Allowing Residential Developments on Sport and Rec Land is Short-Sighted and Lazy

A couple of weeks ago, the Brisbane City Council started pursuing major amendments to the city plan which will allow for the construction of retirement living on land which is zoned for sport and recreation.

We’re now seeing a pattern throughout Brisbane where large for-profit organisations like Retire Australia are applying to build medium-density and high-density retirement living complexes on golf clubs and bowls clubs. So far I’ve heard rumblings of this in Ashgrove, Stafford, Tarragindi and Yeronga, and I’m sure there are many others in the works.

Council’s stated justification is that with an aging population, Brisbane is going to need more housing to suit retirees, and that we need to incentivise the property market to build more retirement living. Obviously retirement living that’s located in close proximity to a bowls club or golf club is going to be a lot more profitable for the developer. But there’s an important distinction between concentrating residential development near land that’s zoned for sport and recreation (which I think makes a lot of sense) and allowing that development to occur on sport and recreation land.

Sport and recreation land is a form of greenspace. While it’s not publicly owned parkland, it fills a very similar role within the urban landscape. I very much doubt that decades ago, when these pieces of land were first zoned as sport and rec, any of the people involved would have intended they be used for residential development. In many cases, the land which was given over to non-profit community groups specifically for sporting purposes was originally public parkland.

The development industry and the LNP have tried to argue that if you oppose these kinds of projects, you’re opposing affordable retirement living for elderly people. This is utter bullshit. The types of projects we’re talking about and the companies involved are entirely profit-driven. This is not means-tested, state-subsidised affordable housing for pensioners. These projects are primarily targeted at wealthier self-funded retirees who are willing to pay more so they can live in the middle of a big patch of green space.

I think there’s a legitimate debate to be had about whether golf courses are an efficient use of space (they probably aren’t) in a growing city like Brisbane, but even so, such sites should be converted to other forms of useable green space including bushland reserves, community gardens, public parkland or for other sport and recreation purposes. We should not be giving over land which is designated for green space and community use to private residential developers.

Council’s other justification for encouraging these projects is that some sports clubs are struggling financially, and need a new revenue stream. I’m sympathetic to the plights of clubs that find themselves in this position, but handing over their only major asset to a private developer is a pretty short-sighted survival strategy that breaks faith with the people who originally granted these plots of land to the clubs in the first place. It’s a particularly dicey approach when you consider the increasing likelihood of a property market collapse.

The developers and city council have been at pains to emphasise that the projects they have in mind would not involve converting whole sport and rec sites to residential retirement complexes, and that bowling greens and other recreational facilities would still be preserved as part of these developments. But that misses the point. No portion of land which is zoned for sport and recreation should be privatised and commodified in this way unless there is a very significant broader public benefit.

In this case, the public benefit seems virtually non-existent. There is no evidence that these kinds of developments will be affordable for people on lower incomes. There is no cross-subsidising system where wealthier retirees pay more so that poorer pensioners can also afford to live in these complexes. There is no public housing component.

At a time when more people are shifting to denser apartment living arrangements and foregoing backyards, when all kinds of sports clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to secure inner-city spaces for training and games, it is ludicrous that council and the state government would facilitate converting green space into private development. This is a very slippery slope. At first we might only be talking about a couple of apartments above an existing clubhouse, but once the precedent is set, it’s a fair bet that developers will claim that more and more of the sport and recreation land must be developed for the project to remain financially viable.

There’s a lot of profit to be made from developments that target the ‘grey dollar.’ As other sectors of the housing market start to look shakier (e.g. apartments for young professionals), big investors are shifting towards projects that they consider to be a safer bet. In turn, they are applying more pressure on councils and state governments to loosen planning restrictions to support these developments. Catchphrases like ‘aging in place’ are bandied around gleefully, in spite of the fact that ‘aging in place’ is supposed to refer to adaptable housing styles where someone can transition through different stages of life without having to move, and that using ‘aging in place’ to justify these kinds of developments is extremely misleading.

Even when analysed through a ‘neoliberal,’ ‘free market’ lens, it’s extremely problematic to only allow one very specific kind of for-profit residential development on sport and recreation land. This land is cheap to buy and sell specifically because you’re NOT ALLOWED to build residential apartments on it. Companies like Retire Australia are deliberately targeting these sites because they know they can buy or lease them off struggling sports clubs for a fraction of what the land would be worth if it was zoned for residential. This kind of ad hoc, profit-driven tinkering with the market is short-sighted, poorly justified, and a huge slap in the face to neighbouring residents who thought they were buying a home in close proximity to these green spaces, only for them to be converted into highrises.

Brisbanites must clearly reject this policy change from Brisbane City Council and recognise that there are far better, more equitable ways to provide housing for older residents. Sport and recreation land must be preserved for future generations. Private profit-oriented retirement developments do not satisfy the definition of 'community use'. Sports clubs that generate ongoing benefit to the broader community must be supported financially by councils and state governments, rather than forced to jump on the increasingly shaky construction boom bandwagon in order to remain afloat. Green space must not be sacrificed in the interests of short-term profit.