Today's a sad day for many in our neighbourhood because a Woolworths supermarket, which many in our community didn't want, has opened its doors at the end of my street on the boundary of Newtown and Erskineville in inner Sydney.
I speak as one of hundreds of residents who fought a five-year campaign against the supermarket. There were always a few others who supported it, arguing it would avoid a short walk to King Street to shop or that it might be cheaper than our local shops. And while I and others don't plan to use Woolworths Erko, I doubt it will close through lack of business as newer residents may come to accept that the supermarket parked on the corner was always there. Auctioneers may even spruik it as a neighbourhood attraction. Aware of community resistance,store managers have already mounted a 'community relations PR campaign. I'll come back to the details later.
My purpose in writing this piece is to highlight the way that big business and developers can override a majority of residents who want to have a say in shaping their environment. It's also to express my hope that nearby Erko village survives the competition to its 'fruit and veg' shop, florist, delicatessen, bakery and newsagent. We need more than real estate agents and pubs in our village. Up in King Street, local butchers and a fish shop gave way to clothes stores years ago.
If you've lived in Sydney for a while, you may know the building that I'm talking about because for many years, the old box factory called The Hive was headquarters for Sydney's Mardi Gras. Each year, a few months before the festival, Mardi Gras groups would occupy the vacant building to build their floats. We used to look forward to the glimpses of colourful floats constructed during evening and weekend workshops and the final afternoon when everyone set off for the Oxford Street parade. Eventually, the Mardi Gras moved on and the building lay vacant again.
There's a strong history of community action in our area. In the Depression, local residents organised unemployed movements and rent strikes from these streets. In the early 1980s, some residents remember when they blocked the streets to get road closures to lessen through traffic. Later we had a community campaign to save a small site for a park on busy Erskineville Road. After building unions placed a ban on the site, the campaign for what was eventually called Green Ban Park was successful. It's ironic that Green Ban Park, a symbol of community victories stands opposite the new supermarket, which for some of us will always remind us oThe Sydney City Council sloganf the campaign we nearly won.
After the Mardi Gras moved out, we understood that the site would eventually be redeveloped. No one wanted a permanently empty building. We successfully objected to an initial proposal for apartments because the building height seriously disturbed the low-rise streetscape in our part of Newtown/Erskineville.
In 2008, the developer came up with a new proposal - this time, a supermarket. A serious campaign led by the Friends of Erskineville group began. There were packed public meetings that passed unanimous motions, as well as sausage sizzles and trivia nights. 4000 people signed a petition and hundreds wrote letters.
For some residents, parking was the most serious issue. As visitors to our area know all too well, parking is a huge problem. Inevitably, there will now be more trucks and cars.
But many also saw it as an issue of social planning for community needs. We argued that we have no need for another supermarket in our area. We already have two medium sized and two small supermarkets, all within very easy walking distance. There are two huge shopping centres with supermarkets and other shops easily accessible by bus. Existing supermarkets have already driven away the butchers, fish shops and most of the fruit and vegetable shops in our area. There are markets not far away on Saturday and Sunday.
Eventually Sydney City Council rejected the supermarket application. The developer appealed to the NSW Land and Environment Court. In January 2009, the proposal was rejected.
Then Deputy Lord Mayor Marcelle Hoff welcomed the court’s decision saying it was a win for residents who fought hard against the inappropriate development:
“The planning controls at Erskineville are designed to encourage smaller scale retail to service the local area and hence retain a village quality. A large supermarket would have changed the area’s character and generated significant traffic on the village’s already congested streets.”
We breathed a sigh of relief. But there was a catch. Although it had rejected the proposal, the Court found that a supermarket was permissible on the site and could provide benefit to the area. The argument was that the 'specific proposal' did not overcome 'fundamental concerns' that there would be a 'significant number of non-local customers who are highly likely to come to the supermarket by car' which would 'result in the erosion of the village character and result in a loss of amenity for residents'.
Some of us were still optimistic that the developer might fail to find a supermarket chain that would take on the site and hoped that housing with a few small shops might still be a possibility. But instead, the next proposal was for a smaller 'up-market' supermarket with apartments upstairs. The 'up-market' tag was meant to appeal to increasingly gentrified Newtown. Most residents were not impressed. Once more, we were back in old Erskineville Town Hall for a public meeting. As reported at the time:
The meeting was attended by 122 residents, and was unanimous in its condemnation of this proposed new supermarket plan. It is fair to say that our community is outraged that we have to go through the demanding process again, after Council took many months to assess and reject the original Development Application, this decision being upheld by an extensive Land & environment Court case.
