By Lucy Marks
The NSW Government has announced it will be proceeding with the South East Light Rail’s controversial route through Devonshire Street into Surry Hills, despite all efforts by action group PUSH (People Unite Surry Hills) to thwart the plan.
“The action group was formed in response to the significant anxiety being felt across the community, because of the lack of information and consultation, particularly with what we call ‘the voiceless community’,” says PUSH founder and director Venietta Slama-Powell.
The group’s aim is to force the Government and the light rail company to abandon the planned route from Anzac Parade to Chalmers Street, via Devonshire Street.
“They actually want to cut right through the middle of a parkland, demolish homes, and go up a very narrow street,” Ms Slama-Powell says.
The Surry Hills community is concerned about the heavy impact on businesses and residents, including the acquisition of 59 apartments, and potentially more.
Ms Slama-Powell says the State Government, “are going to have to acquire [more] property on Devonshire Street, because there won’t be access for emergency vehicles.”
There is a concern that key landmarks such as Bourke St Bakery and The Book Kitchen along Devonshire will be closed down.
“They just wouldn’t be able to operate during the demolition or construction period which could be anywhere between six to ten years,” Ms Slama-Powell says.
The businesses of Crown Street are feared to be severely impacted as the dust and noise pollution take effect, as well as the road blocks surrounding Devonshire St. The community are certain the village atmosphere will be ruined.
“People will generally want to avoid Surry Hills… it’ll basically be the new Cleveland Street, right in the heart of Surry Hills,” Ms Slama-Powell says.
PUSH called for an independent feasibility study to investigate all alternative routes.
“We have no evidence that there has been an independent feasibility study on the ground level route of Devonshire, nor the tunnel,” Ms Slama-Powell says.
The findings of the study carried out by Transport for NSW in 2011 and 2012 are outlined in ‘Sydney’s Light Rail Futures’ brochure, however the full report has not been published despite many calls for it to be made public.
“PUSH has placed a ‘Freedom of Information’ request for detailed information after receiving very little information from Transport NSW,” Ms Slama-Powell says.
The Surry Hills community and PUSH are supported by Alex Greenwich, the Independent MP for Sydney. He reiterates the community’s concern that no evidence-based, meaningful information has been provided and supports a suggested underground tunnel alternative.
“The Minister has made clear that the South East Light Rail will travel down Devonshire Street. The details are not established despite our calls for this to be made public. It is vital that the community works together to influence the process and reduce impacts,” Mr Greenwich says.
In a letter to the Minister for Transport (31st January 2013), Mr Greenwich outlines the reported benefits of “undergrounding” the Devonshire leg of the route.
Mr Greenwich says that this alternative will, “save five minutes on the journey, attract new patrons from buses and make extending the service beyond Randwick in the future more viable.”
Tunneling under Surry Hills, as opposed to street level light rail, “has the additional benefit of protecting the amenity of Surry Hills residents, retaining Wimbo Park and preventing demolition of the Olivia Gardens apartment building,” says Mr Greenwich.
A spokesperson from Transport for NSW said the option of tunneling under Surry Hills and the Eastern Distributor, “was considered and assessed”, however, this option would meet, “major engineering challenges, including the geology of the earth beneath the Eastern Distributor, which consists of soft alluvial soils.”
“A tunnel would add hundreds of millions of dollars to the cost of the project,” said the spokesperson for Transport NSW.
Mr Greenwich had made calls in Parliament for Gladys Berejiklian, the Minister for Transport, to meet with the community for consultation and the exchange of information.
Ms Berejiklian’s meeting with PUSH on March 21 marked the beginning of direct dialogue with the community, and a public forum was organised for Monday, April 15. However, the forum affirmed no changes to the route would be made, and those who asked questions were directed to a glossy information pack entitled ‘Sydney’s Light Rail Future’.
Surry Hills resident Will Brincat voiced the community’s frustration and disappointment.
“What was the point of coming here if there’s no way of saving Devonshire Street?” he says.
Ms Slama-Powell addressed Ms Berejiklian directly, saying, “please don’t offend us in the future by suggesting this is a consultation, because this is not a consultation.”
Transport for NSW says local input will now be considered in the design and planning of the Light Rail Project while acknowledging that project has already begun.
Transport NSW says feasibility studies were carried out in consultation with key stakeholders via a series of round table meetings. During these meetings, route options were amended or added, based on the stake holder discussion.
Ms Slama-Powell says a representative of the Surry Hills community was not at the discussions. “They don’t regard the local community, or the public or local businesses as stakeholders.”
Although opposed to the project, PUSH and Alex Greenwich support the need for new developments in transport.
“There is strong support for improved public transport and for light rail,” Mr Greenwich says, “but the Government needs to get the best route that is most sustainable with least impacts. I am working with local residents and community groups to get the best outcome possible.”