Up a side street off Victoria Road in Marrickville is the creative studio Create or Die. A conglomerate of film-makers, photographers, set and prop builders and visual artists regularly use this converted warehouse space. Located on the border between Marrickville and Sydenham, Create or Die is set amid one of the last industrial areas in inner-Sydney. The land between Sydenham station and Addison Road is a hub for artists and creatives who work alongside car mechanics, timber yards and food producers. This was a happy marriage for Create or Die, until the local council heard about it.
“We were getting really popular,” said Deborah Morgan, creative director of Create or Die. “We were having exhibitions every weekend and they were being sold out which was amazing, and then we had a guy from the council come through he had just said you need to look into things like permissions and [Development Applications].”
Morgan is keen to stress that Create or Die is not a warehouse party venue, and that Create or Die hosts art shows. Despite this distinction, the gatherings that do occur at Create or Die have drawn the attention of the Inner West Council. A recent event had to be quickly moved to another venue outside of the area, after the organiser was called and told that if they went ahead with the event, they could be fined. In the notification from council, the event organiser was told that the site did not have permission for music, the sale of food or drink, or for the sale of items that were not manufactured on the premises. The cost of the fine would be six thousand dollars. As patrons filed in to an alternative venue, Morgan reflected, “looking around at the night, I thought it's so comical that the council would shut this down.”
In NSW, the types of activities that can occur on a particular piece of land are laid out in Local Environment Plans that are developed by local councils and approved by the state government. Most of the land to the north of Sydenham station is zoned for general industrial uses, which has suited Create or Die just fine.
“We need to be in a space where we can build stuff, so we need to be able to be noisy,” outlined Morgan. “We need three phase power because we run big lights for our filming stuff, so we're drawing a lot of power, and we need to be messy. You can't be in a commercial or business zoning.”
Create or Die is not alone. On the other side of Wicks Park, on Sydenham Road, is Scratch Art Space, which director Carmel Byrne has run since 2003. Seeing the decline of areas close to the CBD such as Surry Hills as a home for artists, Byrne decided to buy an old warehouse in Sydenham and set up there.
“Because I grew up on this line, I knew Sydenham station is a really good station; there were two lines running through it and you didn't have to wait too long. Having an industrial area right next to that station, for me it was a bit of a no brainer that this was the area that artists were going to start moving to.”
There are other benefits of being in an industrial area. Art suppliers and hardware stores have outlets here and sell materials at discounted rates. Byrne also notes that there’s a drive towards co-existence.
“As opposed to a residential [area] when people just tend to ring council and complain, what happens here is that we're all neighbours, everyone's trying to make a dollar, so we actually talk to each other and negotiate ourselves and that's been beneficial to artists because then no one complains about the noise that we make.”
Morgan echoes this sentiment: “It is definitely awesome to have these light industrial businesses around and we love it. I wouldn't want that to change.”
The Inner West Council, which covers Marrickville and Sydenham, is interested in supporting the arts. Mayor Darcy Byrne (no relation to Carmel Byrne), has been an outspoken advocate for live music in this area, and would like to see the arts continue to thrive.
“If you've got a former factory or an office block that's sitting empty at night, then the government's got no business in stopping the landlord from having a small scale performance in there.”
For this to happen, however, changes to the local planning laws will need to be approved, as for live music to legally go ahead, landlords and tenants have to submit a development application (DA), with no guarantee it will be approved. This was an issue that Kerri Glasscock, director and CEO of the Sydney Fringe Festival, found affected many small arts organisations.
“Cultural organisations are ready and they are financially able to pay a commercial lease, but what they can't pay is the immense amount of costs associated with bringing that building up to code to put performance in there.”
In 2015, when the Sydney Fringe utilised a number of vacant shop fronts in the vicinity of Parramatta Road, costs involved with the development application process were calculated at over $2500, without any change to the premises.
This barrier is something that independent Inner West councillor Pauline Lockie would like to see change.
“We have a lot of artists, we have a lot of entertainment venues and so forth, but they're underground, and the reason they're doing that is not because they don't want to operate in a way that's safe, it's because the cost of actually putting in all the DAs can rapidly spiral up to six figures.”
One solution that Morgan would like to see implemented is temporary zoning, where artists can use a vacated space while it awaits redevelopment. Mayor Byrne is pushing for small scale arts and music activity to be exempt from requiring a DA. Lockie, however, argues for a broader approach, noting that “zoning changes are a very blunt tool when it comes to encouraging the kinds of industries that you want to see in an area.”
One change to zoning that has occurred in this area is the rezoning of the Victoria Road precinct. Approved by the state government in December 2017, the area to the north of Victoria Road, Marrickville will now be residential and commercial mixed use. This includes the Create or Die studios and the large timber yard that Create or Die backs onto, owned by Danias Holdings, all of which are now zoned as high density residential.
With the rezoning now approved, Danias Holdings have proposed a creative hub on Rich Street as part of a larger redevelopment. Morgan has been in conversation with Danias about its plans for the area, and will manage a creative studio space on Farr Street before moving into the Rich Street development once it is complete.
“It did take me a while to trust them, because the general notion of people who own a lot of land and developers, like ‘Oh you're just trying to use me,’ but the other thing was, you can use me, as long as I can use you.”
Danias have supported the arts, both through discounted timber for sculptors and the Timberyard Records, a record label that put out releases from the likes of You Am I, Cosmic Psychos and Nick Littlemore from PNAU and Empire of the Sun. While Mayor Byrne notes that it is unusual for a developer to first propose a creative hub, others are not as supportive. When viewing the plans, Carmel Byrne, from Scratch, noted that it would not be for everyone, “To me it looked like designers, architects, that aspect of creative business that already have quite a lot of money.”
Affordability is also an issue for Lockie who argues that “one of the advantages of the industrial space that we've got left in Marrickville, which is of course shrinking all the time, is the fact that it is a bit rough around the edges.”
While the creative hub has not yet been approved by the Inner West Council, and will take over five years to be realised, the fate of artists who remain in the area is unclear.
“My concern is,” highlighted Morgan, “in the meantime while all these places are getting held up, there's people being kicked out of other spaces, or they don't have the funding to fix them.”
Flooding earlier this year from an unrepaired leak in the roof at Create or Die cost the enterprise $7000 in lost earnings, and three floods occurred before their landlord was willing to fix the leak. Nearby Makerspace & Co. had to move out of their Barclay Street space after an unexpected 68 per cent rent increase in November and a subsequent eviction letter.
Lockie sees these changes as part of a broader trend, “so many areas of the Inner West have gone from being industrial, to creative, to apartments.”
Mayor Byrne is slightly more equivocal, noting that with more residents in the area, patronage of creative enterprises could increase, however he remains wary of residential development pushing out live music venues.
“We've got to make sure that we don't replicate the problems that we've seen with residential development encroaching on live music venues, and impacts on them through noise complaints,” said Mayor Byrne.
For Carmel Byrne, who lived in and visited New York as that city went through its own throes of gentrification in the early 2000s, a more fundamental change has to occur.
“So long as commerce is at the centre of whatever they do, if it's real estate, artists will always get squeezed out because we just don't live in a culture that really supports artists.”
Advocating for a system of rent control or rent stabilisation to be considered in Sydney, Byrne stated, “we're entitled to live in a really interesting city. In Sydney, we just have to get over our real estate hang up and start thinking about the city as a city.”