Architectus acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples as Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we live and work.

We honour their unique cultural and spiritual relationships to the land, waters, sky, and communities and their rich contribution to society.

This website uses cookies to offer you a great experience and to help us understand how our website is being used. By using this website, you consent to our use of cookies. For full details on how we manage data, read our Privacy Policy.


Towers on the harbour: reforming building controls at Circular Quay

Strategic Advisor in Urban Design and Planning, Michael Harrison recalls how some of Circular Quay’s recent tall buildings were conceived and planned.

In 2007, during my time as Director of City Strategy and Design at Sydney City Council, I attended a meeting between the city and the Property Council. I was sitting next to the owner’s representative from Valad who had just gained DA approval for the redevelopment of the Goldfields House site at 1 Alfred Street directly across from Circular Quay.

He described how demand to achieve a “bankable” DA had led to the easiest solution that complied with planning controls – a residential development that occupied the full 80-metre width of the site at a height of 110-metres, the uppermost height limit according to the controls. It was clear to me that if the project went ahead as planned it would become an eyesore of a wall to Circular Quay and would block city views to one of the world’s most iconic harbours from other dress circle buildings.

As an urban designer, I thought that it would be better to turn the building perpendicular to Circular Quay, provide a much smaller floorplate and double its height. This approach would give pedestrians at Circular Quay a line of sight into the city, and people in other buildings views to the harbour. The developer agreed and wondered if the planning controls really could be changed.

Existing planning controls

Back earlier in time in 1996, I had led the council team tasked with developing new urban design controls for an updated Central Sydney Plan. Before then a great deal of time was wasted arguing with developers about appropriate heights for projects, especially in the vicinity of parks and heritage areas. Many ended up in court, consuming yet more time and resources. Our updates outlined a clear logic for building heights for two thirds of the city centre by:

  • establishing sun access planes which controlled heights of buildings to protect parks and public spaces from overshadowing during peak use times
  • controlling maximum building heights in relation to heritage buildings and special character areas

The Goldfields House site where the developer’s project was situated was within a street block within the remaining third of the city where the process of setting limits was less straightforward.

At the time, we set the 110-metre height of the original Gold Fields House as the limit across the block. While I didn’t agree with the approach, it seemed unlikely that there would be redevelopment projects on the block for many years to come.

Rethinking the rulebook

Back to 2007, soon after the DA for the Goldfields House site came along, we faced a second inappropriate building proposal on the same block from Mirvac. They had submitted a DA for an awkwardly shaped lot at 200 George Street. To the developer’s consternation, the planning controls resulted in a very ungainly building that maximised the building’s floorspace and rose to the 110-metre height limit.

It wasn’t hard to picture the eventual redevelopment of the remaining sites on the block – all built to the same height limit, all too close together within a disjointed and disconnected laneway network that had never been resolved through planning controls.

After my conversation with the developer, I contacted colleagues in the Urban Design and Planning team at Architectus, who prepared a street block scheme that permitted three of the eight sites to almost double in height with the remaining sites limited to about half the 110-metre height limit. The plan also conceived a connected pedestrian laneway network and a small public space in the centre of the block.

Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, approved of the scheme, saying at the time: “… this would be much better – a strategic improvement to the city for the benefit of all”. Council put the idea of planning the street block out to tender. The Office of the Government Architect NSW won the tender and developed an exceptional plan which responded to both commercial needs and public benefit.

As is often the case when rules and regulations are challenged, there was some objection from within the council, with people voicing concerns along the lines of, “you shouldn’t muck around with the planning controls!” and “you are opening Pandora’s box to developers!”. However, after two years, the block gained the statutory planning control changes with specific alternative controls in the Local Environmental Plan.

Recognising the opportunity posed by concurrent development proposals within the same block, Architectus produced an alternative urban design scheme for the entire street block, incorporating Alfred, Pitt, Dalley and George Street, that simultaneously resulted in increased height, improved laneway connectivity and an improved public domain quality.

The proposed redevelopment of the APDG block was subsequently incorporated in an amendment to the City of Sydney LEP in mid 2009. The APDG site has been designated Council’s first “strategic site” and is being actively promoted by Council as a model for providing enhanced development opportunities by significantly improving the public domain.

Developers’ response

The new controls were offered as alternatives to the old controls, meaning landowners could still choose to apply old controls if preferred.

However, developers embraced the new scheme; they are not only achieving the objectives of the alternative controls but have instigated further improvements. For example, Lendlease purchased properties owned by Westpac, St George and ‘Jacksons on George’ sites and is using this significant landholding to achieve an even better public domain.

Lendlease is relocating the urban space planned for the centre of the street block to a site with better sunlight and a more prominent George Street frontage. Moving this space to George Street also improves access to the new light rail link along George Street.

With the prospects of future developments vastly improved, various international design competitions have been held for developments within the block and some of Sydney’s most exciting modern architecture will be developed there. In short, the establishment of alternate development controls was a pioneering statutory planning concept for the city and has been taken up by the market for the benefit of all.

The AMP precinct

Two blocks to the east, another urban planning dilemma was brewing at Circular Quay.

For twenty years, AMP had been buying up land between Loftus Street and Phillip Street waiting for the right time to propose a tower behind the heritage building, Customs House at Macquarie Place.

Successive councils had declined AMP’s proposal. In the 1990s, council had studied the area around Macquarie Place and determined that the park and its Moreton Bay fig tree were already subject to too much overshadowing and whatever sun access remained should be protected. The 1996 Local Environmental Plan also protected sunlight to the nearby First Government House plaza on Bridge Street. In other words, extending the height limit for the properties behind Customs House was out of the question.

Previously, AMP approached Architectus among others asking what could be done. We were able to conceive a tower shape that actually protected sunlight to Macquarie Place during the 10am–12pm control time in midwinter but, problematically, overshadowed First Government House plaza. At the time, I thought this was a good idea as First Government House was already significantly overshadowed.

More than a decade later in 2008, Lord Mayor Clover Moore asked what could be done about the AMP tower. I reasoned that although there a was a tower solution, it no longer seemed feasible given how imperative sunlight protection controls had become in the 20 years of the operating plan.

By then I had begun thinking about the taller AMP tower on nearby Bridge Street, a building with a floorplate that was much smaller and out of date compared to the then recently approved Barangaroo office towers with their large floor plates.

I thought that a compromise might be reached with AMP through which the “air-rights” for the land behind Customs House were transferred to the existing AMP towers site on the next street block to the east.

The council urban design team outlined how the floorplate of the taller existing tower could be almost doubled with a partly new lift core yet still maintain good separation from the heritage lower AMP tower. Such a large floorplate tower would still protect sunlight to the Domain parkland.

We took this idea to AMP who seemed somewhat reluctant to empty 60 storeys of paying tenants for the council’s idea, which was far less exciting than their hope for a new tower behind Customs House.

A few years later, to their great credit, AMP came around, and a longstanding issue was resolved. They have since held an international design competition and the city will get two new architectural triumphs in an enlarged tall tower as well as a new urban quarter at low rise scale behind Customs House.

Strategic Advisor at Architectus, Michael Harrison has 40 years of experience in urban design and planning and architecture. He led the Architectus Urban Design and Planning discipline from 1985 to 2018. From 2007 to 2011, he was seconded to Sydney City Council as Executive Director of the City Strategy and Design division.


Thomas Dixon Centre achieves world-first WELL Certification™
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese officially opens Flinders University’s Health and Medical Research Building