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Who's the winner? The taxpayer or Walker?

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Jay Weatherill didn’t lie before the 2014 state election when he promised there wouldn’t be an office block built on the Adelaide Festival Centre plaza.

But he wasn’t exactly open either.

As InDaily revealed last week, the Government and its developer-of-choice, the Walker Corporation, had been entertaining the idea of an office tower of more than 20 storeys for a site just off the plaza, nestled behind Old Parliament House, since early 2013 – and probably earlier.

When Liberal leader Steven Marshall wrong-footed Weatherill before the 2014 state election with an announcement that the Festival Plaza would become our own version of Melbourne’s Federation Square under a Liberal Government, Labor jumped quickly.

Weatherill declared: “We won’t be having a 13 storey building on the plaza area.”

“We can rule that out straight away but we are entertaining a proposition that we went out to tender for which is essentially a car park and associated with the car park we do think we can do something exciting with the plaza in a way that does create some of the excitement that we’ve seen in Melbourne with a Federation Square style development.”

Then, on Friday night, in an announcement carefully pre-massaged with the Murdoch press, the Government announced – hey presto – an office block of up to 24 storeys would be built on Station Road.

There will also be two levels of restaurants, cafes, bars and retail developments immediately behind Parliament House.

Walker will spend $430 million on the site, including rebuilding the car park and gifting $40 million towards improving the bleak Festival Plaza area.

It’s been about three years since Lang Walker first won the rights to deal exclusively with the Government on the plaza, and information has been tightly controlled.

As we revealed last week, the mega-rich developer originally wanted to build a huge office block behind Old Parliament House, a 16-storey tower behind Parliament House, and four storey buildings along King William St.

Walker’s ambit claim was rejected, but, having lost that battle, he eventually won the war.

He has now won the right to plonk a commercial office tower on prime public land amid a range of lower-scale public buildings.

While the Government has tried and failed to negotiate a deal with the private sector to build a new court building that we desperately need, it has managed to negotiate an office tower that we don’t.

Curious.

Also of interest – and mostly ignored – is the fact on 5 March the Development Assessment Commission gazetted its approval of Walker’s long-awaited Buckland Park residential development, slated for the plains north of Adelaide.

That gazettal makes a number of changes to the original proposal, including a previously foreshadowed removal of the requirement for “purple pipe” recycled water to be provided to homes. The approval requires substantial commencement to start before October this year. There’s no word from Walker about when they plan to send in the bulldozers to begin work on the 12,000 home development.

An impression of the plaza revamp.

An impression of the plaza revamp.

Liberal deputy leader Vickie Chapman wants more information about Buckland Park as well as Walker’s plans for the Riverbank precinct (there has been talk that the developer might be interested in building a hotel elsewhere in the extended riverbank area).

Given the taxpayer is an “involuntary investor” in the site, as Chapman puts it, shouldn’t we be privy to more information?

Good question.

We know that Walker’s are stumping up $40 million for public works, in addition to its work on the car park. Weatherill told ABC radio today that the land for Walker’s office tower had been valued at between $7 million and $15 million. Walker’s, though, will also benefit substantially from the $180 million the Government has committed to the redevelopment of the plaza.

Walker’s building will be in a prime position, perhaps an unrivalled position for commercial tenancies in Adelaide, nestled as it is between a redeveloped Festival Centre and an upgraded Casino, and within close proximity to Parliament, Adelaide Oval and the upgraded Convention Centre.

Taxpayers’ money floods the riverbank precinct.

What we don’t know is what other commercial options might have been put on the table, if Walker’s hadn’t been gifted such a long period of exclusivity.

But if there’s one characteristic that has marked this long saga, it is a complete lack of transparency.

It’s positive that the Government has managed to scrape together some money to upgrade the Adelaide Festival Centre and to reshape the plaza area.

But will we taxpayer get the best return out of the plaza deal with Walker?

We just don’t know.

Sound familiar?

David Washington is editor of InDaily.

 

 

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