Lots of residents have been asking what’s going to happen to the Broadway Hotel after the most recent fire. Both the State Government and Brisbane City Council have said they want the hotel restored, but that seems unlikely if it’s left up to the private sector.
I won’t run through the full, fascinating history of this hotel, but the most relevant immediate background context is that it was functioning as a bar and entertainment venue right up until 2010, when a fire caused some significant internal damage, but no major structural damage.
The current owner of the hotel site at 93 Logan Rd and the neighbouring vacant office building at 44 Balaclava Street is Malcolm Nyst, who currently owns or part-owns several other historic buildings around Queensland including the Fox Hotel on Melbourne St in South Brisbane. We understand Mr Nyst bought the hotel site (93 Logan Rd) for $700 000 in January 1997 from Quetel Pty Ltd but we haven’t been able to confirm that. The neighbouring site at 85 Logan Rd (which is currently used as an impound lot for towed cars) is currently owned by Mr and Mrs Economidis.
Photos from post-fire inspections in 2010, along with statements from a heritage restoration architect who worked on the hotel, confirm that the building was still very much salvageable. It probably would have cost less than $1 million to restore.
There have been more small fires in the building in recent years, including one on 20 May, 2017. You can read the fire inspection reports here and here. There were local anecdotal reports of another small fire in October 2017.
Image 1: The Broadway Hotel after the 2010 Fire; Image 2: The Broadway Hotel in August 2018
The hotel is protected on both Brisbane City Council’s local heritage register, and on the State Government’s State Heritage Register. This means both levels of government have powers and responsibilities to ensure the historic buildings are protected and maintained, and that both levels of government have to give approval for any new development affecting the site.
The heritage listing includes the main three-storey hotel building, but also the various one-storey and two-storey wings/ancillary buildings at the back and sides. Some of these ancillary buildings are also quite hold and carry a lot of heritage value in and of themselves. There’s even a World War 2 air raid shelter at the back of the property. You can read the State Heritage Register listing at this link.
World War 2 Air Raid Shelter
Highrise Development Plans
Over the last few years, Seb Monsour of Majella Properties was in negotiation with Mr Nyst and Mr and Mrs Economidis to buy the hotel site at 93 Logan Rd as well as the neighbouring properties (85 Logan Rd and 44 Balaclava St), subject to approval of a development application. This is not an uncommon practice for some developers. They get the written consent of the existing landowners to lodge a development application for a site, then once the development is approved, it becomes a lot easier for the developer to get loans from a bank to buy the land and finance the development.
Majella lodged a development application in March 2017 to build a 27-storey highrise tower on the hotel site (including 85 Logan and 44 Balaclava). The proposal included 262 residential apartments, 379 carparks and just under 5300m2 of commercial space. You can view all the plans at this link. The plans proposed to demolish the smaller buildings that are part of the hotel (some of which have significant heritage value), while preserving and restoring the main three-storey structure (the most iconic part of the hotel) at the front. From the moment my office became aware of the plans, we were pushing strongly for them to be rejected.
The site was zoned for 20 storeys, but heritage considerations can override the zoning, and there is a strong argument to be made that locating a 20-storey building so close to the hotel (and looming over it) would have undermined its heritage values. There was no guarantee that a 20-storey tower immediately behind the hotel would have been approved by both BCC and the State Government – a lot depended on the subjective discretionary judgement of the heritage experts within the State Government’s State Assessment and Referral Agency (SARA).
Even though the current LNP-dominated city council is very pro-highrise, it seemed unlikely to me that the 27-storey development application would have been approved by council, particularly considering that it required demolition of the ancillary wings of the hotel.
Tower with old hotel in foreground
On 9 June 2017, BCC issued an information request to the developer, raising concerns about the height and bulk of the tower, the insufficient setbacks (the space between buildings), the details of the proposed restoration of the main hotel building and a number of smaller issues. You can read the information request at this link. Disappointingly, although council was concerned about a 27-storey building, the council did not necessarily object to a 20-storey tower on the site behind the hotel.
Around June/July 2017, the developer applied to the State Government for approval for emergency demolition of several of the ancillary buildings on the basis that the small fire in May 2017 had made them unsafe and unsalvageable, and that urgent demolition was necessary. We understand that the State Government approved this partial demolition of the hotel, but it never happened.
In September 2017, it appears that the State Government approved Majella’s highrise development plans (including the demolition of the one and two-storey wings of the hotel). This was a disappointing and surprising move by the State Government, but it did not necessarily mean the city council would definitely approve the new tower. It seems SARA had no concerns about the loss of the one and two-storey wings of the hotel or the fact that a 27-storey tower would be looming over the old building. Meanwhile, the height concerns and other design issues raised by the council’s request for information were still an outstanding question mark.
Over the next few months, the developer requested multiple time extensions to respond to the council’s information request from 9 June, 2017. This suggests to me that Majella was not sure how to proceed and did not consider that the project would be commercially viable if council insisted on the 20-storey height limit. Presumably, Majella had calculated that it could afford to retain and restore the main hotel building (demolishing the secondary wings) only if it was able to build up to 27 storeys, but without the 7 extra storeys, it wasn’t profitable enough.
On 4 June, 2018, Seb Monsour (CEO of Majella) wrote to council requesting another three-month time extension. On 8 June, the council replied and gave Majella an extension for just one month, so a response was due from the developer on 9 July, 2018.
On 22 June, news broke that Seb Monsour had been charged by police for $5 million of investment fraud. The legal proceedings regarding these charges are ongoing and probably won’t be resolved for some time.
On 10 July, 2018, Seb Monsour wrote to Brisbane City Council and formally withdrew his development application.
Broadway demolition plan
On the night of Saturday, 1 September 2018, another large fire engulfed the main three-storey hotel building. Firefighters were called at 12:40am, suggesting the fire had started just after midnight.
Witnesses reported noisy explosions during the blaze.
