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What next for Crown’s One Queensbridge site?

11 Nov 2020

What next for Crown’s One Queensbridge site? Image

By David Schout

After a tumultuous 2020 has seen profits plummet and damning revelations exposed, Crown Resorts’ plans for the former One Queensbridge site have been thrown further into doubt amid circulating rumours of plans to sell the site.

Last month it was revealed the company’s flagship Southbank casino potentially breached anti-money laundering laws, before a damning independent NSW inquiry found it unfit to hold the licence for its soon-to-open $2.2 billion Sydney casino.

The damaging findings further compound the issues facing Victoria’s largest private employer, and on the surface throw into doubt any potential movement on the 1-29 Queensbridge St development.

Without a planning permit (which expired in March 2019) and little clarity given to shareholders in August, the project which once promised $100 million in public benefits appeared in trouble.

Activist shareholder Stephen Mayne said the clock was running out on the Southbank development.

“You would have to say the likelihood of it being developed recedes with every passing week,” Mr Mayne said.

“The economics of the Sydney development are looking more and more disappointing and you’d think with Crown worried about losses and plunging revenues the last thing they’d be doing was launching a billion dollar-plus development in Melbourne. So, it wouldn’t surprise at all if Crown chose to sell One Queensbridge; they don’t have any form of planning approval for it, the economics have never stacked up and the company is under siege. So, you can’t imagine that such an ambitious growth project would be given any form of priority in the period ahead.”

Crown and former venture partner Schiavello received a favourable planning permit in 2017 to develop what would have been Australia’s tallest building on the basis it would be a site of “state significance”.

In return, it promised a “public benefits package” that was due to include long-awaited upgrades for locals, including to Queensbridge Square, Sandridge Bridge and Southbank Promenade.

After the permit for the mega-tower expired in 2019, and an extension was ultimately refused by Minister for Planning Richard Wynne, Crown Resorts purchased Schiavello’s 50 per cent stake in the site.

In August, Crown Resorts chief executive Ken Barton told investors it maintained plans to build a hotel on the site, although it was now considering commercial or even residential additions to the development.

The following month, City of Melbourne’s planning chair Nicholas Reece told Southbank News that Crown’s ongoing delays were “extremely frustrating”.

Cr Reece said any decision about whether council will fund the upgrade itself would be subject to a decision by the new council.

Mr Mayne said the recent revelations against Crown, plus a near stop on migration and tourism as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, meant he would not be surprised if they opted to offload the site.

“They first bought into it several years ago now and nothing has happened. They’ve lost a lot of money putting up plans and not proceeding with it. So, it wouldn’t surprise me if they cut their losses and sold it, and booked a loss overall.”

The owners’ corporation (OC) chair of nearby Freshwater Place, Peter Renner, said it was almost nine years ago he first met with Schiavello to hear proposed plans.

“It’s been a long, long time,” Mr Renner said.

“Given the current climate, I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to happen really quickly. If Crown are to go ahead with the development, we at Freshwater Place would welcome that — we’re not against development — we are just hopeful it would be appropriate development that would respect the rights of our owners in terms of access to daylight and privacy.”

Southbank Residents’ Association (SRA) president Tony Penna said it was unfortunate the local benefits hinged on Crown.

“Without that money we’re not getting those upgrades,” he said.

Mr Penna was similarly uncertain about the site’s future, but echoed Mr Renner’s sentiments.

“From our point of view, we’re looking forward to that site being developed, [and] all of those buildings along there between Freshwater Tower and Prima to be developed. It’s quite ghastly and a blight on our area, but any development that happens on that site needs to conform with the planning scheme. It needs to respect the setbacks of Freshwater Place particularly.”

“Shocking” and “embarrassing” findings for Crown, regulator

Mr Mayne, a former contributor to this masthead and outspoken critic of the gambling industry, said the recent findings against Crown were “embarrassing” for the state’s gambling regulator, the Victorian Commission for Gambling and Liquor Regulation (VCGLR).

“It’s been shocking the revelations coming in through the NSW inquiry where their ability to hold a licence in Sydney is under threat, which raises instant questions about the security of the Melbourne licence where many of the transgressions have occurred,” he said.

“I think it has highlighted that the VCGLR is somewhat of a paper tiger regulator, and it’s embarrassing for Victoria that it’s taken a NSW inquiry to reveal all sorts of dubious practices at the Melbourne casino.”

The regulator has issued Crown with a show-cause notice as to why it should not be disciplined over dealings with organised crime groups.

On November 8, Premier Daniel Andrews ruled out taking action until the NSW inquiry’s final report was handed down early next year.

“You would think that the VCGLR would take some action but their history is of being particularly tame. So, it’s difficult to predict which way they will jump. Daniel Andrews has a long history of support for the gambling industry,” Mr Mayne said.

“It will come down to a question whether the Premier feels sufficient pressure to insist that the regulator take much stronger action, similar to what we’re seeing in NSW.” •

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