Protect or plunder? The Lord Mayor’s park lands legacy

The electoral race to wear the Lord Mayor’s robe is heating up, but does Martin Haese’s park lands legacy blot his report card?

Historians judging the legacies of Adelaide Lord Mayors can draw on many variables. Each leaves a trail of social and economic outcomes, deliberate or accidental. Previous public works and budget tussles are quickly forgotten as a new mayor stamps his authority. But one category stands out – the legacy left in relation to Adelaide’s unique park lands.

Every Lord Mayor in recent history has occupied a powerful and determining role about park lands development, given that he not only chairs the Adelaide Park Lands Authority, but also the city council when that Authority’s advice arrives for a decision. He is in a strong position to advance or retard park lands development.

In the past 15 years, each of the three, Michael Harbison, Stephen Yarwood and Martin Haese, has left a legacy. The record is not flattering for any of them in terms of the difference between what they said and what happened – underscoring their commitment – or not – often under heavy state pressures, to honour the spirit and intent of the landscape legacy that Colonel Light left the city.

Each had a choice to resist some of the more confronting and ill-fitting propositions put before him privately, and then publicly to the Authority, followed by his council for final sign-off. It can take courage to challenge and resist. But if his council can be pushed to endorse, then he and his councillors assume the political risk. More necessity for courage.

Lord Mayor Harbison’s defining moment occurred during a 2007 government attempt to get support to build a $33m, 200m-long, three-storey grandstand at Victoria Park. The bid failed, even though a stuck council vote got Harbison’s casting vote for an in-principle ‘yes’ that allowed it to progress further, against major public opposition. But a fresh influx of councillors late in 2007 killed it off.

Lord Mayor Yarwood’s 2010–14 period saw major development, mainly big government projects – a huge $535m stadium replacing a historic, state-listed cricket ground; a $40m Torrens footbridge; the beginnings of a $3.4b, 10ha hospital; and a three-storey extension of Adelaide High School. Further, the government’s 380ha ‘Riverbank’ rezoning defined a vast land-use control grab of former park lands, from Gilberton to Bowden. It was not for nothing that Premier Jay Weatherill strongly endorsed Yarwood’s candidacy for a second term. But preference flows to Haese, ironically from a strong park lands protection advocate candidate, ensured that it was not to be.

Candidate Martin Haese had plenty of opportunity to observe how things worked. But what does the council’s 166-year-old ‘custodianship of the park lands’ really mean when the state wields the big stick? His pre-election 2014 pledge to protect the park lands gave some assurance to voters that he might resist, underscoring council’s responsibility to maintain ‘care and control’.

It remains a pledge to which he still believes he remains committed. But his first-term 2014–18 record has not been good. As a chairman, substantial proposals were progressed under his watch for land uses across the park lands. Of course, no Lord Mayor begins his term with an in-tray empty of park lands matters. There are previous Lord Mayoral residues that each must manage; previous pledges made to or implied to the (then) Labor state government, especially to Premier Weatherill whose state cabinet’s appetite for easy access to cheap park lands became insatiable after 2011, when he became leader.

Development during Haese’s time, which would have tested all the judgements open to him via his Authority and council chair influence, has occurred in two ways: procedural and actual.

The procedural came in the form of a new, Authority-authored version (the third since 1999) of the 2016 Adelaide Park Lands Management Strategy. It’s a radical departure from previous versions and champions the ‘activation’ of many sections of the park lands. This is to occur at recreation and event-oriented ‘hubs’ of future facilities development. The Labor government last year threw $5m at one southern site, and before the March election quietly allocated another $3m for major new facilities at a northern site used by Blackfriars Priory near the aquatic centre. If all of the ‘aspirations’ of the Strategy are fulfilled, they will lead to profound change across the park lands’ landscapes.

Its council adoption, in May 2016, immediately triggered the quiet abandonment of the visionary 2011 Adelaide Park Lands Landscape Management Plan, a unique, whole-of-park-lands, long-term blueprint commissioned by the council under Lord Mayor Yarwood to ‘unify’ the park lands. Its 2016 scuttling, after only five years, was deeply symbolic, but few comprehended the consequences of the loss. Many others remain unaware of the scuttling.