I still haven’t seen any fire inspection reports, but it seems pretty unlikely that a definitive cause will be identified. As usual, the fire will probably just be blamed on squatters.
We don’t yet know exactly what condition the hotel is now in, although the damage looks pretty bad.
I’ve heard through the grapevine that structural engineers haven’t yet inspected the property properly because they don’t believe it’s safe to go in.
Was the Hotel Properly Maintained?
It’s pretty obvious that the hotel was not being maintained and secured to a standard appropriate for a State Heritage-listed building.
I won’t go into all the details, but it did seem like the hotel was being allowed to deteriorate. Photos taken inside the hotel in August 2018 show that a large amount of flammable debris had been allowed to build up inside the building. When these photos are compared to photos taken immediately after the 2010 fire, it’s obvious that the building was not being kept clean and secure. A lot of damage occurred after the 2010 fire rather than during the 2010 fire.
Major holes and leaks in the roof went unrepaired, and water damage was spreading throughout the building.
One photo from February 2015 even shows that old gas canisters had been left in the historic World War 2 air raid shelter at the back of the property. The presence of gas canisters on site might explain the explosions reported on the night of 1 September, 2018.
Our office regularly reported our concerns about the hotel to Brisbane City Council, as did many other residents. It seems that BCC and the State Government’s Department of Environment and Heritage Protection both inspected the property on multiple occasions, but only asked for minor security enhancements, such as boarding up doors and windows and erecting more fencing. Neither level of government issued any fines to the owner for failing to secure the property, or for failing to clean up the flammable debris inside the building.
Regardless of the cause of the fire, it seems obvious to me that the building was not being maintained in such a way as to minimise the risk of fire damage. Even cheap and simple steps like cleaning up old mattresses and piles of rubbish were not taken.
On one occasion, when I raised my concerns about the building directly with Seb Monsour, he said that because he wasn’t technically the owner (which is true), it wasn’t his responsibility to secure and maintain the building. Make of that what you will.
Ultimately, both levels of government failed to act to protect the building. In some other jurisdictions, if an owner of a historic building fails to maintain it, the government will go and make the repairs itself, and then bill the owner for the costs, but that doesn’t happen in Queensland. In this case, the State Government didn’t even issue simple fines to the owner, but seemed to accept that the steps the owner took to secure the property were sufficient.
Until someone produces some structural engineering reports, it’s an open question as to whether the building can be saved and restored. Deputy Premier Trad has said publicly that if the fire-damaged structure has to be torn down for safety reasons, it should be rebuilt in a manner identical to the original design.
In fact, if the hotel was renovated or completely rebuilt, new building regulations and disability access requirements would mean that some pretty major changes would have to be made to the internal layout and design of the building compared to the original design.
My main concern is that now the burnt out hotel is just going to sit there for another ten or twenty years.
It’s all well and good for council and the State Government to insist that the hotel should be rebuilt, but this ignores the commercial realities of the private property industry.
How Much is the Site Worth?
The site at 93 Logan Rd is a bit under 2200m2 and is zoned for 20 storeys. This is an usual site, and I’m definitely not a property valuer, but depending on market conditions, an empty block of land of that size in Woolloongabba might sell for anywhere between $3 and $8 million. If you sold it as a package with the neighbouring lots at 44 Balaclava St and 85 Logan Rd (taking the total site area up to around 3300m2) or you had an existing development approval for highrises, you could probably get even more for it.
But with a strict requirement to restore or rebuild the old hotel, which has a footprint of almost 900m2, the land is substantially less valuable and commercially attractive. You have to factor in the cost of building the old hotel (which local architects and developers tell me would probably be around $3 million) plus you have a significantly reduced development footprint.
The hotel business is risky at the best of times. And there’s already an oversupply in Woolloongabba of commercial space. Around the 4102 postcode, a lot of properties that have been fitted out as retail stores, offices, restaurants or bars are sitting empty at the moment. Even Majella’s development proposal did not actually include preserving the majority of the three-storey hotel building as a hotel, and instead contemplated putting the restored building to other uses.
When I asked one local developer how much he thought the site was worth if it included a strict requirement to rebuild the Broadway, he said it was almost worthless. Under current market conditions, it simply isn’t financially profitable to redevelop this site. That means the current owner will struggle to find a buyer, and no profit-focussed developer is going to want to touch it.
As someone who watches the trajectories of the Brisbane development industry pretty closely, and is well aware of how many developers are currently postponing or pulling out of other apartment development projects around Woolloongabba, I think it is very unlikely that anyone is going to want to lodge a new development application for this property any time in the next five years at least.
A recurring problem
Anyone who owns a heritage-listed property will confirm that maintaining them can be very expensive. Even when they haven’t been damaged by fire, heritage buildings can be a big financial burden. As a result, it’s quite common for old buildings to be left to deteriorate, or to mysteriously catch fire. A similar fate looks likely for another State Heritage-listed building in Kangaroo Point, known locally as Lamb House, which is sitting empty with big holes in the roof, and slowly falling apart.
Leaving historically significant buildings in private ownership is a dicey gamble, particularly in the inner-city. The owners have a lot of compelling financial motivations not to look after a building, because the land is usually worth more without the building on it.
That’s why it’s particularly important that when a heritage-listed building does fall down, or burn down or become infested with termites, strict limitations must be placed on how the site is redeveloped, to avoid creating an incentive for other property owners to neglect their buildings in the same way. If a hotel like the Broadway burns down, and a current or future owner is allowed to build a highrise on the site, the government is essentially rewarding and endorsing the owner’s neglect. So limiting development as a protective deterrent for other heritage sites makes a lot of sense. But it also makes private development less commercially viable.
It’s time to buy back the Broadway
The BCC and the State Government have backed themselves into a bit of a corner. Both levels of government share responsibility for the owner's failure to protect and maintain the hotel. And both levels of government have said they'd like to see the hotel restored. But it is not commercially profitable for private sector developers to do this, and that's not likely to change anytime soon.
