City and state should join forces to give Sydney the public square it deserves

If you arrange to meet somebody in Sydney’s CBD,where do you start? A cafe,perhaps,or a bar. Maybe on the steps of Town Hall,or in Pitt Street Mall,or beside the light rail at Circular Quay.

Central Sydney has many great things going for it – the harbour,Hyde Park,the new-look George Street and fresh energy – but what it still lacks is a proper meeting place;a public square.

It’s not for want of imagination. In the 1980s,under then lord mayor Doug Sutherland,the City of Sydney council conceived of a plaza directly opposite Town Hall on the block between George,Park,Pitt and Bathurst streets.

Internally,council staff sometimes refer to the project as “Sydney’s lounge room” – and a fine one it would make.

An artist’s impression of the future Town Hall Square,which will not start construction until at least 2035.

An artist’s impression of the future Town Hall Square,which will not start construction until at least 2035.Supplied

Over the years,the council has spent upwards of $150 million buying up the necessary properties,with few left to go. Now it isproposing to sign new commercial leases out to 2035 and beyond,saying there is no realistic chance of construction starting earlier.

There are sound financial reasons for this. Tenants such as Woolworths reasonably pay much more for the security of a long-term lease,rather than a year at a time. And there is no point forgoing the revenue only for the property to sit empty until the council has the money to start work.

At some point,though,the cord must be cut,the final pieces purchased and the work commenced.

COVID-19 understandably affected time frames and financing for many projects. However,we’re now looking at more than 50 years from concept to delivery. In 2019,pre-pandemic,Lord Mayor Clover Moorebelieved it would happen within a decade.

“These are city building projects and they take time,” Moore said on Monday. True but,ultimately,we’re talking about buying some buildings,knocking them down,paving a nice plaza and installing a big screen. It’s surely not beyond our collective abilities.

The expense need not fall entirely to the City of Sydney,either. Council estimates construction will exceed $200 million. The council managed to find nearly $300 million for the pedestrianisation of George Street and public domain works around the state government’s light rail – another worthy project that has transformed our city for the better.

The state – and even federal – government should come to the party for Town Hall Square. A public square of this kind in the middle of the country’s leading city has a pull and an importance well beyond the boundaries of the local council.

An Australia Day event at Federation Square in Melbourne.

An Australia Day event at Federation Square in Melbourne.Jason South

We need look no further than Melbourne’s Federation Square for why this is so. Maligned at first,it has been embraced as a central meeting spot and free,public gathering place during major events. Recall those electric Fed Square scenes during the football World Cup thatsent the previous NSW government scrambling to come up with a live site of its own.

If the City of Sydney agrees to the proposed deferral of Town Hall Square next week,it will at least commit to putting the increased rental revenue into a reserve fund for the square’s construction. That is a welcome move.

What this project needs now is some champions in high office who can get the show on the road. Moore,whether she runs for mayor again next year or not,will not be the one who swings the wrecking ball.

We’re so jaded about big public projects in Sydney that it can be hard to get excited about them;witness the Cahill Expressway high line orthe City’s own failed “Cloud Arch” art installation. We believe them when we see them.

But we should be excited about this project and do everything possible to make it happen quickly. Sydney needs and deserves it.

Bevan Shields sends a newsletter to subscribers each week.Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

Since the Herald was first published in 1831,the editorial team has believed it important to express a considered view on the issues of the day for readers,always putting the public interest first.

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