One of the Strategy’s less obvious features is that it further exacerbates the tension between the parks’ long-established management guidelines in Community Land Management Plans (CLMPs), that originated earlier under a provision in the Local Government Act 1999, with which the Adelaide Park Lands Act 2005 interacts. It required that plans be ‘consistent’ with the Strategy, but it’s doubtful that the Act’s authors ever envisaged a Strategy like the current version. Evidence of change during 2017 included attempts to suddenly amend some of these long-standing management plans, to fit new park lands proposals or developments, some even beyond those envisaged in the Strategy.

The idea that new concepts might now prompt change to the CLMPs – the tail wagging the dog – is a disturbing harbinger of things to come. Especially if park lands managers are to respect the park lands’ cultural history of each park, restrain growth in lease numbers and retain the low-scale infrastructure that most CLMPs reflect. During 2017, the Haese media slogan became ‘Public land for public benefit’, words implying that major change to the park lands character is fine, as long as ‘the public benefits’. Long-term park lands observers see straight through this slogan.

Development during the Lord Mayor’s term (since 2014) has included government-driven massive landscape alteration for a $160m O-Bahn line east of the park lands, tunnelling across Rymill Park; and the $100m, six-storey government high school being built on park lands near Frome Road’s former medical school. To be opened in 2019, it highlights a breathtaking government grab of park lands, as audacious as Tom Playford’s 1950s park lands grab that led to the first high school, west of the city. The new school proposal, which was not subject to public consultation, was supported in July 2016 by the Park Lands Authority, chaired by Haese.

Then there was the council-approved, new $8m South Australian Cricket Association three-level sport pavilion erected under a 42-year lease in a park near the new RAH, including an $800,000 council-funded road rebuild and a car park featuring expanded spaces for SACA, with allowances to restrict public access on some game days. There’s also a multi-million dollar Park 9 (MacKinnon Parade-edge park lands) sports pavilion on the way for Prince Alfred College Old Scholars. Then there’s the Riverbank commercial concept plans along the Torrens Lake edges, with potential for 16,000 sq m of retail or dining space.

Under the new Liberal state administration, reviews announced recently look likely to ramp up changes to this park lands site, and associated legislation. Haese says the city will be watching, but resistance to the usual excesses that occur when developers get near water will be difficult, and Haese is no confrontationalist.

Another notorious development subject to Haese’s support, in several phases, was a 2017 proposal to lease a park lands site for construction of a helicopter landing facility which would have alienated a Torrens Lake-edged park for which the city council had invested $1.7m only five years earlier under a master plan to restore it to park lands. Fortunately for him, complications scuttled the plan.

Then there was his council’s enthusiasm to resist opposition to an expansion of the Adelaide Oval Stadium Management Authority’s entertainment-linked, liquor licence agreement into park lands, north of the oval. Council’s intention to give unqualified landlord approval late in 2017 was only withdrawn after major residential protest. Other matters of expansion of park lands buildings also were endorsed under his Authority chairmanship: (Tennis SA: Parks 26 and 1 near the golf course: expanded footprint on new, 42-year lease) and expansion of paved courts area (Park 22: south west park lands).

Still more parks development concepts elsewhere await, in tune with the 2016 Park Lands Strategy signed off during his term. It drips with a state enthusiasm for a ‘build it and they will come’ recreation ideology, linked to government planning policy encouraging new high-rise residential on the park lands’ edges.

Each park site ‘aspiration’ is expansionary, encouraging built form and hard-surface sites with new facilities and expanded car parking. Some concepts align with long-term secondary school or sports club bids for fresh leases of up to 42 years. Some redevelopment proposals envisage big new ‘pavilions’ exceeding existing footprints and desiring expanded building floor areas. The June 2018 Pulteney Grammar pavilion proposal in the south park lands is a confronting example.

South Australia’s 1.5m population whittles down to only 26,083 voters who get to participate in this year’s city council poll, but only about 35 per cent bother. It means that the next mayor, who will have major input into future directions of park lands development, need only face scrutiny by about 9,000 voters and capture significantly fewer primary votes or preferences to win.

Perhaps the only question not yet addressed about the Haese park lands 2014–18 term record relates to what part of his 2014 pledge to ‘protect’ the park lands was negotiable. But for more than a million other metropolitan South Australians concerned about the future direction of park lands management and development, there is no negotiable postal vote opportunity to register a view.

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