Brisbane’s losing streak – Queen’s Wharf

By Richard Kirk and Catherin Bull

As Minister Lynham concludes the negotiations on Queen’s Wharf in Brisbane he needs to take stock before taking this giant leap into the unknown. Much is at risk and it is evident these risks are not recognised or even understood when you compare the delivery process of Brisbane’s Queen’s Wharf to that of Sydney’s Barangaroo – projects identical in scale and significance.

As Sydney’s Barangaroo nears 10 years of development, Brisbane’s Queen’s Wharf is only just at the beginning. The projects are similar in many ways, they are very big, they occupy the western fringe of their respective city centres, they both contain a casino and they are both to varying degrees contentious. But this is where the similarities end.

So what are the differences and why does it matter? Don’t we always do things differently here in Queensland?

Let’s first look at the context of the sites – Barangaroo occupies a disused wharf precinct on the edge of the city, whereas the Queen’s Wharf development is placed within an established part of the city right within the Queensland Government Precinct.

So Sydney has a clean slate of an empty site and Brisbane has a complex existing city context within a setting of 19th Century sandstone buildings. The Sydney context is straightforward because the urban form is flexible, the Brisbane context is complex and challenging because the existing city block sizes and existing heritage buildings (some of our finest) are limiting in design options.

For Sydney’s Barangaroo the public benefit is clear. A disused part of the city is reconnected to the city – it is reintegrated and it provides linkages to the water edge of Sydney harbour. In Barangaroo half of the site is predicted to be left as high quality open public space, the other half is reserved for private development. We understand the symbolic premise of this 50/50 split – it is an equal partnership between public and private interests.

In Queensland we simply are not told what the public benefit is – is it cash? Is it a pedestrian bridge we don’t actually need? Or is it a reclaimed park that sits in the river below an expressway which is noisy, will have air quality issues, and will increase the flood risk? What do we receive in return for handing over our city to the consortium of local and international property moguls? Instead of a disused part of the city like the Sydney example we are handing over an established and intact part of the city – the Queensland Government precinct. So contentious this act is in a state unsupportive of asset sales, the precinct was renamed Queen’s Wharf to obscure the fact it is public land that is to be sold.

Unfortunately for Queensland it gets worse. Not only do we plan to ‘sell’ this symbolic public land and a suite of our finest heritage buildings, we see the proponent of the project, Destination Brisbane, also needs air-rights over William Street in order to accommodate the massive gaming floor. To illustrate why this is a problem next time you walk along William Street, look up and imagine something like Suncorp Stadium floating five stories over you. So what do we see in return for losing a street? Brisbane gets nothing much at all while Sydney gets new high quality streets (most without vehicular traffic) and international standard parks.

Instead of the government communicating the social dividend to the Queensland public, all we get is marketing spin from the preferred proponent reassuring the public all will be wonderful. The Government is absent (perhaps embarrassed as it wasn’t their idea in the first place) and has failed to even attempt to communicate what the public does receive for surrendering the heart of our city and the symbolic centre of the state.

While Sydney’s processes and delivery for Barangaroo are not without substantial issues, they are a stark contrast to the complete lack of consultation and planning for Queen’s Wharf.

Internationally, there are even better examples of governments managing a deal of this scale while retaining the integrity of their city. Singapore’s famous Marina Bay Sands is clearly the inspiration for Queen’s Wharf, it is a noted success and the envy of governments around the world. But in trying to replicate the beguiling imagery of sky decks and champagne the Queensland Government has failed to observe that the Singapore project was placed on the edge of the city on reclaimed land – just like Sydney’s Barangaroo. And the Government failed to also observe its public benefit in the form of funding the construction of a fresh water reservoir that sits between the casino and city.

Singapore gets its water supply for the rights to build its casino – that is a good deal. Sydney has already gained a headland park, with more public space yet to come – that’s great as well. Brisbane gets nothing like Singapore or Sydney in return for handing control of the Government Precinct to an individual developer – hopefully Minister Lynham is confident Brisbane will come out in front like Sydney or Singapore – but we doubt that.

For Queen’s Wharf not only don’t we have a clear understanding of the public benefit for the loss of this part of the city we also don’t have any confidence in the process it has so far been delivered through and looking ahead it is not getting better. With limited independent procedures and lightweight planning controls we are about to simply hand over all of this land and buildings which represent symbolically our shared history. The Queen’s Wharf delivery process is cavalier, high risk and unnecessary, or as a colleague described ‘it’s like a circus’. What is wrong with simply following the South Bank model – it was successful and the public benefit is ever lasting – a sub-tropical park on the river in perpetuity.

Barangaroo, like South Bank also followed a transparent and inclusive process. Barangaroo started with an International Design Competition for the masterplan to establish a vision for that idea – all entries were made public, the jury expert and independent.

Barangaroo then produced a detailed plan of development in consultation with the public and stakeholders. After this document was produced the tender for the development consortia was undertaken. That is, the Government on behalf of the public lead the design process with the aim of balancing interests and achieving outcomes that were transparent, defensible and supportable.

To oversee the complex and diverse interests in the project, a delivery mechanism called the Barangaroo Development Authority (similar to the South Bank Corporation) was formed to oversee the process and to ensure there was design integrity in not just the buildings but also the streets and open public spaces. The Barangaroo Development Authority also oversaw design competitions for each of the development parcels promoting world-class design outcomes.

Barangaroo by and large has been successful and will make a major contribution to the city. This is because the planning occurred well ahead of the financial deal and they established in advance what the public benefit was to be and then embedded it. The vision, the implementation, the procedures de-risked the project for Sydney.

Queen’s Wharf on the other hand is currently operating in reverse. Instead of a series of progressive incremental steps it takes a flying leap into the middle of the process – compressing what Barangaroo did in a few years into a few months. Straight off, the site was thrown over to the financial tender process before any detailed public process for masterplanning the site was even contemplated. The complex process of masterplanning was left to the individual developer consortia to work on in a vacuum without any understanding of public interest or concerns about the project and its impact on the city. Now the financial deal is almost closed and there is still no understanding by the public about what the city will be like at the end of the process.

Couple this with the absence of a proper independent and expert development authority you can understand why all the major professional associations involved in the built environment are deeply worried for the future of the city.

We suggest Minister Lynham undertake the full and detailed review of the project that was promised to us prior to the January 2015 election.


Richard Kirk is the President of the Australian Institute of Architects Queensland Chapter, principal of Richard Kirk Architects (Brisbane and Kuala Lumpur) and Adjunct Professor University of Queensland.

Catherin Bull is Emeritus Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Melbourne and Adjunct Professor at QUT. She advises governments nationally on urban design and development.