Priorities for the Gabba Cross River Rail Station Redevelopment

The State Government is just beginning its next round of ‘consultation’ regarding the Cross River Rail project, with a particular focus on future options for the new station in Woolloongabba, immediately to the west of the Gabba Stadium. If you haven’t heard much about the Cross River Rail project before, you can find more info at this link.

The new Gabba train station and the redevelopment of the government-owned GoPrint site is a massive opportunity to transform the central part of Woolloongabba for the better. As I’ve outlined in previous statements, there’s a strong local need for more public green space, more community facilities and more public housing. Unfortunately, there’s not much sign of that in the initial documentation and concept designs released by the government.

The government’s initial concept design:


Consultation?

Sadly, the State Government is even less consultative than Brisbane City Council when it comes to planning big new development projects. They tend to survey a small proportion of people to get a rough (often unbalanced) idea of what the public wants, but will generally only pay lip service to public opinion and instead defer to the priorities identified by the public service and the private sector. In the case of the Gabba station, the main question the government is interested in hearing from the public about is what should happen above ground. The more input people provide via the government’s various engagement channels (such as consultation stalls at community events, or by emailing in feedback to info@crossriverrail.qld.gov.au) the better chance residents will have of influencing the final outcome.

Other stakeholders, such as the Gabba Stadium and major commercial interests, will be advancing their own agendas via detailed submissions and private meetings, so it’s important that residents and local businesses also speak up as loudly and as often as possible, not only by engaging with the proscribed consultation channels, but by directly contacting your State MP, Jackie Trad, at South.Brisbane@parliament.qld.gov.au.


Funding

We don’t know exactly how much money the government is planning to spend redeveloping the land above the Gabba Station and the surrounding public realm. We think it’ll be around 100 million dollars . This will largely depend on how much political pressure residents apply. We do know that generally speaking, the State Government is pretty cash-strapped, in large part because they waste so much of their money on supporting unethical industries (e.g. coal mining, horse racing) and flawed infrastructure projects (e.g. building expensive new prisons). This means the government will be considering options to sell development rights to private developers, and won’t be able to deliver everything the community needs and wants. So residents will basically have two things to push for:

  1. As much public funding as possible, to ensure the whole site isn’t just sold off to private developers
  2. Ensuring that the elements that residents consider priorities are at the top of the list to receive whatever funding IS available


Site Development Options and Constraints

There are some crucial traffic factors influencing how the GoPrint site can be redeveloped. The underground station will make it very difficult to provide much underground carparking. And the busway station along the southern edge of the site will make it almost impossible to have cars exiting directly onto Stanley Street. The land is bounded on all sides by very busy main roads which are heavily congested. This road network simply doesn’t have capacity to handle hundreds of additional car movements that might be associated with a new development. It would be impractical to include much carparking on this site, as this would encourage more people to drive to this location, clogging already-congested roads.

Happily, this location will have some of the public transport coverage in the entire country, with both a train station and busway station. Key destinations like South Bank, Kangaroo Point cliffs, the hospital precinct and even the local primary school are all within easy walking distance, and the Woolloongabba Bikeway project running along Stanley Street will provide great cycling connectivity to major universities and high schools. So this site is the perfect candidate to be redeveloped as a car-free development. With the exception of a small amount of disability accessible parking, carshare parking, loading zones and service vehicle parking, this should be a completely car-free development. People who live or work on the site should be expected to travel by active transport or public transport, rather than driving.

The complicated traffic environment will also tend to increase construction costs and logistical challenges. Even smaller highrise development sites can have dozens of truck movements a day, so to redevelop this whole site in one hit would likely cause huge local traffic disruption, suggesting that construction should instead occur in stages.

A car-free development would suggest that certain kinds of land use options (such as luxury highrise residential) are less likely to be commercially viable for private developers. Mega-rich residents tend to want space for their own cars even when there are good public transport and carshare alternatives available.

On the flipside, building lots of public housing for low-income residents right on top of a train station and busway makes a huge amount of sense. It’s much better to provide affordable housing for low-income residents in the inner-city, close to public transport, than forcing them to the outer suburbs where land is cheaper but they have to spend much more of their income on car ownership and petrol costs.

