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Redfern Blues

Redfern Waterloo Blues: The Authority vs. the AHC
by Luke Telford

The development of the site of the Block, Eveleigh Street and its immediate surrounds in Redfern has been the topic of much speculation, of late, amongst council authorities, community organisations and local residents alike.

The Aboriginal Housing Company was formed in the early 1970’s for the purpose of appropriating property for the purpose of providing affordable housing for the local indigenous community. The AHC gradually acquired the whole of what is now known as ‘the Block’, establishing a strong, family-centred community in the area by the early 1980’s. The 80’s also saw the rise of a hard drug culture in the area, in part due to the corruption of the Australian Federal Police Drug Squad, newly established in the nearby TNT towers. Criminal activity in the area grew accordingly.

The disturbing increase in the societal degradation of the western Redfern area, combined with its highly desirable location, has recently led the Redfern/Waterloo Authority to favour ideas of privatised redevelopment, entailing high rises and extensive car parking facilities in anticipation of an influx of residents into the area.

The past three decades has seen the AHC drafting their own redevelopment proposals. Since 1973, the AHC, in collaboration with architect and local resident Col James, has been developing what has concluded in the conception of the Pemulwuy project. The project’s primary objective is to reinforce the self-determination, governance and leadership of the admittedly grim future for the Block by means of revitalising the area as an open residential precinct, based upon the construction of 62 new houses, specifically designed by James in collaboration with the AHC to provide extensive, functional housing whilst catering for and celebrating traditional aspects of Aboriginal culture.

The Pemulwuy project has not been without its critics, the most significant of whom, until recently, has been Frank Sartor, appointed as the Minister for Redfern/Waterloo in 2005, who oversaw the Redfern Waterloo Authority.

The Redfern Waterloo Authority initially opposed the Pemulwuy project outright, eventually offering a conditional acceptance. This offer was heavily biased against the AHC, in comparison to developmental zoning specifications outlined for private developers. AHC collaborative architect Col James is highly critical of the authority, asserting that “They’re corrupt. They approached the Pemulwuy project with implicit racism… They’re offering [private developers] a zoning approval ratio of 16:1, whilst only allowing the AHC 5:1...,” which entails heavy restrictions upon any kind of development in the block. According to the Authority, the proposal for the Pemulwuy project is currently under assessment by the Department of Planning.

Most of the area surrounding the block is owned by Railcorp, which as a state-owned organisation is represented by the Redfern Waterloo Authority. According to the Authority, Railcorp is currently finalising the assessment of various aspects of its property in the area, which will then be open to public tender and sold to the highest bidder, inevitably opening the area up to private developers who will then capitalise upon the Authority‘s established 16:1 building ratio.

“The notion of expansion and development on that scale is incredibly intimidating for all of us,” asserted one Darlington resident, “particularly the Aboriginal residents. It feels inevitable, given the centrality of the area. But it’ll result in a ‘whitewash’ gentrification, which would be absolutely disastrous for the prospects of the indigenous community here.”

The University of Sydney is currently seeking to acquire the North Eveleigh site in order to further expand its extensive Darlington campus. The University intends purportedly would prefer to buy the zoning restrictions that have been offered to the Aboriginal Housing Company, in order to avoid the exorbitant prices Railcorp is expecting for the areas it plans to sell. Richmond Jeremy, in charge of the University’s campus infrastructure, is criticising Railcorp’s public tender approach along with the AHC, although for different reasons. Jeremy insists that due to the less intense nature of the University’s proposal, it would have far greater consideration for the neighbouring indigenous population.

The University does not have a particularly admirable history when it comes to balancing the acquisition of nearby land with the respect due to its residents. Lifelong Darlington resident Joyce recalls a time when the suburb consisted of more than just a few residential streets. “It was all terrace houses through here,” says Joyce, indicating the brutalist monstrosity of the Engineering Faculty, erected after the acquisition of much of Darlington in the 1960’s. “But then the Uni just bought it up. A lot of people were turned out of their homes,” says Joyce, who attended the heritage listed Darlington Schoolhouse as a young girl. Richmond Jeremy insists, however, that the University would like the campus to be opened up to local residents and become integrated with its surroundings. Col James claims that the AHC have arranged for the Vice Chancellor to meet with them this week: “There are clearly some considerations that need be elucidated to the University [on behalf of the indigenous Eveleigh residents].”

Local opinions on the developments are varied. “It’s a mixed bag, really,” says one local business owner. “Whilst the development of Carriageworks is a positive step and the Redfern Waterloo Authority has stated its planning on turning the old courthouse into a medical centre, the community does stand to suffer from [Railcorps privatised sale of land]. And although Pemulwuy is on the right track, approval is still pending.” Another business owner had a very different tack, criticising the Redfern figurehead and AHC chief executive Mick Mundine’s actions as self-serving and nepotistic. “He’s a nice guy, but his inherent nepotism leads me to be sceptical of what the Aboriginal Housing Company will achieve with their [Pemulwuy Project]. I’m just hoping they don’t make the same kind of mistake they’ve made so often in the past.”

The reference is an allusion to a criticism that many claim holds more weight with regards to the degradation of the community as the presence of the ubiquitous drug culture: that the AHC has achieved little in its thirty years other than demolish decrepit heritage listed terraces.

Whilst the Pemulwuy project shows promise, the various vested interests of Railcorp stand to shadow the brighter future that the Aboriginal Housing Company have almost brought to fruition.

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