The NSW state government is beating its drum over its community consultation for the White Bay precinct, hailing it “the most interactive consultation process in NSW government history”. But the song and dance is merely a “smokescreen”, helping the state to avoid discussing the driving force behind the White Bay development: an ill-devised, unnecessary metro system to ferry passengers “from nowhere to nowhere”, leading architects have said.

Bays Precinct, which includes White Bay, Glebe Island and White Bay Power Station, spans 80 hectares and is one of the last remaining working harbour sites in Sydney. The state is calling for Sydneysiders to “imagine, and create a vision” for White Bay, through a website forum, public submissions, a community reference group and consultation with industry groups.

But, Barangaroo architect Paul Berkemeier told Architecture & Design that the residential, commercial, working harbour and parkland development mix for White Bay is predetermined by its location on the proposed metro line. 

“[The state government] has locked itself into building a metro line that goes from nowhere to nowhere, and it happens to go under White Bay. Obviously … [it will] be pressured to develop White Bay intensively because it’s the only way that the metro will make sense … The mix will be whatever is needed to make the metro viable,” Berkemeier said.

While residents are busy chatting on the website’s forum, the amount floorspace dedicated to residential development will be ramped up, he said. The “biggest joke of all” is the lack of discussion around how building a metro under White Bay dictates a high-density built solution. “In urban terms, that’s quite reasonable. But no one’s mentioning it — and government is putting what I think is a foregone conclusion off the radar by talking about consultation processes,” Berkemeier said.

The Balmain peninsula has a vocal group of local residents, speaking out vehemently against the proposed Iron Cove Bridge plan. The consultation process is a “smokescreen” to allow the state government to get the Bays Precinct development underway without antagonizing voters before the next election, Berkemeier said.

Sydney architect Philip Thalis, who created a masterplan for the White Bay power station 10 years’ ago, has criticized the NSW state government for its lack of urban planning in how it releases land. 

“There a broader questions about how you deal with these parts of the city and a big, indigestible chunk of development a la Barangaroo is the worst possible model,” he said. 

The Barangaroo development was “like a secret society”, he said. “Everything’s behind closed doors. The website is just obfuscation. There’s been no attempt at community consultation. There’s been no attempt at keeping a working harbour of some description, even if that does become a major ferry destination, which they are talking about in private. But they’re not really talking about it in any meaningful way in public.”

“[At White Bay] they’ve clearly made the decision to reduce the working harbour … It is public land, like Barangaroo, I think you’d expect to be fully consulted. I don’t think there’s anything great just in an announcement. I’d really want to see how real that consultation is and what the general direction of it is.”

Thalis is dubious about the good sense of a metro line that will have an “extraordinarily difficult path” and limited capture. The government should think much more seriously about a light rail line that could be built “literally tomorrow”, he said. A tram already runs to Lilleyfield, serving parts of the site and could easily be extended “on a microscopic budget”.