Structural engineers have also suggested that building extremely tall buildings will be more complicated than normal, as the deep footings needed for skyscrapers might be harder to construct due to the underground station. This doesn’t mean very tall highrises are impossible, but simply that there might be additional challenges and costs.


Public Green Space

Green space is one of the biggest needs in central Woolloongabba. The immediate surrounding neighbourhood is already very under-served by public parks, and is experiencing even more rapid densification with multiple residential and commercial developments under construction. Public green space is especially important for residents in high-density housing who don’t have access to private backyards or large internal entertaining areas. Brisbane City Council’s ‘Desired Standards of Service’ for parks identifies that within an immediate local area, there should ideally be 0.8 hectares of general recreation green space per 1000 residents and 0.6 hectares of more natural vegetated green space. Woolloongabba currently falls a long way short of these targets, so even if no new residential development was included on the Gabba station site, it would still be necessary for the State Government to include a large public park to cater for all the residents in nearby apartments. Adding more residential apartments to the site will necessitate also providing more green space to cater for them.

There’s already almost 8000m2 of green space to the west of the GoPrint site around the Motorway (between Allen St and Leopard St) which would be extremely expensive and difficult to construct buildings on. Spending a bit of money to improve pedestrian access to these green pockets, shield them acoustically from the noisy roads, and vegetate them more heavily as a dense bush reserve with a network of short walking tracks might be one way to provide additional useable natural green space for current and future residents of the precinct. But whether that happens or not, it seems crucial to me that at least one quarter of the GoPrint site (approximately 1 hectare) needs to be redesigned as public parkland for the benefit of residents and workers in the area. (For comparison, the Brisbane City Botanic Gardens, which is quite close to the site of the Albert St Cross River Rail Station, is about 18 hectares) You can’t cram people into highrise apartments and office blocks without also giving them somewhere to stretch their legs or sit under a tree.


Community Facilities

With many more residents living in highrise apartments, there’s a growing need in Woolloongabba for a range of community facilities and services – public libraries, tool libraries, bookable meeting spaces, halls and venues for parties and community concerts, crisis support services for vulnerable people, workshop spaces, and rehearsal rooms and studios for artists and musicians. So it will be important for the land above the Gabba station to include a large, general-purpose community centre which can fill many of these roles, acting as an anchor for the neighbourhood and helping the precinct flourish.

Right now, there are lots of empty shopfronts around Woolloongabba, so simply building more ground-level retail and commercial spaces in the hopes of ‘activating’ the precinct might not be the best strategy. Instead of cramming heaps of restaurants and shops onto the GoPrint site, it might make sense to have only a modest amount of ground-level commercial uses, and focus on improving connections through to the businesses on Stanley St and Logan Rd. This would free up more space for the kinds of community uses mentioned above, creating a more diverse precinct that doesn’t just feel like all the other restaurant and café destinations around Brisbane.


Pedestrian Linkages

In recent media releases, the State Government has floated the concept of a big pedestrian overpass linking the new train station to the Gabba Stadium. I do see the logic of such a proposal. And if the government had a blank cheque for this project and was willing to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on the above-ground embellishments, maybe it would be worthwhile. But before we get all excited about the benefits of a pedestrian overpass at this location, let’s take a step back and consider our priorities.

Councils and governments resort to pedestrian overpasses because they don’t want to slow down cars. It would be cheaper and easier to simply change pedestrian crossing signal times to give greater priority to pedestrians to cross at ground-level, but apparently cars are more important.

A pedestrian overpass of the kind shown in this artist’s impression would likely cost tens of millions of dollars, with added costs associated with the complexities of constructing it over a very busy road corridor. It has to be tall enough to allow large trucks to pass underneath, it has to be strong enough to carry high volumes of pedestrians and to resist extreme weather events, and it will probably require elevators and long ramps in order to meet accessibility standards. It’s also worth noting that the big beautiful trees currently growing next to the stadium in Woolloongabba Place Park would have to be removed to make way for the tiered seating showed in the image.

