Jagged glass and barbed wire along a two-metre-high wall has enclosed Brisbane’s Royal National Agricultural Showgrounds for decades, but now that’s about to change.
Lend Lease and the RNA are knocking down the walls and the occasional ugly, valueless 1970-style building as part of a new $2.9 billion urban renewal precinct 1.5 kilometres north of Brisbane’s city centre.
It is the largest urban renewal project in Queensland.
“This is all about opening [the showgrounds] up, which they haven’t really been for 138 years,” RNA chief executive Brendan Christou says.
“We have had a lot of things going on in here, but now it’s about opening up those insular parts to people who want to live and work here.”
Within 12 years, 15,000 people will live and work within the 22-hectare site for which 5.5 hectares of freehold is being developed into residential buildings as well as commercial offices and retail precincts.
RNA will clip the ticket as Lend Lease completes each stage and sells an apartment or commercial property it builds within the grounds.
It is the best outcome for the RNA, given its critical position nine years ago.
“It was getting pretty dire,” Mr Christou says. “In 2005 we needed at least $30 million just to fix and repair the old buildings – just to get them to a point where they were safe.”
He says the replacement cost of the buildings was $160 million, but the buildings were worth next to nothing.
RNA considered selling the whole showgrounds and, like the Royal Agricultural Society in Sydney, setting up stumps outside the city. But in the end the board decided against such a move and put out a competitive tender to developers.
“The Ekka would not be the same if it was more than 1.5 kilometres from the city,” Mr Christou says.
The memories and heritage of the showgrounds have a lot of value.
ONE MILLION VISITORS A YEAR
But aside from its significant history – Don Bradman played his first test match there in 1928 – the showgrounds have serious pulling power, with more than one million visitors to the showgrounds every year with its famous exhibitions, music festivals and sporting matches.
Along with the smaller events such as the wine and cheese shows, and the classic antique gun show, the festive nature of the precinct means there is a readymade community for Lend Lease to strategically fit its buildings into.
Lend Lease’s project director, Peter Morrow, says such benefits are crucial in starting any urban renewal project.
“The leverage you get out of a place like this is enormous,” Mr Morrow says.
He enjoys the challenge of working out what to keep of the old world and what to bring in of the new.
“It’s like a jigsaw puzzle – there are limitations as to when you can build things and where” he says.
“We still have to deal with all the heritage, but at least we already have livable places.”
All bar one of the huge fig trees that line some of the existing roads will be kept. Some materials such as ironbark trusses have already been recycled into restoration projects such as the old show bag pavilion.
Lend Lease has set up a headquarters beside the showground’s chicken sheds, where the team can view the central spine of the project – King Street.
King Street is designed like a boulevard. The first $350 million stage of the development on King Street is well under way, with the residential component called The Green now more than 90 percent sold out.
Marnie and Matt Hollis, who bought an apartment at The Green, say one of the key reasons was the readymade community. “We were very happy that they decided to keep the showgrounds and all the events – that was a big influence on our decision,” Ms Hollis says.
“The showgrounds are iconic so it already has a good feeling.”
They are counting on a medical professional from the adjacent Royal Brisbane Hospital to rent their property when it is completed next year.
The first of three commercial office towers, King’s Gate 1, is also under construction with an end value of $120 million. A hotel is also planned and been given approval.
A 600-lot car park, which doubles as a cattle pavilion during the annual exhibition, along with the restoration and construction of other animal pavilions, are just a few of the other assets Lend Lease will bring.
“The city is already bleeding down towards the Fortitude Valley,” Mr Morrow says, “And we have 22 hectares on the edge of that.”
The expectations for growth are also firmly on the radar of the state government, which after fast-tracking approvals for the project, is now in discussions with Lend Lease and the RNA over permanently opening a train line that runs along the boundary of the project.