HSC 2007: Critically analyse ONE urban dynamic of change operating in a country town or suburb

Matthew Brener

June 2016

Over the last century Darlinghurst has undergone significant urban renewal, transforming the suburb from “A Slum” (source: Daily Telegraph, September 6, 1911) to one of Australia’s 21 ‘most hipster suburbs’ according to the property consulting firm Urbis. Urban renewal can be defined as a program of land development and redevelopment in medium to high-density areas. It is evident, therefore, that Urban renewal has been extremely successful in Darlinghurst, with the median house price in the suburb sitting comfortably above $1.5 million (average plot size is a mere 135m2 - source: Peter Switzer), however it has not been a smooth process and at times has been met with fierce resistance.

        Darlinghurst was considered a perfect site for urban renewal in the late 20th century for multiple reasons, the most dominant being that it presented various opportunities to developers. The suburb pre-urban renewal had many dilapidated terrace houses (which could be renovated) as well as disused factories and warehouses (large plots of poorly used land). As the land is very close to Sydney’s CBD, which means it is quick and convenient to travel to work for many residents, the land was seen to be in too prime an area to waste and developers saw potential projects to be lucrative. The first ideas of urban renewal in Darlinghurst were tossed around in the mid 20th century with the 1948 Cumberland County Plan which proposed to clear slums and redevelop inner city areas. Ultimately this proposal did not go very far as with the increasing popularity and affordability of the motorcar, suburbanisation was favoured by Sydneysiders.

The City of Sydney over the past 20 years have been liberally allowing rezoning of commercial land to residential land as it can improve the image of the inner city, making it more a more desirable area. In addition, households pay higher council rates per square meter, on average, than disused factories, meaning the conversion of land can prove lucrative to councils too. The rezoning led to an influx of developers hoping to cash in on Darlinghurst’s gentrification. The most frequent developments in the area are apartments, which obtain the highest value from land. An example of this is The Residence on College Street, where developer Pamada converted former police residences that were in disrepair into the site of some of Sydney’s most desirable and expensive apartments (the penthouse changing hands in 2013 for $17 million and many other apartments trading over $5 million each). In addition on Francis Street, old office blocks were converted into the Lumina Apartments which gave the area a greater population and atmosphere.

Darlinghurst’s urban renewal has had many positive effects on the area, all of which stem from the idea of making the suburb more liveable. Liveability has arisen from multiple factors such as a strengthening sense of community. With the improvements in character and physical appearance of the suburb from the redevelopment of decaying buildings, people started to take more pride in their homes, improving the suburb’s aesthetics. The council has also planted trees alongside many roads and removed graffiti which has lead to a more pleasant streetscape. Furthermore, the City of Sydney has created many ‘artificial’ cul de sacs by blocking major thoroughfares - an example being where Yurong Street is divided near Francis Street. This has the effect of reducing cars in the area as well as encouraging walking - which can foster a greater sense of community. Darlinghurst’s urban renewal has allowed for a diverse community to be established with many artists and students settling in the area. There is also a large LGBT in the area which has lead to increased culture in the area (the annual Mardi Gras parade takes place on Oxford Street, generating $30 million in income for the state and attracting 300 000 people in 2011). There has also been an improvement in the land use in the area, for example the National Art School (a place of cultural significance within the area) is located on the site of the old Darlinghurst Gaol. The council is also creating more open spaces in the area such as Frog Hollow Reserve on Riley Street, which is located on the former site of one of Sydney’s roughest housing blocks.

On top of social effects, the increasing habitability of Darlinghurst has had many positive economic effects. Firstly as aforementioned, real estate in the area has significantly appreciated as a result of Darlinghurst being an increasingly desirable postcode. Between 2014 and 2015 the median house price rose 19.1% - a testament to not only a strong Sydney housing market but also the idea of Darlinghurst being a ‘hip’ area. The rising house prices have presented opportunities for small scale industries, such as restaurants and solicitors’ offices, to open up in the neighbourhood. These businesses take advantage of the increased disposable income in the area from working couples without children as well as a large number of professionals (42.3% of the population - 2011 census). The large numbers of high-income earners has led to Darlinghurst having a median weekly household income 50% higher than the Australian average (2011 census). As well as restaurants, the increased sense of community in the area has lead to cafes establishing themselves, most notably down Stanley Street which has revitalised the area as well as leading to the establishment of an Urban Village. The increased property prices have also meant that formerly disused building become too expensive to waste and this can lead to an acceleration of the urban renewal process. For example, the Colombian Hotel in Darlinghurst was built on the site of an old bank and the Darlinghurst Technical College is located where an old gaol used to stand.

Despite all the positives that have come out of urban renewal in Darlinghurst, at times the process has had some opposition. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, while the Harry Seidler designed Horizon Apartments were being built, they were met by opposition from many local residents. The controversy surrounding the apartments stemmed from the shadowing effects of the 43 story building - an issue closely related to the urban consolidation of the area that arose from its renewal. In addition as a result of the area becoming more desirable for people to live in, renters are being pushed out of the area as they cannot afford it, leading to a type of economic spatial exclusion.

In summary, Darlinghurst over the last century has transformed as a result of urban renewal, a testament to its success in the area. It has been converted from a feared suburb to a loved one and is one of Sydney’s most liveable suburbs for young people. There have been some minor negatives to the renewal of the area however these have been overshadowed by the immense benefits the community has received. The successful urban renewal of Darlinghurst should be a blueprint for other urban renewal projects in Sydney such as Redfern and Green Square.