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What’s behind the lights?

Community waits on Crown “benefits”

11 Apr 2018

Community waits on Crown “benefits” Image

By Sean Car

The local community could be waiting a very long time for the “public benefits package” it was promised by Crown as part of its plans to construct Australia’s tallest tower at 1 Queensbridge St, Southbank.

Given the green light in March 2017 by the state government as a project of “state significance”, the inclusion of a $100 million public benefits package was the major factor that got the project over the line.

In exchange for the construction of its 90-storey residential and hotel tower, Crown and project partner Schiavello offered to fund long-awaited upgrades to Sandridge Bridge, Queensbridge Square and Southbank Promenade.

In its half-year statement released on February 22, Crown Resorts stated that its $1 billion joint venture with Schiavello remained the subject of “financing and long-form agreements”.

This was followed by a City of Melbourne report released on February 27, which noted that funding forecast in its 2017-18 council works program for Southbank Promenade had been withdrawn due to a delay in Crown’s project.

Billionaire James Packer has resigned as director of Crown Resorts for “personal reasons”, according to a statement released by Crown on March 21. He is understood to be suffering mental health issues.

Given exemption from the normal planning process by the state government under planning scheme amendment C310, Crown is now in a race against the clock to start construction and make good on its “public benefits”.

Conditions in the amendment state that the developer must commence construction within two years from the date of the project’s gazettal, which was March 2, 2017. It also states that the development must be completed within five years from the date construction starts.

Former City of Melbourne councillor and Crown Resorts shareholder Stephen Mayne said: “I very much doubt construction of the Queensbridge Square project will proceed before the March 2019 deadline given James Packer’s health issues, plus his clear desire to reduce his personal debts and the debts within Crown Resorts.”

“The Victorian Government would probably prefer nothing to happen before the November state election given the anger in the state seat of Albert Park, centred around Freshwater Place, about the fast-track planning approval for what will be the tallest tower in the southern hemisphere.”

“If construction were to commence this year, it would be very difficult for Martin Foley to retain Albert Park.”

Owners’ Corporation (OC) chair at neighbouring Freshwater Place Peter Renner said the delay made a “complete mockery” of the government’s decision to approve the application without normal planning scrutiny.

While having slammed his colleagues for approving an “unmitigated disaster”, Member for Albert Park Martin Foley didn’t respond to recent attempts by Southbank Local News to provide comment.

With his government having spruiked the project’s benefits to the state of Victoria following last year’s approval, Minister Wynne was similarly silent when recently asked about the project’s viability.

“The government gave the green light for this project because it will create 4000 jobs, build on our nation’s reputation as a leader for tourism, boost the economy and provide significant public benefits to the state,” Mr Wynne said. “Construction of the project is a matter for the proponent.”

Despite doubts cast over the timing and delivery of its project, a Crown spokesperson said Crown remained very supportive of the project, but wouldn’t comment on whether it would be able to meet its construction deadline.

“Crown remains very supportive of the project. The funding of the public benefits have always been tied to the project starting actual construction,” the spokesperson said.

“The start of the project is related to Crown finalising the project financing and various shareholder agreements as disclosed in our half year results.”

Should the developers fail to meet its obligations, amendment C310 states that the land may be used and developed only in accordance with normal planning rules in place at the time of the original approval.

With further delays looking increasingly likely, lord mayoral candidate Cr Rohan Leppert said that much-needed public works in Southbank, which council had flagged for many years, appeared no closer to being delivered.

“It is clear that no so-called public benefits from the approved Crown tower will reach Southbank any time soon,” he said.

“This tower broke every planning rule in the book. It will dominate the Melbourne skyline as a monument to private profit over the public interest.”

The government’s decision last year to provide Crown and Schiavello with planning approval for its 323-metre mega-tower, which will consist a 388 room six-star hotel and around 700 apartments, was met with widespread opposition.

With less than a year to go until approval lapses, Mr Mayne said it may be time for the council to start developing contingency plans for delivering some of the announced public realm improvements itself.

A council spokesperson wouldn’t provide comment on contingencies or Crown’s delay, saying all works remained linked to Crown’s planned development.

Council’s chair of planning Cr Nicholas Reece said: “Southbank Promenade is one of Melbourne’s most used walking routes and a terrific drawcard for tourists and locals alike.”

“We will be keeping a close eye on the timelines for the Crown development and will continue to push for improvements to the public realm.”

“It would be unacceptable for the city that such a well loved area like Southbank Promenade remain unimproved for an extended period of time.”

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