SYDNEY - Sydney is set to get a second "heart" in a makeover that will create a New York-style, high- density central business district above the central train station.
The development of the "dead space" is set to provide thousands of jobs and homes and create one million square metres of space at the southern tip of the existing city centre.
The multi-billion dollar project is expected to take 15 to 20 years to complete and will involve the construction of high-rise towers and hotels as well as six separate "high-density neighbourhoods" along a 3-km railway line corridor stretching from Sydney's central station.
It will be built on top of and around the sprawling network of rail tracks south of the train station, including some parkland and a heritage-listed Gothic-style former mortuary.
The New South Wales state government says it will be the country's largest urban renewal project. Local and international firms will be invited to join the project later this year.
The state's planning minister, Mr Brad Hazzard, said the development would emulate other international cities and seek to bring down the "Berlin Wall" that separates opposite sides of the rail line.
There are now only three points at which pedestrians can cross the tracks along the inner- city corridor.
"We expect strong international interest in the renewal of the corridor as it presents an engineering and redevelopment challenge that has not existed in Sydney for decades," he said.
While the plan has been largely welcomed as a way to connect parts of the city divided by the rail lines, critics have warned of the safety risks of building above train lines and the extra costs this would impose.
The Sydney Morning Herald's property editor, Mr Stephen Nicholls, said the plan would "change Sydney forever" but the city's much-needed extra housing is unlikely to be cheap.
"Well, it's not on the waterfront? but this won't be cheap housing," he wrote.
"Building over working railway lines is expensive, so developers will want their money back, and more. Expect towers of 50 storeys just to make it viable."
The proposal aims to extend the CBD and bring offices and commercial properties into the mostly residential neighbourhoods directly to the city's south.
A study by the government's development agency, UrbanGrowth NSW, said the project - which is close to both Sydney University and the University of Technology Sydney - will involve construction of student and affordable housing as well as expansion of tertiary education facilities.
It cited other international examples of significant constructions above rail lines, including the 26-ha redevelopment around London's King Cross station and the A$4.5 billion (S$5.2 billion), 50-ha commercial, residential and retail development above Penn Station in Manhattan, New York City.
But sceptics worry about the existing community being short- changed, traffic congestion and blandness of the new buildings.
"How is the community to have confidence that, in return for selling off its development rights, it will get what it needs in return?" said Mr Jake Saulwick in a comment piece in the Sydney Morning Herald.
The state MP for the area, Mr Alex Greenwich, said the project could result in "bland" buildings and traffic gridlock because the state government tended to endorse developments without consulting local communities.
But Sydney's Lord Mayor, Ms Clover Moore, welcomed the plan, saying it "could join long-divided parts of the city and provide future capacity for employment, productivity and growth".