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Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Australian artists neglect the romance of infill living

Just as it's true on the city fringe that land becomes too valuable for farming to survive the pressure of urban spread, it's also true that in the urban centre industrial areas are turning into dormitories for the middling classes. The demographic centre of Sydney is shifting east, we're told, and has started to make a slow U-turn in the past 20 years. What happens to industrial land? Pyrmont-Ultimo, once upon a time home to sugar refineries and wool stores, is now Australia's most densely populated suburb. And the same is happening to Alexandria, Waterloo, and Rosebery in the east. Opposite the University of Technology, Sydney, the old Kent Brewery is becoming Central Park, where studio units are selling for $600,000 each. For that price you can buy a 2-bedroom apartment in Rosebery, of course, but that means catching the bus; from Central Park it's just a short walk to Chinatown and Darling Harbour. The romance of that sentence is palpable and undeniable. Just feel it.

Sydneysiders are somewhat obsessed with real estate; it's only a matter of time before young people start entering "property" in the space on the census form where you can declare your religion. But while House & Garden magazine features spreads detailing work done on renovated terraces in Woollahra the reality of urban living is an off-the-plan two-bedder with underground parking, lift access, and a main bedroom with ensuite bathroom. It's glass and white paint, sensor-activated roller doors at the street entrance when you drive home from the gym, intercom buzzers, sofas in the entrance lobby, A4-sized letter boxes, and even a second bathroom and toilet if you're extremely fortunate.

Notwithstanding their increasing importance as loci of personal desires and aspirations, high-rise apartments that are proliferating in the dormitory suburbs in the urban heartland are largely absent from popular culture. And there's "infill" happening everywhere; when in Opposition the Liberal Party condemned the state government for removing development approval rights from local councils, who represented residents who were up in arms in paroxysms of NIMBY outrage, but now they're at the controls the Libs are doing exactly the same thing as the ALP did. With just under 4.7 million people, and over 1000 new arrivals every week, and with a vacancy rate just over one percent, the need for new apartments in Sydney is urgent. But the romance of owning a 2-bedder in Alexandria is something alien to art and culture.

And the romance is highly visible, if you look in the right places. You don't even have to visit the website for Central Park to see it. It's in every advert for a new apartment, an as-new apartment, a convenient and safe building in the heart of the eastern suburbs, a unique design with loads of contemporary conveniences. If you want to really feel the groove you can look at ads for the apartments that sit at the upper end of the scale of luxury, exclusivity, and convenience. Feel like walking home from work in the CBD to a four-bedroom apartment on three levels with harbour views? All you need is the paltry sum of around $3.2 million. A whole floor in a building located in the sought-after suburb of Observatory Hill, with its own entrance lobby and situated minutes from the Opera House? If you're in that league you don't really need to ask the price.

Apartments located in infill areas are real but they do not exist in the popular imagination. They're aspirational realities that are based in a career-oriented paradigm that completely escapes the imagination of the writer and the artist; it's unfortunate because these are the places where the project manager on $85,000-a-year and her husband, a systems engineer on a similar salary, want to live. They form a core element of metropolitan life in a place like Sydney; 15 million people out of Australia's population total of 23 million live in capital cities. If that's not significant, I don't know what is.

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