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The New South Wales government has announced plans to sell off the Ultimo site of the Powerhouse Museum, part of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and use the money to fund a new museum in western Sydney. The last part is positive – the rest would be a mistake.
It is commendable that the government is proposing major cultural institutions in western Sydney, particularly in centres like Parramatta. As David Borger, Western Sydney director of the Sydney Business Chamber, has argued persuasively in The Sydney Morning Herald, there has been chronic underinvestment in the city’s populous west.
But to sell the Ultimo Powerhouse is wrong-headed – a mishmash of wedge politics and bad policy. Governments should understand that cities take decades and centuries to evolve, and that such rash decisions are at the expense of future generations.
As reported, the Ultimo site would go to developers for an optimistic A$200 million or so, most likely for apartments. However, the Powerhouse’s rare grandeur makes it manifestly unsuited to such a conversion. It’s ideal for its current purpose – as a major museum or other cultural institution.
To gut such a public asset would perpetuate recent blatant mistakes such as Darling Harbour and Barangaroo. In such characteristic parts of the city we need a balance of public and private. Yet increasingly government is missing in action, wantonly trading prized public places and forgoing the role civic elements play in intelligent city making.
Look at the smash-up at Darling Harbour. Why fashion a dumb, disposable city, where speculation is prioritised and where a slew of major public facilities are treated as discount commodities? As the best contemporary urban projects demonstrate, building a vibrant city balances economic decisions with thought-through cultural, social and environmental priorities. […]