Highrise threat to growing precinct

James Riley
Editorial Director

Jobs at risk: “Like building condo’s through Silicon Valley in the 80s”

Redeveloping the Powerhouse Museum site solely for residential high-rises would kill the growing startup and creative industries precinct that has grown organically around the University of Technology, Sydney.

UTS vice-chancellor Attila Brungs is pressing the NSW Government to earmark the Powerhouse site for mixed-use, enabling it to house a large technology company as a foundation tenant, with enough room left for tech SME’s and startups, as well as cafes, bars and restaurants.

Prof Brungs is championing a model that would enable the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences to retain the original heritage Powerhouse site and to retain part of its collection there.

But his number one priority is to do what it takes to make sure the site is not lost to residential developers, which would put the growing momentum of the precinct – and all the jobs growth that has come with it – at risk.

“If you just put a set of high-rises there, it would be like building a set of condos through Silicon Valley in the 1980s,” Prof Brungs said. “You’d kill it.”

The issue is not without complexity – not least finding an option that raises enough money to build a suitably impressive replacement institution in Western Sydney.

Trying to retain a mixed-use development will not generate the same returns as a complete residential development. Prof Brungs said the NSW Government understands very well what’s at stake – as does the City of Sydney – and is hopeful that it will work with the UTS and others in the precinct to find a way.

“In the past we have always seen the Powerhouse as an important part of the innovation community down here [in Ultimo]. It is a very important cultural asset,” Prof Brungs said.

“Having said that, I support the need to build cultural assets in Western Sydney. That’s laudable and important. But if they are thinking about this cleverly, they can still keep a link [to the creative industries precinct] here in Ultimo,” he said.

“They could still use part of the heritage Powerhouse site for part of the collection. That link would enhance the tech and innovation community down here, and could actually enhance what they are trying to do in Western Sydney as well.”

The link to a strong tech and innovation ecosystem in Ultimo could be leveraged to start growing a community around its new site in Western Sydney.

Prof Brungs said the UTS is not contesting the decision to relocate the Powerhouse. But if the decision has been made, then he is pressing to ensure that the decisions that will follow about the existing site do not adversely impact the growth of precinct.

“Really, if you make a wrong decision here it will kill it. That’s how important this is.”

He says the strength and momentum of the precinct is the fact that its creative industries and its startups have been drawn to the area organically. And that is why it is so important to enable that growth to continue.

“If you look at the places in the world where innovative precincts have been created, there have been three primary characteristics – and there are only three,” Prof Brungs said.

“One is that they are within 45 minutes of a major international airport. Two is that they are within walking distance of a major research centre – and I mean walking distance.

“And three – in the beginning at least – land is cheap, property is cheap, so that you get this mash-up of all kinds of different people,” he said.

That’s how the precinct grew around the UTS over many, many years – from its time as the very unfashionable, run-down end of town, to where it is now. Just as Silicon Valley was “a horrendous place” early on.

“That’s how this place has grown up.”

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