If the hotel site remains in private ownership, the government can either allow a developer to knock down the fire-damaged hotel and build 20 storey highrises on the entire site (which I and most residents definitely don't support), or else the abandoned hotel is likely to just sit there for years and years, because private developers won't go near it.
Right now in Woolloongabba, there is an extreme shortage of useable public green space and community facilities. Local halls for hire are regularly booked out, and local community organisations are struggling to find affordable spaces to operate out of. Musicians and artists can’t find affordable spaces to rehearse and perform, and the local live music scene is vulnerable as a result of this. There’s a growing need in this part of the 4102 postcode for a new community centre, and for a range of other support services. The thousands of new apartment residents need spaces for recreation and connecting with their neighbours. They don’t have backyards of their own, so public parks are becoming particularly important.
The Broadway Hotel site is the perfect opportunity to create a new public park with a multipurpose community centre in the middle of it. It’s on a main transport corridor with good street frontages, and would link well to the existing chain of green spaces that connect to the Norman Creek corridor. All the sites around it are zoned for high-density development, so long-term, there are going to be a lot more people in this neighbourhood who are craving green space and community facilities.
Immediately adjacent to the hotel site is a council-owned carpark, which forms part of the road reserve. This under-used patch of bitumen could be combined with 93 Logan Rd (and possibly also 44 Balaclava St and 85 Logan Rd) to create a public park with an area of a couple thousand square metres. With a bit of creative design thinking, part of the site could also be used to build some government-owned public housing or crisis accommodation for people who are struggling to afford homes in the private sector.
I believe the State Government and Brisbane City Council should buy the Broadway Hotel site and bring it back into public ownership and control. There are a range of public uses to which the land could be put, but if we leave it up to the private sector, it’s just going to sit vacant and deteriorate further.
Ideally, the existing hotel could be restored and rebuilt as a community centre and live music venue, or a new community centre that replicates some of the quirky character of the old hotel could take its place. The current owner might not be willing to sell, but the State Government has the power to compulsorily acquire it. Given the site’s historical significance, and the fact that the building has not been properly protected while it remained in private ownership, I think this would be a fair and reasonable step.
It’s time to buy back the Broadway.
If you agree, please take a moment to email Lord Mayor Graham Quirk at email@example.com and the South Brisbane Member of Parliament, Jackie Trad (who is also the State Government’s Deputy Premier and Treasurer) at firstname.lastname@example.org and call on both of them to buy the Broadway Hotel and dedicate the site towards community purposes rather than private highrise development.
Another fire has caused further damage to the State Heritage-listed Broadway Hotel.
What does this mean for the future of the site? What does it mean for the development application proposing a 27-storey highrise?
Can the State Government or Brisbane City Council buy back the land and preserve this property for the benefit of the wider community?
Join us for a public meeting at 4pm on Saturday, 22 September to get the latest info and participate in discussions about how the community should respond going forward.
We'll meet in the park at the corner of Logan Rd and Jurgens St, Woolloongabba. If it's raining we'll meeting inside the Woolloongabba Substation next to the park.
We'll provide some snacks and drinks, but if you'd like to bring along more food to share, that would be greatly appreciated. We'll also provide a few chairs, but if you live nearby and can easily bring a folding chair along, that would help greatly.
45 Logan Rd
Woolloongabba, Queensland 4102
Google map and directions
A development application has been lodged for the site at 107 to 117 Jane St, West End, directly opposite Davies Park.
In some respects, this proposal actually achieves reasonably good outcomes from an architectural perspective, and is better designed than many of the highrises we've seen popping up around Brisbane.
My core concerns are that the building will cast long shadows on the park and particularly on Jane St Community Garden. I'm also concerned that building an additional 184 carparking spaces on Jane St will lead to further traffic congestion in this area.
The two proposed towers are 12 storey buildings, but some of the levels are actually twice the height of a normal residential storey. There's also substantial built structures on the roofs, meaning that the true height and the shadows cast by these buildings will be more like 15 or 16-storey towers.
I encourage residents to put in a submission raising concerns about the traffic impacts and overshadowing. Personally I don't object to the development altogether, but I'm concerned that the height and the amount of carparking is a bit excessive.
You can view the plans at this link.
You can make a submission via this link.
Because this is being treated as a code assessable development application, there will be no public notification, and council will make a decision relatively quickly unless there is strong feedback from the community.
There are also some great fact sheets on the Tenants Queensland website, including info on starting and ending a lease, landlords’ obligations to maintain the property, and what to do to ensure you get your bond refunded when you move out.
A new campaign for rent controls and stronger renters’ rights is building in Brisbane.
Residents are calling on the State Government to enact meaningful policy reforms that ensure greater stability for renters, moderate the negative impacts of gentrification, and help smooth out the peaks and troughs of the boom-bust property development industry.
In particular, we want the State Government to legislate a ‘right to remain’. This would mean that a landlord must renew a tenant’s lease unless the landlord or their family wants to move into the property themselves, or needs the property vacant in order to make major renovations. Even if a property changes ownership, the tenants would be entitled to remain and have their lease renewed unless the new owner actually wants to move in themselves.
We also believe the State Government needs to enforce a cap on how quickly rents can rise. This would give renters greater stability and financial security, and would help reduce the number of people who are made homeless when a neighbourhood becomes trendy and property values start rising rapidly.
For years now, the burden of advocacy, both in helping tenants with immediate issues like getting their bond back, and in terms of pushing governments to enact broader policy change, has been carried by the hard-working activists over at Tenants Queensland.
As a government-funded, non-party political advocacy organisation, Tenants Queensland has scored some big wins over the years, and I am strongly supportive of the work they do.
But there’s a gap in the Queensland political landscape. The Labor Party continues to pay lip service to tenants’ rights, supporting only modest policy reforms while bowing to pressure from the property industry. Simply put, the two major parties aren’t worried about losing votes on this issue, so there’s not enough impetus for positive change.
