not made on the rezoning applications, then the Government would move in and do the job for them. “The trouble has been with this high level of public input,” he says, politely, of the rowdy marathon council meetings. “They have overconcentrated on minor issues. While they have been talking about whether a neighbour’s sill height should be 1,200 or 1,600 millimetres they have been winning the battles, and losing the war.”

When the numbers finally emerge from the word processor, you begin to grasp the concern felt by residents when the planning applications began to pile up early last year. There are five sites involved, covering 23 hectares or around 7 per cent of the land area of the entire peninsula: the Unilever factory, an Ampol depot across the road, the abandoned Balmain power station near the Iron Cove Bridge, a chemical plant next door owned by Kerry Packer’s Chemplex, and the tip of the Ballast Point peninsula, occupied by a Caltex oil depot.

Making a number of assumptions (principally that the “dwellings” will average around 12 squares), the council’s calculations show that the redevelopment could involve the construction of around 1,500 flats with a potential population of 3,700. Plus more than 30,000 square metres of commercial/industrial space. This would increase the resident population of the Balmain peninsula by an astounding 25 per cent.

Driven, of course, by the dollar. If prices at nearby Cameron’s Cove are anything to go by, the units should average $300,000, putting a price tag of more than $500 million on the developments, and windfall profits of tens of millions for the owners and developers. Small wonder that a “procession” of them has been through the Planning Minister’s office in recent months urging him to take control.

What do the residents want? Less intensive development, better transport, more fig trees, more parkland – including the dedication of the two-hectare Caltex site overlooking Snails Bay as part of the Sydney Harbour National Park. In a quite original approach, they have launched a public competition, with a $10,000 prize, for a design for the peninsula – the winner will be announced at the Opera House on March 10.

“Development on the scale they propose is quite impossible,” says one of the most active of the campaigners, Helen Styles, a Federal public servant who lives in a waterfront home just around the corner from the colourfully named Long Nose Point. “This place is already one of the most densely populated in Sydney, it has less parkland than almost anywhere else, and the traffic problem even today is simply horrendous.”

Truth or propaganda? There are lies, damned lies, and statistics about Balmain. No two planners contacted could agree on the numbers. In fact, the only hard data available – a 1983 survey by this newspaper – appear to bear out the arguments of the protest groups.

According to this, only four of the 40 municipalities in the greater Sydney area have a net population density greater than Leichhardt’s 103.8 residents per hectare: the city of Sydney, Waverley, Marrickville, and (just) North Sydney. Only two (Marrickville and Ashfield) have less than Leichhardt’s 14.1 square metres of open space per resident … indeed, the city of Sydney itself has nearly twice as much parkland on a per capita basis as Balmain.

And what the development would mean to traffic flows on and off the peninsula can only be guessed at. Balmain is an island, surrounded on three sides by water and severed from the rest of Sydney by the six-lane river of rubber and steel called Victoria Road. There are only four exits, and at peak hours delays of 10 minutes are not unusual … Issy Weiner complains that it can take him 20 minutes to travel the five kilometres to the council.

These are the arguments that have been pushed by the residents’ groups -principally Ms Styles’s Balmain Trust which took the court action, and by BURST (the Balmain United Residents’ Strategic Taskforce), a vocal lobby group which disrupts public meetings by exploding balloons to interrupt speakers it disagrees with.

It is an elegant party – the wine in bottles rather than flagons. There is classical music of some sort illuminating the elegant old terrace house, and a better class of nibbles. Over the back fence, trees toss in the park.

This is Balmain?

I have been away for nearly 16 years, and someone has invited me to visit David Williamson, the playwright, who had recently travelled north to escape the twin ravages of the Melbourne climate and the Carlton push. He must be really down on his luck, I think as I try to locate Louisa Road in the UBD.

Down on his luck? Williamson has bought in to what is fast becoming one of the most fashionable streets in all of Sydney, all hand-hewn sandstone and Federation clinker brick, harbour views, and waterfront boat moorings shaded by enormous Moreton Bay figs.

All over Balmain, to the amazement of the locals who had spent much money on such improvements, renovators are tearing out aluminium window frames, faux brick cladding and fibro wall panels painted in pastels. Volvos are jostling the Falcons for parking space.

The trendies have arrived.