But apart from major event days, an overpass to the stadium might not get much use. Activating the proposed tiered seating and green space next to the stadium is going to be difficult with the noise and air pollution from Ipswich Rd/Main St. Very few people are going to want to hang out on those steps to watch trucks roar past.

Have a look at the large public space in front of Lang Park stadium at Milton. It too has a pedestrian overpass connecting to the train station, and is much better shielded from passing traffic, but most days of the year, it’s just a big empty lonely patch of concrete, because very few people want to visit the stadium precinct except on game days. The Gabba is a slightly different story to Milton as it has a larger local population and more local businesses, but it’s worth being a bit sceptical of these shiny-looking artist impressions.

The central part of Woolloongabba struggles due to the poor pedestrian connectivity across different sides of the Ipswich Rd-Stanley St intersection. Shops along the southern side of Stanley St struggle to attract customers, and the cul de sac of Logan Rd (the old antiques precinct) also feels a bit dead at times.

When we think about connectivity priorities to the new station on the GoPrint site, on most days of the year, there will be many more people seeking to travel in other directions for work and leisure, but comparatively few heading to/from the stadium.

From the future Gabba station, lots of people will be heading northwest to get to the Kangaroo Point cliffs and apartment blocks, north across Vulture St towards residential and commercial properties, northeast towards residences and businesses, southwest towards the Mater Hospital precinct, south across Stanley St to more high-density apartments and office blocks, and southeast to the Logan Road businesses and apartments. Comparatively few people will be heading east across Main St to and from the stadium on an average work day.

A pedestrian overpass directly to the stadium is not likely to give much of a boost to businesses along Stanley Street or help activate the wider Gabba precinct.

So it’s worth querying whether spending millions of dollars on an overpass to connect to a stadium is the best use of money. An alternative approach would be to create scramble crossings at the Ipswich Rd-Stanley St and Vulture St-Main St intersections to improve pedestrian connectivity to the train station, and on major event days, simply close Main St to through-traffic, diverting vehicles via Wellington Road.

Attendance at major sporting events is dropping consistently, and shows no sign of increasing again in the near future. Even if the Gabba Stadium is used more frequently for other big events like live music concerts, I’m not sure that the very high cost of building an overpass is the best use of money.

I’m open to being convinced otherwise on this, but I think I’d rather see the money spent on more public housing.


Selling off Development Rights to the Private Sector?

My general view is that in inner-city areas, where land values are likely to continue increasing long-term, it is short-sighted to hand government-owned land to the private sector, whether on a 99-year lease, as a permanent sale, or in exchange for a developer paying for other works (e.g. a pedestrian overpass). It’s rare for the State Government to have control over such a large inner-city site (particularly one that’s immediately above a train station), so we should not be too hasty in jumping to conclusions and bringing in private developers to build office towers and residential highrises.

Rather than selling off development rights, the government should retain ownership of all future residential and commercial properties built on the site. Well-located commercial properties on a major train station will likely generate significant rental revenue for the government over the long-term. While some residential homes will be rented out at low rents to the most vulnerable members of society, other apartments could remain under public ownership while being rented out at market rates to key workers. There’s a strong and growing need for more public housing in Brisbane’s inner south side, and it makes sense to co-locate public housing with a commercial hub where those low-income residents will have better access to job opportunities and transport services.

If the government feels it does not have enough money available to completely redevelop the whole site immediately, it would be better to stage the project, leaving some parts of the site undeveloped as open green space for a few years until money is available to build more public housing. Retaining ownership of the land and developing it gradually using public funds is preferable to selling it off to the private sector, particularly if the land can be put to other valuable short-term uses in the interim.


Broadway Hotel and Urban Realm Improvements

The Broadway Hotel site, at the intersection of Logan Rd and Wellington Rd, is the southeast gateway to central Woolloongabba. It’s also a key linkage between the massive South City Square mega-development and the Gabba stadium and future Gabba station.