A new advocacy group called Brisbane Renters Alliance has formed to fill this gap. Brisbane Renters Alliance does not rely on government funding, so it has more scope to directly criticise and put pressure on the major political parties. Brisbane Renters Alliance is not controlled by or directly connected to any political party, but it actively supports political parties and candidates who are committed to introducing rent controls and a right to remain.
If you support the struggle for stronger renters, you can join Brisbane Renters Alliance via this link.
There's also a public Facebook page that you can follow for updates and announcements, and a closed Facebook group that renters are welcome to join to discuss policy demands and seek advice on dealing with real estate agents.
I intend to support the Brisbane Renters Alliance by co-hosting policy forums, co-ordinating direct action responses to unjust evictions, and directly supporting renters' rights campaigners. I've also decided to use my position as an elected representative to name and shame bad real estate agents.
If current trends continue, pretty soon 3/4 of Brisbane's inner-city population will be renters, most of whom are on short-term leases with very little stability, and who will likely remain renter for most of their lives. This makes the community especially vulnerable to the vagaries of the property market. A sudden spike in real estate values can result in thousands of people being forced out of their homes.
Right now, renters in Queensland have pretty weak rights. But renting doesn't have to suck. If we advocate collectively, we can follow other developed nations in introducing stronger rights and protections for rents, and create a better, fairer housing system for renters and home-owners alike.
The State Government’s South-East Queensland Regional Plan suggests Brisbane needs to build 188 000 dwellings over the next 25 years in order to cater for a population increase of 386 800 residents. This is obviously a pretty big number. The 188 000 dwellings figure is often used by LNP city councillors to justify why they are approving so many big new development projects. When I ask questions about whether all these new apartments are really necessary, the council's response is that the State Government has set the dwelling targets and they have no choice but to try to meet them.
I would argue that more government investment in regional towns could help spread this population growth around the State, encouraging more people to settle in rural communities that are currently experiencing workforce shortages and population decline. But even if you accept that a certain number of new residents simply must be housed in Brisbane, it’s worth recognising that the government’s 188 000-dwelling figure is based on the assumption that each dwelling will only hold an average of 2 residents, and does not appear to contemplate more efficient use of existing dwellings. So instead of focussing on how many standard dwellings we need, let’s talk about housing human beings instead.
The following paragraphs use some approximate figures and make a few broad assumptions, but my hope in writing this is that it will prompt further thinking and detailed research about what alternatives might be possible.
Right now, tens of thousands of homes in Brisbane are sitting empty long-term (some estimates put the number as high as 60 000 or 70 000). Unfortunately, some investors prefer to leave homes vacant rather than renting them out cheaply. When thousands of people are homeless, and over-development pressures are worsening, allowing so much housing to sit empty is not in the public interest.
A straightforward vacancy tax would encourage investors to rent out properties that are identified as long-term empty. Some investors would simply choose to pay the vacancy tax, and this revenue could fund local infrastructure. Others would sell their investment properties, giving first homebuyers a chance to own their own home. A broader-based investment property tax could have a similar impact. If a vacancy tax freed up even 20 000 homes across Brisbane for rent or purchase, this could house another 60 000 residents without anyone having to build a single new dwelling.
Encouraging different kinds of sharehousing
Although many of us have been socialised to lead individualistic lifestyles, and are losing the skills of cohabiting and sharing spaces, there are a lot of benefits to sharehousing or taking in boarders, particularly for demographics at risk of social isolation. A lot of older retirees have one or more spare bedrooms in their home. Providing incentives for some of these people to offer one of their spare bedrooms to a younger housemate would yield the twin benefits of providing affordable housing, and giving elderly people the emotional and practical support they need to remain living in their own homes. This homesharing approach has proven successful in a range of cities around the world (e.g. Melbourne, London, New York), and is preferable to building massive for-profit retirement villages that charge through the nose and cut elderly people off from the broader community.
There are a range of legislative and regulatory barriers that could easily be tweaked to make sharehousing more attractive both for renters and owners. While it’s true that household sizes have declined in recent years, this has been driven in part by housing designs that aren’t suitable for sharehousing. If we broaden our thinking about how we design and retrofit homes (including really simple stuff like having a separate toilet and bathroom) and what forms of property ownership we allow, sharehousing would be a lot more viable for more people. Brisbane City Council has given away millions of dollars in incentives to big developers to build new for-profit student accommodation. Much of this new student accommodation has been of poor quality, and will not be easy to adapt for other purposes if demand from international students ever decreases. There’s no reason the council couldn’t also offer various incentives to encourage renovating older properties to make them more suitable for sharehousing.
Census data suggests roughly three quarters of Australian homes have one or more spare bedrooms. There are currently about 465 000 dwellings in the Brisbane local government area. Around 70% of Brisbane dwellings have three or more bedrooms, but the average household size in 2016 was only 2.6 people, showing that even in a growing city like Brisbane, there are hundreds of thousands of empty bedrooms. Obviously a lot of people like their spare bedrooms and put them to other uses, but tens of thousands of Brisbane homes actually have two or even three spare rooms. And over the coming two decades, as households change and people move in and out of different kinds of properties, we could gradually make much better use of all that dwelling space.
It’s not inconceivable that by 2041 we could have housed an additional 150 000 residents via better sharehousing of existing homes, again without building a single new highrise tower.
Cohousing and granny flats
Cohousing differs slightly from sharehousing, in that while households might share facilities like laundries, gardens and entertainment areas, each household is largely self-contained and has slightly more private space to itself.
There are a range of different cohousing models out there, from concepts like the Nightingale Apartments, where private apartments make more efficient use of space via shared laundries and rooftop gardens; to eco-village communes, where different households cook together, garden together and maybe even share responsibility for looking after each other’s kids. Cohousing models create stronger local communities, are more resilient in times of crisis, and can save money through shared ownership of assets like carshare schemes and collectively-owned solar power systems.