“See that monstrosity?” Kath Hacking is pointing from the back veranda of her bungalow at an enormous galvanised iron shed blotting out the neighbourhood down by the waterfront at the White Bay docks. “When they put that up in the ’70s a few people demonstrated, but we thought, ‘It must be all right if it’s the Government doing it’. Weren’t we naive? … They wouldn’t get away with it today.” Kath Hacking, one of the organisers of BURST, is a retired public servant and typical of the white-collar, middle-class professionals who moved onto the peninsula in the 1960s and who form the backbone of today’s residents’ movement. There are not many of them – maybe a couple of hundred – but they are smart, they are well financed, and they know how the system works.

To fill their war chest for a case before the Land and Environment Court, and an appeal to the Supreme Court, Helen Styles’s Balmain Trust raised$50,000. There were doctors and lawyers and accountants and academics at the$100-a-head dinners at the Wentworth-Sheraton and Parliament House.

This has not impressed everyone, and in particular a singular man named Bill Brady, a 60-year-old retired vaudevillian who has become one of the most pungent critics of the groups trying to save Balmain from what they see as excessive development. This is all the more curious since last September, in a draw from a hat, Mr Brady became the mayor of Leichhardt.

Hizzoner is very much of the opinion that it was the council’s own fault when the State Planning and Environment Minister, David Hay, stepped in last August and stripped it of its planning control of the peninsula, appointing an administrator. “Weiner’s administration was hopeless. There were endless meetings, works inspections, reports, but no decisions.” On one occasion, he complained, “We spent 11 1/2 hours discussing dog droppings.”

There is more than anecdotal evidence to support his claims of incompetence and prevarication about the previous council. In its annual survey of Sydney councils, BOMA (the Building Owners’ and Managers’ Association) awarded Leichhardt the bronze medal – it was the third slowest of the 28 councils surveyed.

But Brady’s abrasive style has hardly helped resolve the planning dispute. In a wide-ranging interview this week, he attacked the previous council’s decision to restore historic Shillinglaw cottage, one of the oldest buildings on the peninsula (“Why ask me in Annandale to pay for a daggy old cottage like that … it’s useless”) and declared: “I’m on the side of the poor bugger in Leichhardt battling away at three jobs to try and pay off his mortgage, not the millionaires in Louisa Road.”

Nor have the Byzantine politics of the council made things easier. The Mayor himself is described as a Stalinist by the residents’ groups, because of his former presidency of the Australia-East Germany Friendship Society (“How do you answer morons like that?” he replies). Issy Weiner and his 84-year-old compatriot, Nick Orri glass, are admirers of Leon Trotsky and quote him at length during the interminable council meetings. There are five Labour aldermen, but one votes with the “community independents”. Then there are two”cupboard Liberals” – but they vote with Labor.

The one thing you can agree with Brady on is that “it is just one bloody great dog’s dinner”.

“Here’s a house-warming present for you.”

Our new neighbour, Peter Luck, the TV producer, is at the door holding out what looks like a little pistol, suitable for ladies’ handbags. Has Peacock Point, the trendy eastern tip of the peninsula with its brand new park down by the ferry wharf, really become that violent?

Not violent. Greedy. Once upon a time it wasn’t worth the trouble to break into a Balmain house – they used to leave the doors unlocked, the windows open. But it is 1985 now and the new residents, with their burmese cats and their Bang and Olufsens have become the targets of housebreakers and vandals.

Peter Luck – himself a victim – helps me use the “gun” to tattoo my name and address on the cameras and electrical gadgets. Neighbourhood Watch says it deters thieves. Every second house now seems to sport a burglar alarm, little yellow lights wink at night in the lines of parked Porsches and Range-Rovers.

Darling Street is all spruced up, with new arcades, little boutiques selling Dior dresses, and restaurants serving spicy foreign tucker. And you wouldn’t recognise the pubs. The London, where old men in carpet slippers once fed their mangy dogs dark beer and chips under the tables, is about to have a million-dollar blackwood refit to become the NSW flagship for the Coopers brewery.

There is no doubt the locals, the original Balmain boys, resent their new neighbours. Leave a smart car in the street and you are likely to have a 20-cent coin scraped along the duco. But the transition from working class to middle class is now irreversible.

