Crown’s One Queensbridge site hangs in the balance
By Brendan Rees
Southbank residents look set to face a longer wait as to whether a “ghastly” site opposite Crown will be developed as the casino giant fights for its licence amid two Royal Commissions.
Crown Resorts had once proposed to build the nation’s tallest skyscraper at the One Queensbridge St site opposite Crown Casino, with the buildings linked by a glass sky bridge, at a cost of $2 billion.
However, any plans to begin building the 388-room hotel and 708 residential apartments came to a shuddering halt after Minister for Planning Richard Wynne refused an extension of its permit in 2019.
As a condition of the building permit issued in 2017 under the exemption of “state significance”, Crown and its joint venture partner Schiavello were required to begin construction within two years.
Having since purchased Schiavello’s 50 per cent stake in the site, Crown is yet to submit any new building proposals but has indicated in its 2020 annual report that it continued to assess various options for the One Queensbridge development site”.
The project now appears further away from being realised than ever before amid Crown’s ongoing financial and governance issues, which have been laid bare through a NSW inquiry and two current Royal Commissions in Victoria and Western Australia.
In 2016, it was a “public benefits” packaged valued at around $100 million which got Crown and Schiavello’s approval over the line with the state government. This package included improvements to Queensbridge Square, two new cafes, and fixing possible flooding issues on Queensbridge St as well as upgrades to Sandridge Rail Bridge, Southbank Boulevard and Southbank Promenade.
City of Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece confirmed Crown had not submitted a new planning permit for the One Queensbridge site, but welcomed any new private investment in Southbank and would “assess any application carefully against the Melbourne planning scheme”.
He added the fact that a tower was not proceeding “isn’t stopping the City of Melbourne from cracking on with our record investment in local infrastructure” which included delivering on its budget promise of buying new land to create more public open space in Southbank as well as soon-to-begin upgrade works on Southbank Promenade, which included building a 1000 sq metre park on Southbank Promenade near Eureka Tower.
Former City of Melbourne councillor and Crown shareholder activist Stephen Mayne said with two Royal Commissions underway into the suitability of Crown in Melbourne and Perth to retain its licence after alleged wrongdoings, any plans for development at One Queensbridge would have been put on the backburner.
“They’ve battened down the hatches and their licence is at risk so the last thing they’re going to be doing is a big new development in Melbourne,” he said.
It comes as Crown moves to save its empire after appointing former Telstra chief executive Ziggy Switkowski as its new chairman, after replacing Helen Coonan who stepped down at the end of August.
However, Mr Mayne said One Queensbridge was a “key strategic site” and acknowledged Crown was making a “sensible long-term hold and long-term development”.
“It is very close to the main lobby of Crown so I think it makes sense for it to be integrated into Crown,” Mr Mayne told Southbank News, adding there was “merit” in a sky bridge if Crown was to build luxury apartments.
According to Mr Mayne, a former contributor to Southbank News and anti-pokies campaigner, it was a “chronic fail” by Crown not to have begun construction within two years of a permit being issued after being handed “a sweetheart deal” in which “they should’ve just got on with it”.
Mr Mayne added with tourism being non-existent and unprecedented impacts affecting business operations due to the pandemic, it was possible Crown could decide to offload the Queensbridge site.
However, with former Lendlease boss Steve McCann having recently taken the reins as Crown Resorts’ new CEO, Mr Mayne believed Mr McCann would “probably be more interested in the property development side of things than actually running a casino” with a “fair chance he will attempt to develop” One Queensbridge.
“Once Barangaroo [Crown’s Sydney hotel] is finished … the only remaining capital works item in the pipeline for Crown in Australia is Queensbridge Square,” he said.
“It doesn’t have to be a repeat of the ridiculous $2 billion proposal. They should just do something conventional that the City of Melbourne likes, that the Planning Minister likes … that doesn’t cost half as much and just build another hotel and some more high roller gambling suites.”
The owners’ corporation chair of neighbouring Freshwater Place Peter Renner said as Crown would be “quite distracted with two Royal Commissions” the One Queensbridge site “is not going to be the first thing that they’re going to be thinking about”.
“We’d love them to be talking to us at the time they decide to develop the property but who knows how far off that might be,” he said.
“If there’s one thing we’re disappointed about is that they did have a commitment to spend millions on Queensbridge Square and obviously that’s not happened.”
Mr Renner said it was “too prominent a site to leave vacant” and “would be very happy to see development there” provided it complied with the Melbourne Planning Scheme.
Southbank Residents’ Association president Tony Penna said the site remained “ghastly” and “graffiti-ridden” and hoped to see it developed eventually whether it be for commercial or residential use.
Meanwhile, anti-pokies federal Independent MP Andrew Wilkie said it “remains to be seen” whether Crown’s new boss Ziggy Switkowski, who is currently chancellor of RMIT University and chairman of NBN Co, was fit for the top job.
“He does have considerable high-level management and governance experience. But his real test will be achieving massive cultural change, where bad news is actively sought, and concerns are heard and addressed,” Mr Wilkie said.
“Genuinely sorting out Crown will take a serious commitment to listening to whistle-blowers, seeking out problems and dealing with them, something we’ve not seen at the NBN Co.”
Tim Costello, chief advocate of the Alliance for Gambling Reform, was critical of Mr Switkowski’s appointment, saying “it’s truly perplexing how Crown continues to miss the mark on enacting real reform, no matter how many opportunities they are given”.
“Crown is in desperate need of someone who has a proven track record of cleaning up a company, and especially one who has experience in dealing with money laundering issues. This appointment does not equal that,” he said.
In a statement Crown’s board said, “Ziggy’s experience and capabilities are well suited to meeting the challenges currently confronting Crown.”
“We are determined to restore the trust of regulators, investors, employees, customers and the wider community”.
The Royal Commission into the suitability of Crown Melbourne Limited to hold a casino licence in Victoria is expected to hand down its final report on October 15 •