Former City Councillor, Michael Mobbs who has led a group developing a sustainable plan for nearby Chippendale, argued at the time that the new Erskineville supermarket threatened local business owners because it would take between 13 and 50 per cent of local business, seeing local profits stagnate and shops shut.
“A drop in trade of 13 per cent would stop the organic growth of Erskineville and eventually cause the death of existing small businesses .... In my view, we can only have sustainable cities if we have sustainable villages. And now it looks as though Sydney won’t have a sustainable city because this small Erskineville project is the ultimate test of the city’s capacity to keep and restore villages; judging by the planners’ report this project will bring it to an end and prevent the vision being obtained.”
Many agreed but this time, the temper of the campaign was less optimistic. People were beginning to feel that whatever they did, the developer would win out. The proposed 'niche' supermarket seemed to be about the same size as other nearby medium-sized supermarkets.The developer also now organised a small group of local supporters. When the proposal was considered by Sydney City Council, speakers were limited and the meeting was constructed as if there were two equal sides. While nobody denied there was division, the majority were still strongly opposed. This time Clover Moore's Independents and the single Liberal supported the supermarket. There were two votes against – one Green and one Labor.
A condition of the development was that trolleys, which would encourage shoppers wanting to use cars for big loads, were banned. This was used by Councillors to justify their support in the face of such fierce community opposition.
After the meeting, many agreed with one resident who was quoted in the South Sydney Herald:
“This decision has seriously disappointed me, not merely because we will get an unwanted up-market supermarket on our corner which is far more likely to lessen competition than increase it, but because it cynically manipulated the idea of democratic participation and made a mockery of the idea of independent advice on traffic and social economic impact."
The Sydney City Council slogan of City of Villages suddenly seemed empty.
By Monday night this week, the once gaily graffitied walls of the supermarket were uniformly grey, smelling strongly of fumes of fresh paint. Inside, food was sitting on the shelves. The floorspace looks approximately the same size as the other local supermarkets, although not a mega one like down the road at Broadway. I could see the slightly wilted flowers that will compete with two different florists and other supermarkets selling flowers less than 400 metres away.
But Paul Howard, who was a key leader in the Friends of Erskineville campaign, has been quietly keeping an eye on the supermarket. He noticed shopping trolleys, already lined up just inside the door. He took a photo and sent it to the Council.
Yesterday, I was also taking photos when I was greeted by two store staff. I explained that, while not holding the staff in any way personally responsible, I strongly opposed Erko Woolworths. They were very understanding and said that they wanted to 'work with the community'. They showed me a mural on the wall. When I wasn't sure what it was, they explained it was a copy of the first Mardi Gras float. It's part of making us feel comfortable with our new neighbour. Close to the door are three boxes where you can vote for one of Erko Public School, St Mary's Catholic school or Erko community garden as your preferred charity. Three local causes will share $1000 a month. They also considering for paying people to paint a "really good" community mural.You can call it PR - or 'just fitting in'.
But what about the trolleys that were supposed to be banned? They said they hadn't been told they were banned and that they have been put out of the way 'for now'. In any case, they explained that the offending metal frames on wheels are not actually 'trolleys.
Paul Howard has written to the Council asking for answers about the trolleys and other traffic issues that have never been resolved. I guess, like me, he declined the invitation to join a store gathering this morning.
Grassroots campaigns continue. Since 2001, there has also been a campaign against serious over development on the Ashmore Estate, further into Erskineville. Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining threatened nearby Tempe. After a statewide grassroots campaign, CSG company Dart Energy pulled out of not only inner Sydney, but the whole of Australia.
I won't be shoppng at Woolworths and I hope our local businesses survive. To be honest I'm not a fan of our supermarket duopoly of Woolworths and Coles. And now, we have an even bigger fight on our hands as the NSW O'Farrell government is planning new laws which will wipe out our right to raise objections to projects like the one on the corner. Rights of objections are too messy and timewasting for developers who'll be able to do what they like more quickly. Forget the Community.
So much for the Liberal Party's election promise to restore power to communities, not that most of us round here had much faith in them at any stage.
400 groups have already joined the Better Planning Network,which is campaigning against the O'Farrell government proposals. If you want to know more visit http://betterplanningnetwork.good.do/nsw/email-your-state-mp-3/