Sean O’Toole is gesturing at a map of Greater Sydney on his wall, a map dotted with field guns and other arcane symbols which looks like a military briefing board. “In very simple terms the problem is this – the jobs are here”(he sweeps his hand down the coast) “and the housing is here” (he gestures to the western suburbs).

O’Toole is the administrator the Government put in charge of planning approvals for the Balmain peninsula. More importantly, he is assistant director of the Department of Planning and a man with a broader view of things than the hothouse debates of the Balmain residents.

“I like Balmain; it is a terrific place and terrific people, but you can’t have one precious group dictate the planning of this whole great metropolis,”he says. You suspect that he doesn’t have a great deal of sympathy, either, with people who complain about a 10-minute traffic delay – he lives in Bangor, way down south, and spends 40 minutes a day commuting each way.

“Urban consolidation” is the catch-cry around these offices, and the 30-year dream is the City West strategy under which something like 300 hectares of industrial land stretching through Ultimo, Pyrmont and Balmain will be rezoned, providing housing for some 30,000 people. If the scale of the development was not enough to frighten the residents, the fact that State Development Minister John Hannaford is currently seeking inspiration in the architectural zoo of London’s Docklands should.

The sociology of Balmain has already changed. If the planners have their way, the geography will be next. Something like a third of the peninsula is still zoned industrial and will be in the path of the City West strategy – the steep and crooked streets, the sandstone and the terraces and the shady fig trees will, the residents fear, be swamped with apartment blocks and marinas.

So what happens now? In the wake of the Supreme Court revoking the planning administrator’s appointment, you might have expected some contrition from Mr Hay’s office. Not a bit of it. “It’s an unusual decision,” said the minister’s senior policy adviser, Peter Stavely. “Here is an intransigent, prevaricating local council with a proven inability to make decisions being applauded for its lack of action … it was inappropriate then and it is inappropriate now for the Government to just stand idly by.”

So what action will be taken? It was still under consideration, said Stavely, but the options included appealing against the decision to the High Court, reappointing a planning administrator, even sacking the whole council. “Council showed him (Mr Hay) the fingers and it is natural that there should be a degree of annoyance,” he said.

$500,000? For a house in Balmain? Thirty years ago they would have said you were mad.

But look in the windows of Laing and Simmons – or any of the other agents in Darling Street – and you’ll see properties for this and twice as much.

It is 1989 and I am back in Balmain for the fourth or fifth time, house-hunting once again. A chauffeur-driven open-top Rolls-Royce cruises past the RSL with a pair of Japanese newlyweds waving from the back seat – the local vicar is making a few bob marrying them off as part of a $1,000 honeymoon package. Times sure have changed – in the old days the diggers would have been after them with a .303.

And there’s a new sign hanging out in Darling Street – Dawn Fraser, local hero, is now the local Independent Member. For the first time since Balmain voted, the electorate where the Labor Party was formed in 1891, where Billy Hughes PM once ran his umbrella shop, and which Herbert Vere Evatt MP once represented, has a non-Labor MP.

It’s not Vaucluse, but it’s not Balmain any more, either.

As for the politics of all this, the new seat of Port Jackson (even the name of Balmain is to be abolished from the State electoral map) is shaping up as a contest as interesting as any in the forthcoming State election. Sandra Nori, the feisty Labor left-winger from neighbouring McKell, is determined to wrest the seat from the local hero, Olympic gold medallist Dawn Fraser, who won election last time with a $1,100 campaign and the slogan “Our Dawn – Our Balmain” … but, according to the residents’ groups, hasn’t been seen a lot since.

Nori, on the other hand, has been campaigning hard on what she sees as the major local issue. “Balmain is the thin end of the wedge for the whole City West strategy,” she says. “The residents and the councils must be allowed to have their say; we can’t have Hay stepping in to support his developer mates every time he doesn’t like a local decision.”

As we went to press, the minister was still thinking about Moreton Bay fig trees, and other matters. But whatever his decision – even if it means fighting an appeal to the High Court – Balmain’s new boys won’t take it lying down.

Not any more.

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pu bdate: Saturday 23 February 1991
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 41
Word count: 3674
Keywords: Commercial property Property development Residential property
Illustration: Michael Fitzjames