Cohousing tends to be much more space-efficient than other forms of housing. Nightingale-style apartments typically house 30 to 60 people in a block which is only four or five storeys tall on a block that’s only 15m x 50m. In contrast, this new ‘conventional’ highrise development proposed for Kangaroo Point is 16 storeys tall on a similar site footprint, but only includes 15 separate dwellings. If we were to rely purely on buildings like that to meet the State Government’s target of 188 000 new dwellings by 2045, we would need to find room for more than 12 000 of these towers across the city. Cohousing is definitely a better approach.
The humble granny flat is one of the simplest cohousing forms, but current laws and regulations make constructing granny flats and tiny homes in the backyards of existing properties very difficult, particularly if you wish to subdivide and sell the granny flat or rent it out to someone who isn’t related to you.
Apart from older inner-city suburbs, Brisbane homes have traditionally had quite large backyards. Some of these are used for gardening, trees and recreation, but a lot of backyard space is under-utilised.
There are currently about 270 000 detached private dwellings in Brisbane. Many property owners would prefer to leave their backyards as they are, but if even 1 in 5 of these properties found room in their backyard for an additional small-footprint dwelling like a granny flat, and each of these held an average of 1.5 residents (i.e. roughly half were for individuals and half were for couples) we could accommodate around 80 000 additional residents.
Greater support for tiny homes and granny flats would also yield the additional benefit of increasing density in extremely low-density sprawling suburbs, allowing for the more efficient provision of public transport and other services. Although some people might be concerned about slight losses to private green space in suburban backyards, this is clearly preferable to the ongoing conversion of farmland and bushland into sprawling residential developments. Converting a small proportion of private backyards towards housing means more land can be set aside for bushland reserve and larger public parks, and fewer highrises crowding the skyline.
While the figures I’ve quoted so far are rough and approximate, they are also conservative estimates. They assume that most households would continue to leave spare bedrooms empty, that most properties would not build a second dwelling in the backyard, and that most vacant properties would remain empty despite a new vacancy tax. What I hope the figures demonstrate is that there are many ways to accommodate a growing population, and that the State Government and Brisbane City Council have been too hasty in assuming that the need to accommodate an additional 386 000 residents inevitably means we have to build new highrises right across the city.
Encourage small second dwellings on existing properties – 80 000 residents
Encourage more efficient use of empty bedrooms via sharehousing – 150 000 residents
Vacancy tax to reduce the number of homes sitting empty long-term – 60 000 residents.
80 000 + 150 000 + 60 000 = 290 000 additional residents
Rather than the 386 800 residents described in the State Government’s regional plan, we will actually only need to accommodate around 100 000 residents via wholly new development between now and 2041.
Medium-Density rather than Highrise
I take the view that encouraging more medium-density development is preferable to extremely dense highrises, and that this is where the majority of new housing supply should come from to cater for the anticipated additional 100 000 residents over the next 25 years.
The term ‘medium-density’ is ambiguous, and definitions vary widely. The State Government’s regional plan talks briefly about the importance of the ‘missing middle,’ referring to townhouses, terrace homes, flats and low-rise apartments of 2 to 6 storeys in height.
Height obviously isn’t the only key factor. There’s a big difference between a six-storey building that has no setbacks and is built right to the boundary, and a six-storey building that includes open space, room for trees, good cross-ventilation, and contributes positively to the streetscape. But if new developments include ample deep-planted trees and proper setbacks to neighbouring properties, the negative impacts of 4, 5 and 6-storey buildings on the streetscape can be greatly minimised.
In contrast, highrise towers extend well above the natural treeline, and have a much more significant impact on a street, particularly in terms of blocking sunlight and creating a wind tunnel effect. They also tend to be much more disruptive to the surrounding neighbourhood during their lengthy construction periods, and place a far greater ongoing strain on local transport infrastructure.
While in some parts of Brisbane, there is an understandable aversion to the proliferation of townhouses and low-rise apartment developments, this is primarily due to the anticipated negative traffic congestion impacts, which can be addressed through greater funding and support for public transport and active transport. Personally, if it’s a choice between townhouses and highrises, I’ll take the townhouses.
The takeaway from all this is that we don't actually need to build anywhere near as many new dwellings in Brisbane as the State Government has suggested. Those new dwellings that we do need to build can take the form of granny flats in backyards and medium-density townhouses and apartments, rather than highrises.
Last week at UQ we held the first of many public forums about renters rights.
We had a solid turnout (about 30 in total) of both local and international uni students, as well as other residents who weren’t connected to UQ but cared deeply about renters rights.
The discussion covered a range of topics including inadequate repairs and maintenance, landlords conducting surprise inspections without proper notice, and the tendency for real estate agents to give minimal notice before seeking to jack up the rent.
It was particularly interesting (but not surprising) to learn that a lot of the international students were paying as much as $150/week per bedroom more than what domestic renters would consider reasonable for the same standard of home. It seems obvious to me that new migrants who know less about Queensland tenancy law and have less access to information about average market rents are particularly prone to exploitation and rent-gouging by landlords and real estate agents.
Through small and large group conversations, we are beginning to crystalise a few key policy demands that seem to go to the core of the many varied issues that renters are concerned about. In particular, there’s a lot of support for some form of rent controls, and for rules against no-grounds evictions (i.e. landlords shouldn’t be able to end your lease if you don’t want to move out unless they’re moving into the home themselves, or are undertaking major renovations). I think we should be pushing for the rule against no-grounds evictions to extend to new owners, so that even if an investor sells a tenanted property, the lease should automatically continue unless the new owner wants to move in themselves or the tenants want to move out. I’m interested to know what other people think of this.
Rules against sharp rent increases and no-grounds evictions would help shift the power balance between tenants and landlords, giving renters more power to insist that landlords fulfil their existing legal obligations in terms of property maintenance etc.
