Jozef Imrich, name worthy of Kafka, has his finger on the pulse of any irony of interest and shares his findings to keep you in-the-know with the savviest trend setters and infomaniacs.
''I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center.''
It is billed by the local council as “Sydney’s stylish bayside village”, and mocked as “Double Pay” for its exorbitant prices. It has been through ups and downs, but is enjoying a recent renaissance.
What Double Bay lacks is a future plan.
Should it be a low-rise village for locals? Or a mixed-use hub and entertainment destination? And when push comes to shove, how tall should the buildings be?
The matter came to a head on Monday night when Woollahra councillors were presented with a draft document, the Double Bay Centre Planning and Urban Design Strategy, which has been in the works for 10 years.
But after four-and-a-half hours of discussion, elected officials reached a familiar verdict: to ask for more information and defer the issue until the end of November.
Halfway through the debate, Liberal councillor and former mayor Toni Zeltzer saw which way the wind was blowing, and she wasn’t impressed.
“There’s no point changing and amending this now,” an exasperated Zeltzer told her colleagues. “What we don’t want is to continually delay it. We’ve done it for years. It’s like we are sitting on these chairs and just dithering constantly.”
The Double Bay saga mirrors long and painful planning processes underway in councils across Sydney, where master plans and place strategies spend years in development and consultation. Often, they have to contend with overlapping state government priorities.
It also reveals that fears about the state government’s density bonuses for affordable housing are leading councillors and residents to contemplate pre-emptively reducing building heights in case the government comes over the top later.
Over the decade, the council undertook a study tour to the United States, a mayor’s forum, a place plan, a “fine-grain review” of building sizes that took years, a local transport study and a review of planning controls. The area in question is only 0.12 square kilometres.
The Double Bay strategy debated this week was exhibited to the public for more than two months in the first half of 2022, generating 215 submissions. Of 190 that objected, 71 per cent were worried about increasing building heights to a maximum of six storeys and 65 per cent had concerns about “the loss of village character, atmosphere and charm”.
Those objections led council staff to reduce the maximum building heights in the final version, including on Knox Street to four storeys, and on Bay Street to five storeys. The main drag, New South Head Road, would go all the way to six.
But that created a fresh round of problems. Monday night’s meeting heard from commercial property owners angry they were losing their expected development potential, while residents’ groups still were not happy, saying New South Head Road should stay at four storeys.
Katherine Grinberg, a lawyer who is moving into the seven-level Cosmopolitan complex on Knox Street, lodged her “very, very strong objection” to any other six-storey buildings across the street.
At its heart, this disagreement is about whether the village should be a bustling magnet for all of Sydney, or a quiet enclave for locals. Anthony Tregoning, president of the Double Bay Residents’ Association, told the meeting the planned changes “seem to focus on bringing visitors to Double Bay, rather than catering for the needs of residents”.
Another Double Bay resident, Peter Breed, said his quality of life and sense of community had “deteriorated significantly in the last 10 years”. He now spends five months of the year in the Belgian city of Antwerp, and said he is much happier there because the city is geared toward pedestrians, cyclists and public transport.
Zeltzer took the residents to task, and called on her fellow councillors to ignore objections from a loud minority who also tried to stop the successful redevelopment of Double Bay’s Kiaora Place. “I want you to remember the 58,000. You are here to represent 58,000 people - not a hundred constant naysayers. Whether it’s one project or another, it’s ‘nay, nay, nay’,” she said.
Zeltzer said Woollahra was a progressive community, citing its support for marriage equality and the Indigenous Voice to parliament.
“If the whole idea of ‘retaining its village character’ is to retain its look and feel of the 1970s, I just think we’ve moved on,” she said. “We would see tumbleweeds in Double Bay as our commercial heartland if we just left it for local use. We need to make it a commercial success.”
Residents First councillor Mark Silcocks, who pushed for lower heights on New South Head Road, told Zeltzer she was “a little bit harsh on the residents”.
While the council has spent 10 years researching, consulting and debating Double Bay’s future, in the real world, life has just kept going. Town planner Haley Rich, a consultant to the council, said that as of August, some 17 developments have been approved for five or six storeys, above current height limits - usually through the Land and Environment Court. This was “a fragmented and uncoordinated approach to planning, and inconsistent with best practice”, she said.
And yet, the Double Bay of 2023 is “pumping”, as Silcocks observed, anchored by the Kiaora Place pedestrianised zone and Woollahra Library on one side, and Neil Perry’s Margaret restaurant and surrounding venues on the other. Next year Perry plans to open a jazz bar, Bobbie’s, and an Asian eatery on Bay Street.
Monday night’s discussion also revealed some councillors and residents want to fortify their community against the state government’s proposed density bonuses for affordable housing.
Several people spoke against the taller six-storey height limit on the basis the 30 per cent height bonus announced by the government would override local controls to allow even taller buildings. “Automatically your six stories turns to eight stories, and you’ve suddenly brought Bondi Junction to the bay,” said resident Malcolm Young.
Liberal councillor Mary-Lou Jarvis agreed. “We have to be quite clear now, otherwise effectively, what you are potentially voting for is nine-storey buildings in Double Bay,” she said. “That is something we cannot countenance.”
Her Liberal colleague Sean Carmichael said he was “quite frightened” by the government’s plan to rebalance housing growth away from Sydney’s west toward the east. “It keeps me awake all night, thinking about this issue. I’m not joking,” he said.
“Instead of 500, if we’ve got to put 5000 dwellings, 10,000, 20,000 dwellings in this area because Chris Minns the premier no longer wants to put it out west and wants to put it in the east, [then] dear God. God help all of us if we’ve got to do that. I don’t know where we’re going to put it.”
Woollahra councillors ultimately resolved to ask for more information about the planned height limits, and return to the matter at a meeting on November 27.