Politics of Urban Renewal

The 1980s were depressed, as industries closed and people moved out. The quarries were bare. Wool and wheat flowed to Botany Bay, so wool stores fell silent and the trains stopped. CSR decentralised and the workforce followed. Symbolically, the Burley Griffin Incinerator crumbled. Shops and services folded, streets emptied and congregations shrank. Even topless barmaids could not halt the exodus from the Terminus Hotel.

A few brave souls like Michael Matthews bought and renovated cottages. Others -students, homeless or hippies – squatted. New residents campaigned for Better Cities, squatters defended the Age of Aquarius. Encouraged by the destruction of the Australian Mercantile Land & Finance (AML&F) woolstore in 1992, and similar hazards, planners arrived to preach “Urban Renewal”.

Residents were threatened in 1948, when the State government debated a plan to declare all of Ultimo and Pyrmont industrial and remove most of the houses. The Labor-dominated Sydney Council proposed instead to declare most of the peninsula residential. Led by Deputy Lord Mayor John Byrne, Labor won a compromise whereby the two suburbs became a patchwork of residential and industrial zones.

Residents responded variously. Some created Interim Park and tried to buy the land, but were outbid. Some squatters simply sought free housing: others, including students, cherished sweeping political ambitions. These aims were hard to reconcile with the self-improving aims of new householders – or the anxiety of older residents.

Resident Action Groups campaigned for the restitution of run-down services: the short-lived Pyrmont Republic dramatised that perspective. Developers, encouraged by State agencies, itched to buy derelict property and build up-market apartments. Uniquely Susan and Isaac Wakil bought derelict properties with the long-term aim of realising capital gains.

In the long run there was no stopping urban renewal, but developers were occasionally frustrated by strenuous campaigns and complex alliances.


  • Michael Matthews, Pyrmont and Ultimo, a History
  • Shirley Fitzgerald and Hilary Golder, Pyrmont and Ultimo Under Siege