The fire-damaged State Heritage-listed hotel takes up around 900m2 of the 2300m2 site. As discussed elsewhere on my website, due to the requirement to rebuild and restore the hotel, the local oversupply of commercial spaces and the shaky and uncertain inner-city apartment market, it is extremely unlikely that any profit-driven private developer would consider it commercially viable to redevelop the site anytime soon. The hotel has already been sitting vacant since 2010. If this building remains in private ownership, the most likely outcome is that it will sit empty and abandoned for several years to come. This is a poor outcome for the community and a bad look for the neighbourhood.

However, I believe there’s a strong case that as part of the redevelopment of the GoPrint site, the State Government could take a small proportion of the total budget and spend it on urban realm upgrades along key corridors that link to the station.

The Broadway Hotel site is worth somewhere between $3 to $5 million in its current state, which is a comparatively small figure in the context of the Cross River Rail project’s $5.4 billion total budget. As part of the station development, the State Government should be improving footpaths, planting street trees and making other targeted improvements to the public realm (such as better lighting, seating and public art).

The pedestrian routes that need the greatest attention are Ipswich Rd, Leopard St, Stanley and of course Logan Rd. By acquiring this site on Logan Rd, and combining it with the adjoining 800m2 triangle of council-owned land (currently used as a carpark), BCC and the State Government could create a new community centre next to a small public park, which would serve as a significant landmark and point of interest along this corridor. Developing the Broadway Hotel as a civic space halfway between Gabba Station and South City Square would help activate this whole corridor, supporting this stretch of Logan Rd to transform into a vibrant, cosmopolitan mixed neighbourhood, rather than a series of carparks and underutilised warehouses.

If you would like to see the government allocate resources towards acquiring and restoring the Broadway Hotel, please mention this in any opportunities you have to give feedback on the Cross River Rail project.


A possible short-term use of undeveloped land

If, as mentioned above, the State Government does not have the funds immediately available to develop higher-density residential or commercial buildings on some parts of the site, there are a range of options available to make use of this land in the short-term.

One common challenge of new mega-developments is the fostering of connected communities and organic local character. Too often, mega-developments in Brisbane lack soul, and feel just like all the other big shiny new development projects in cities around the world, without interesting or distinctive features. Ground-level retail tenancies often sit empty for several months, and new businesses struggle to attract tenants until there are enough new residents and workers nearby.

One strategy to create an instant community, bring life to an area, and make productive use of inner-city land until it’s redeveloped would be to temporarily designate a small proportion of the GoPrint site as a caravan park, with the intention of creating a neighbourhood of tiny houses and portable dwellings. Small sites could be leased out to long-term tenants for a fixed period of 5 years, or on a short-term basis to tourists in caravans and campervans who are travelling through the city.

Tiny homes can be designed on trailers as off-grid dwellings, with solar panels, greywater recycling and rainwater harvesting to reduce the need for expensive mains infrastructure. These homes can either have off-grid compost toilets, or share access to a common toilet and laundry block as is common with other caravan parks in Brisbane. This kind of short-term, temporary activation of a site can bring more people into an area, offering the necessary population base to bring life to local community facilities and customers to local small businesses.

Another obvious alternative use of the land would be to leave a significant proportion of the site available as publicly accessible open green space until the State Government has the funds to develop it. In the long-term, both the State Government and BCC are looking at acquiring large industrial sites to provide more green space for residents of the inner-south side, but until that happens, providing a significantly larger temporary public park on the GoPrint site would make a lot of sense.

There are many potential temporary uses for land on the GoPrint site and I think local residents should be given more input into what happens here over the next few years. What’s important though, is that the State Government doesn’t just go for the short-sighted option of selling off development rights to the private sector. It’s better to hold on to land and develop it later for the public benefit, rather than selling it off to the private sector and losing future flexibility.

There’s so much to think about with this project, but what’s crucial is that residents speak up loudly and clearly at every opportunity. The government’s instinct will be to ignore or pay lip service to residents and local businesses, but we mustn’t allow them to do this.

As mentioned above, if you’d like to provide feedback on the redevelopment of the Gabba station and the surrounding neighbourhood, please send an email to South.Brisbane@parliament.qld.gov.au and info@crossriverrail.qld.gov.au (and CC in my office at thegabba.ward@bcc.qld.gov.au because I’d like to know what you think too).