In the immediate term, we have identified a couple of key tactics to put pressure on the political establishment and on landlords/real estate agents directly.
Resisting Evictions into Homelessness
Where we as a collective feel that a particular tenant is being forcibly evicted unfairly and has no safe home to move to, we will engage in civil disobedience to try to prevent such evictions. We need to address the tactical question of whether we will use direct action to resist evictions from privately owned dwellings or only evictions from government housing and community housing.
We also need further discussions about the best ways to organise such actions, because they are often required at very short notice. From time to time, we will need to mobilise activists quickly, and Facebook events/mass text messaging may not be the most efficient way to do this (although public facebook events with a large number of attendees do help manifest power and put pressure on the police).
Naming and Shaming Dodgy Real Estate Agents
Publicly outing the most exploitative real estate agents was widely agreed as an effective tactic, with the caveat that we need to be very certain that our public criticisms are legitimate and fair. It’s almost certain that some of the agents we shame publicly will sue for defamation. I’m happy to put my name to public statements naming dodgy estate agents as long as we’re confident that the criticisms of them are valid.
A suggested process is that when someone complains about a particular agent, we put the word out through various channels to see if other tenants have had similar bad experiences with that agent, then once we have enough stories about bad behaviour (e.g. at least five), we go public.
There’s a clear need for more info sessions and forums where people can learn what their basic rights as a tenant are and how best to get landlords to fulfil their responsibilities. One suggested format is that the first half of a 90-minute event could be a Q&A session with an expert who knows a lot about the Rental Tenancies Act, and the latter half of the group discussion could focus more on direct action and political advocacy. If anyone is keen to help organise one of these forums, it would be great to get together a pool of 5 to 10 volunteers who have the time and energy to put on forums in different neighbourhoods and in partnership with different community groups.
There’s a lot more to talk about, and I think as we all participate in more conversations about these issues through a range of formal and informal discussion spaces, we’ll gradually arrive at a shared understanding of strategic priorities and key policy demands.
Currently the Brisbane Renters Alliance Facebook Group serves as one of many spaces where such discussions can take place, but it could be cool to set up a slightly more secure online forum that’s also accessible to non-Facebook users if anyone has the energy and skills to do so.
Thoughts and feedback on all of the above are very welcome. Thanks to everyone who came along to the first discussion forum. Hopefully we’ll see a few more new faces at the next one.
Brisbane City Council is currently running a ‘consultation’ process called ‘Plan Your Brisbane’ where they seek resident input into future trajectories for the development of our city. Their marketing and messaging borrows a lot from the rhetoric of radical urban planners and community activists who argue that people should have more of a say in how their city changes and evolves.
But the main problem with this process is that there is no tangible connection or direct relationship between the feedback that residents provide and practical outcomes. The council is not giving residents a binding vote in how infrastructure budgets are allocated or meaningful input into the drafting of the city plan and neighbourhood plans themselves. It is not offering us a vote as to whether new neighbourhood plans that change an area should actually be introduced, or giving us a say as to alternative policy measures that could make more efficient use of existing buildings.
This whole consultation process seems to me like little more than sophisticated propaganda which seeks to shape values and harvest data for the LNP prior to the next council election. It contrasts starkly with true collaborative consultation where you empower residents to actually make the decisions that shape their city. Surveying people and then ignoring the results is not consultation.
A deeper problem with Plan Your Brisbane is that it purports to be a holistic conversation about urban planning, but artificially narrows the parameters of debate and oversimplifies many complex issues to the point of being outright misleading.
This deceptive over-simplification is perhaps most obvious in the Plan Your Brisbane game. Using games and apps to engage and educate residents about urban planning is a great idea if done well. Town planning can be a difficult thing to get people interested in (at least until there’s a skyscraper going up next door) so I’m supportive of using a range of avenues and processes to raise awareness and seek feedback. But this particular game is so simplistic and flawed that I think on balance it does a disservice to the goal of fostering a deeper understanding of complex urban planning issues.
The game revolves around the idea of trade-offs i.e. you have to accommodate people somewhere, so you can either choose high density with more public green space, better transport networks and better services, or low density with less efficient services, less green space, and more expensive housing. This is essentially the ‘tall vs sprawl’ line that the property industry has been running for a long time now to justify cramming more and more people into neighbourhoods that don’t have the infrastructure to handle rapidly growing populations.
It’s clearly unsustainable to continue our recent trend of car-centric suburban sprawl, where we keep replacing bushland and farmland with low-rise residential estates. But BCC’s implicit suggestion that the only viable alternative is to cram people into highrise concrete shoeboxes completely ignores all the great work that so many forward-thinking architects and town planners have been doing to flesh out alternative ways to design housing and develop cities sustainably.
The game quietly omits the fact that although Brisbane is now densifying rapidly, even in the inner-city our transport network planning continues to revolve around cars, with very little investment in bike lanes, pedestrian crossings, traffic calming or affordable public transport. It’s all well and good to argue that higher-density makes it more cost-effective to provide public infrastructure, but that’s not what’s happening in practice. Both Labor and the LNP continue to resist suggestions for lowering speed limits and prioritising active transport. We’re getting higher-density apartment towers, but most of the residents are still driving.
I’ve written in a separate post about how we can sustainably accommodate a growing population without building so many highrises. Contrary to the rhetoric of both Brisbane City Council and the State Government, it may not actually be necessary to build 188 000 new dwellings over the next twenty-five years. In fact, Brisbane could easily accommodate over 200 000 new residents simply by making more efficient use of existing housing stock.
But this isn’t just about how many new dwellings we need. It’s also about where in the city we concentrate growth, how much space per person we think people need to live a comfortable life, and what sort of transport network we develop. None of these questions are open for discussion via council’s Plan Your Brisbane process.
Where’s the conversation about decentralised nodal development that doesn’t concentrate commerce and job opportunities in the city centre, but instead creates medium-density eco villages where everyone lives within walking distance of their workplace? Where’s the conversation about making developers pay their fair share for the cost of infrastructure?
