The Malaysian Reserve

Barangaroo Guide: What to Do in Sydney’s Hot New District

Barangaroo is changing the city’s skyline. But is it worth the hefty price tag?

by Mary Holland / BLOOMBERG

It’s almost impossible to think the Sydney Opera House, which receives more than eight million visitors each year, could ever be outdone by anything else on Sydney Harbour. But take a five-minute taxi ride west of the harbour’s iconic bridge and you’ll find Barangaroo, a new waterfront development that’s proving to be quite the competitor.

At 54 acres (21.9ha), Barangaroo is about half the size of Vatican City — a former wasteland in the middle of the city that’s now filled with restaurants, shops, offices, residential buildings and a gleaming urban park. It’s one of Sydney’s largest and most ambitious regeneration developments since the 2000 Olympics, with a US$6 billion (RM23.45 billion) price tag that the New South Wales (NSW) government has justified in the name of sustainable urban renewal.

And while the full project isn’t scheduled for completion until 2024, enough of it has opened — with incredibly quick adoption by locals — to suggest Barangaroo isn’t just a trendy hot spot. It’s a total remaking of Sydney’s urban plan.

How to Create a Neighbourhood

Whereas most new neighbourhoods blossom on the outer fringes of a city, Barangaroo is right at Sydney’s core. It’s adjacent to the central business district, on the site of a disused container yard called the East Darling Harbour.

When the NSW government decided to develop it in 2003, its goal was twofold: To sustainably serve the people of Sydney while giving the city its first major landmark in 45 years, thereby reinforcing its global status. (The last such icon was the Opera House, built in 1973.)

It was a classic go-big-or-go-home situation: Barangaroo would need to become the city’s financial and retail hub, it needed to be environmentally sound and it needed to be suitable for both business and recreation. So, it hired big-name talents for the task, including Aussie architecture firm Durbach Block Jaggers.

Construction began only six years ago, but by the end of 2017, there were 50 bars and restaurants in the retail and dining precinct, the wharf had opened and three skyscrapers were filled with tenants. “This prime land has been shut off from the public for more than a century,” says Tim Archer, director of media communications for Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

On a warm spring day a few months ago, locals were lounging along the water banks, rolling up their pants to catch the first rays of the season. Ferries buzzed in and out of the ports. And dozens of locals jogged through Barangaroo Reserve — a park with stunning harbour views that includes running paths, bike lanes and guides that provide information on the area’s native flora and indigenous communities.

What Not to Miss

Beyond the reserve, Barangaroo South, the area’s designated financial area, is a hotbed of restaurants and retailers. Big names such as David Jones and Peter’s of Kensington have taken occupancy, while smaller shops like the Waiting Room and Title, both of which stock a curated selection of local and international clothing, add a boutique, local flair.

A Southern spread at Belles Hot Chicken. (Source: Belles Hot Chicken)

The same goes for the diversity of food and beverage options. Low-key joints like Bing’s Bao & Beer, a Singaporean-style eatery that serves different types of Asian buns, and Belles Hot chicken, known for its fried chicken sandwiches, are perfect for meals on the go. Do as the locals do, and picnic on the water’s edge.

On the destination dining front, gourmet heavyweights include Barangaroo House from Australian superstar chef Cory Campbell, who’s worked at Copenhagen’s Noma and Melbourne’s Vue de Monde. (Order the excellent steak tartare and marron gratin, made with freshwater crayfish and mustard foam.) There’s also Eté, a contemporary French restaurant, and love.fish, a sustainable seafood joint. While all three spots draw power-lunch crowds, they’re equally appropriate for a lingering, celebratory dinner.

For locals, the lifestyle and cultural spaces are perhaps the biggest draws. Places like the new Scotch Row Pocket Park were specifically designed to benefit the community — it’s a casual hangout area where folks can play pingpong, sip cocktails and catch shows by local bands.

Barangaroo’s most popular public space, Scotch Row Pocket Park. (Source: The Streets of Barangaroo)

In the same community-oriented vein, Barangaroo succeeds in acknowledging (and paying respect to) the area’s history, which makes it feel sensitive to locals and educational for visitors. A series of tours and cultural events, for instance, pays homage to the Gadigal people, the original owners of the Sydney city region.

That will continue, with at least nine major public art and cultural programmes — some developed with an Aboriginal art curator — scheduled to deploy by 2020.

The Backlash

Barangaroo has been designed by locals for locals, and indeed has been embraced by Sydneysiders — at least, most of it has. Controversy is brewing in response to one piece of the puzzle: The Crown Sydney Hotel Resort and casino from Australian billionaire businessman and developer James Packer. The six-star hotel is scheduled to open in 2021 with apartments, restaurants, bars and retail outlets.

A glitzy casino and megahotel won’t culturally benefit the public, locals argued when the deal was approved. Scepticism erupted that a community-driven project would surreptitiously be lining the pockets of one of Australia’s most wealthy businessmen.

Renderings for the controversial Crown Sydney Hotel Resort, scheduled to open in 2021. (Source: Crown Sydney)

Crown Sydney will drive revenue and create jobs, and its impact stands to be substantial, with luxury hotels in Sydney costing upwards of US$300 a night. (Packer says he wants to give Sydney “one of the world’s great hotels”, as he believes it deserves.) But that’s not enough to get locals on board.

“The Crown Sydney Hotel Resort is being built on less than 1ha of the 22ha site. No more than 20% of its floor space can be restricted gaming,” says Archer, the Barangaroo Delivery Authority spokesman.

Looking Ahead

Barangaroo is already a neighbourhood unto itself, but it’s far from finished. In the next three years, three more public spaces — including a public pier — will be added to Barangaroo South, where the current retailers, restaurants and businesses are open for trading.

Central Barangaroo, which locals are dubbing the “final piece of the puzzle”, will come in 2024, linking that southern stretch to the Reserve farther north. It’s slated to be the cultural heart of Barangaroo, with more than seven acres reserved for public recreation.

Also expected in 2024: A new metro station that will connect the district to Sydney’s Central Station, and a High Line-esque walkway linking Barangaroo to the financial district, called Wulugul Walk.

So, will the US$6 billion investment be worth it? “Barangaroo is already making a significant contribution to the NSW economy,” says Terry Moran, chairman of the Barangaroo Delivery Authority.

The district is projecting 18 million visits per year — 10 million more than its competitor up the harbour. By some accounts, early real estate buyers saw their values increase 25% before construction began.

And truth be told, it’s not just about the economic impact. “We are building a unique place that is quite literally transformational, one that has changed the shape of Sydney’s central business district,” Archer says. — Bloomberg