Perhaps the biggest myth perpetuated by this Plan Your Brisbane game is the idea that increasing the supply of private dwellings will significantly improve housing affordability, which is not necessarily true in the Australian context. The failure to even mention the important roles that stronger renters’ rights, vacancy taxes and government-funded social housing can play in improving affordability is a glaring omission from this discussion.
Unfortunately, my version of the game didn’t seem to include the button that lets you compulsorily acquire the sprawling backyards of inner-city mansions and turn them into public soccer fields and community gardens.
It’s all well and good to talk about trade-offs, but any consultation process that expects you to rank desired outcomes like ‘greenspace’, ‘affordability’, ‘lifestyle’ and ‘travel time’ as though they are mutually exclusive options has clearly succumbed to arbitrary and illusory constraints promoted by a profit-hungry property development industry. Where’s the survey question that asks me whether I would prefer to place higher taxes on big banks, multinational corporations or predatory land speculators?
Call me cynical, but I feel like this consultation process is a huge missed opportunity. I worry that a lot of residents who engage with it will feel frustrated and disempowered at being presented with such a narrow range of options. This in turn reinforces nimbyism, making people distrustful and apprehensive of any kind of development – even the well-designed medium-density mixed-use stuff that we need more of. Others will play the game and be completely suckered in by the false binaries, believing that there really aren’t any other alternatives and that the only future they can aspire to is working 50-hour weeks to pay off a 30-year mortgage on a 60m2 apartment.
The main question we should all be turning our minds to is “who makes the real decisions?” This Plan Your Brisbane game and the attached survey do not in any way connect to the city plan or the other laws and policies that actually shape our city. The endless pages of results and feedback will end up being condensed into an over-simplified table from which establishment politicians cherrypick data to justify whatever decisions their corporate financiers want them to make at the time. Behind closed doors, a small group of powerful people are carving up our metropolis and remoulding it to suit their own values and financial interests, while using ‘Plan Your Brisbane’ to gather information on how best to dupe the populace into passively accepting the status quo.
Rather than sham consultations, we need to demand genuine control over the future of our neighbourhoods and our entire region. If we quietly accept whatever they serve us, they’ll keep cooking up the same old shit.
Media Release: Residents Blockade Major Intersection to Call for Pedestrian Crossings and Public Transport Infrastructure
On Saturday morning (3 March) from 8:30am, frustrated West End residents will blockade the intersection of Vulture St and Montague Rd for 90 minutes, calling for more investment in pedestrian crossings and public transport services and to protest a 14-storey mega-development at 117 Victoria Street.
The Vulture Street blockade is expected to cause major traffic disruption along Montague Road, but residents say this is nothing compared to what will happen if the council keeps approving highrises without investing in public transport.
Local resident and architect Toby Robinson says he is supportive of urban densification that creates liveable neighbourhoods rather than just maximising developer profits. But he’s concerned that Brisbane City Council is currently doing a poor job of planning for growth. “Building extreme high density without basic infrastructure like public transport, pedestrian crossings and green space is not as sustainable as the property industry would have you believe,” he says. “Low-income apartment dwellers are being forced to accept sub-standard design and planning outcomes - most new inner-city apartments are designed to maximise developer profits rather than maximise quality of life for long-term residents.”
“BCC promised to build a new CityCat terminal near Victoria Street back in 2011 to cater for rapid population growth but it never happened, and now thousands of new apartment residents are stuck in traffic,” Mr Robinson says. “You’re gambling with your life just crossing the road to get to the bus stop because council won’t install a pedestrian crossing.”
“If the council keeps ignoring residents, we’ll have to keep blockading, because the system gives us no other option to have our voices heard.”
Local Councillor Jonathan Sri says BCC has been negligent in failing to install traffic lights at the intersection of Victoria St and Montague Rd, and that it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed. “This is a symptom of a broader problem across the city, where council approves developers to ignore the neighbourhood plan and cram in thousands of new apartments, but then wastes all its money widening roads instead of improving local infrastructure.”
“I am calling for a temporary halt to further high-density development in South Brisbane until BCC delivers basic essential infrastructure like pedestrian crossings, bike lanes and high-capacity public transport.”
“Contrary to government propaganda, mega-developments like the one we see at 117 Victoria Street do not significantly improve affordability for low-income residents,” Councillor Sri says. “We need medium-density public housing – not luxury highrises built for private profit.”
Residents will assemble in Davies Park on Montague Road from 8am, stepping onto the road and occupying the intersection of Vulture Street and Montague Road, West End from 8:30am to 10am. A permit for the blockade has been issued by police. Journalists are advised that traffic will be pretty bad, so we suggest arriving before 8am if travelling by car.
For further comments, contact Toby Robinson on 0423 766 046 or Jonathan Sri on 3403 2165.
Further concerns about the development at 117 Victoria St are outlined at this link.
Footage of the unsafe intersection of Victoria St and Montague Rd is online at this link.
Open Letter to Minister Steven Miles re: Destruction of Mangroves as part of the Queens Wharf Mega-Casino Development
Dear Minister Miles,
I write to you in your capacity as Minister for the Environment and Heritage Protection to request that you publicly oppose plans to fill in part of the Brisbane River and destroy many of the mangroves growing along the Queens Wharf riverfront in Brisbane’s CBD.
I understand that while you personally are not the final decision-maker in approving the designs for the Queens Wharf mega-casino, the mangroves cannot be removed without your approval as Environment Minister. You will also no doubt be consulted regarding whether you support aspects of the development which involve filling in and building out over parts of the river, and your recommendation for or against this will carry significant weight.
The plans for the Queens Wharf Brisbane Priority Development Area suggest that the casino developer will remove many of the mangroves and other established trees growing along the riverbank between the Goodwill Bridge and the Victoria Bridge, leaving only a few large individual mangrove trees to serve as a hollow reminder of the ecosystem that used to exist here. This application should not be approved.
The development application talks about a ‘mangrove walk’ and makes general statements about preserving mangroves where possible, but when you drill down into the detail of the Foreshore Environmental Management Plan and other associated documents, it becomes quite clear that the vast majority of the mangroves will either be removed or will suffer severe negative impacts from construction work. It seems the development approval would not include any strict conditions requiring the protection of the mangrove forest in its entirety.
These mangroves provide a wide range of crucial ecosystem services. They clean the air and the water. They prevent sediment and rubbish from flowing into the river and ultimately out into Moreton Bay. They are a breeding habitat for a wide range of aquatic species, as well as a hunting ground and refuge for native mammals, reptiles and birds. Their value is reflected in Brisbane City Council’s Biodiversity Overlay, which maps these mangroves as an area of ‘High Ecological Significance’ and the area of bikeway between the trees and the Riverside Expressway as a ‘Biodiversity Interface Area’ - a buffer zone in which high-impact development should be restricted.
This stretch of vegetation - including the larger pine trees on the river below the 1 William Street government building - is a crucial wildlife corridor for a long list of species that travel up and down the Brisbane River. The large water birds which sometimes hunt and rest here are a particular delight to tourists and locals (I’m not just talking about the ibis, but also the herons, egrets, cormorants, owls and tawny frogmouths that pass through this spot).
Mangroves help prevent flood damage by slowing floodwaters and stabilising the riverbank to stop erosion. These mangroves also screen the Riverside Expressway. I’m not sure how much they do to reduce the noise and air pollution, but they definitely improve the view when you’re looking across from South Bank.
Even if you don’t find these arguments persuasive, you must surely acknowledge that the presence of mangroves in the middle of the CBD is part of what makes Brisbane special. There are thousands of cities around the world with casinos and highrises and luxury riverfront restaurants, but relatively few can boast the abundance and diversity of inner-city flora and fauna that most Brisbanites too often take for granted.
Brisbane’s character and identity rests in part on the presence of intact vegetated corridors stretching through the suburbs and right into the heart of the city. It is this feature which attracts and enthrals international tourists and sets us apart. Very few tourists travel to Queensland to see bright lights and big buildings. They are drawn to our state’s many natural wonders, from the Great Barrier Reef to the lush National Parks in the Gold Coast hinterland. The heart of our capital city should also respect and reflect this identity.
When you stroll along the river’s edge early in the morning, or late at night, the stretch of mangroves along the CBD riverfront is a rare and beautiful thing. Other big cities around the world are currently incurring great expense to re-establish wildlife corridors along their rivers, whereas we already have them.
These trees are an important part of the river ecosystem and of the city more generally. They have not been well looked after in recent years. Rubbish has been dumped there. Trees have been hacked away unnecessarily. Pollutants from the expressway and nearby construction sites have been allowed to flow into the river unchecked. But this doesn’t mean these trees are not worth preserving.
Although I am opposed to the Queens Wharf mega-casino, I am not opposed in general to the redevelopment of this site. It will be great to see more of the CBD riverfront opened up to the public for recreation and sightseeing. But whatever uses the site is ultimately put to, it should still be possible to preserve this wildlife corridor. A flourishing mangrove ecosystem in inner-Brisbane could be a tourist attraction in its own right. But one or two lonely remnant trees will not serve as viable habitat and will not be able to regenerate themselves over time.
I’m conscious that letters such as this are sometimes filed away as miscellaneous correspondence because they don’t technically comply with the government-prescribed format for submitting feedback. I’ve found it extremely difficult to access the processes and available avenues for public submissions into the Queens Wharf development, and if I as an elected city councillor find it confusing I can only imagine that many other residents are also being excluded from meaningful input. I request that this letter be incorporated as a public submission regarding the main development application and any other subsequent applications relating to the removal of the mangroves.
I know that you personally have strong environmental values, and that you won’t want to see this mangrove forest destroyed. The question is what you will be able to do about it. Please take a public stand in opposing the removal of these trees. You have the power to stop this.
Councillor for the Gabba Ward
Business South Bank has just released a new report called ‘Vision South Bank’, sketching out possible future trajectories for the South Bank precinct.
As the local councillor for the ward which encompasses South Bank Parklands, I thought I’d share my initial thoughts on the document and some of the key ideas that flow out of it, with a particular focus on how this vision could impact on the broader South Brisbane neighbourhood and what it might mean for local residents.
I hope what I say here doesn’t come off as too negative, because there’s a lot of great stuff in the report. I have a lot of respect for what South Bank does, and in particular for its potential to continue growing as one of Australia’s leading artistic and cultural hotspots. I offer these thoughts in the hope that future detailed planning documents will benefit from constructive criticism at this early stage.
Like many of these big-picture vision documents, Vision South Bank is very light-on in terms of detail. Its intended purpose seems to be to put broad ideas on the table for further discussion rather than explain how they will be delivered or funded.
At first glance, the document is almost too vague to be worthy of much discussion and analysis. Most of the ideas are not new, and have been in the public domain for some time, but putting them all into one place serves as a useful starting point for further planning. Reading between the lines, the report actually reveals a lot about the values, biases, assumptions and goals of the organisations that produced it. In some respects, the issues the report doesn’t talk about are even more interesting than what it actually contains (here’s a link to the full report if you’re interested).
Perhaps most importantly, the release of ‘vision’ documents like this should not be understood as a satisfactory substitute for a proper masterplan of the Kurilpa Peninsula that’s driven by the community itself. There is currently no up-to-date masterplan for the development of the riverside reach to the west of GOMA and the State Library, and so development of this part of 4101 is currently occurring on an ad hoc basis with very little forward planning or coordination. The Vision South Bank report makes visible the fact that right now, development decisions for the Kurilpa Peninsula are being driven by the property industry rather than the needs and interests of the broader citizenry.