Previously unreleased documents have cast new light on the long, tortuous and mostly hidden process to develop the Festival Centre Plaza.
As an announcement looms on the government’s plans to rejuvenate the area, InDaily can reveal for the first time the details of developer Walker Corporation’s original plans for the site.
Walker and the Government are still working on a deal to redevelop the precinct, which will include a rebuilt Adelaide Festival Centre carpark and a rejuvenation of the windswept and run-down plaza.
The long process has been shrouded in mystery, with only sporadic -and sometimes unreliable – leaks to the media revealing snatches of detail.
However, Walker last week suddenly dropped court action to prevent a range of documents being given to Greens MLC Mark Parnell under the state’s Freedom of Information laws
The documents confirm that in February 2013, Walker was pushing the Government to accept a huge series of developments on the plaza and surrounding area.
Plans sighted by Parnell – but not allowed to be copied for “copyright” reasons – appear to show a 23-storey tower and a strip of four-storey buildings between Parliament House and the casino, a 16-storey tower immediately to the rear of Parliament House, and four-storey developments on the King William Street side of the plaza, stretching down towards Elder Park.
InDaily understands these plans were vehemently opposed by the Adelaide Festival Centre management and, eventually, by Premier Jay Weatherill in the lead-up to the 2014 election.
The documents released to Parnell also include minutes of meetings between Government representatives and Walker Corporation.
A December 2012 meeting between Walker Corp boss Lang Walker and government representatives from Renewal SA, Arts SA, the Festival Centre and the Department of Planning, Transport and Infrastructure reveals the scale of the proposal.
The minutes show the scheme included 1,650 car bays, “60,000 NLA” (presumably, 60,000 square metres of net lettable area) across two towers, and the “potential” to add a three-four star hotel in the northern corner of the site.
The minutes also suggest that Walker Corp wanted the development to be “category 1” – meaning that no third party could appeal the proposal.
The meeting also discussed “the option of obtaining approval through a special Act (similar to or an extension of the Adelaide Oval Act”. However, the idea was rejected on the basis that it would involve a complex and lengthy process that could delay the project.
Other minutes reveal that Walker wanted to completely close Station Road, which runs between Old Parliament House and the Casino and provides road access to North Terrace from the Festival Centre and to the Convention Centre car park.
Parnell said he didn’t believe the ideas floated – such as private hotels or office blocks – were acceptable for an area which is part of the Adelaide parklands.
However, he did favour redevelopment of the plaza precinct including more cafes and restaurants.
“Clearly the Walker Corporation want to get as much as they can out of the State Government to help their project go smoothly and maximise their profits,” he told InDaily.
“The Government on the other hand must never forget that the Adelaide parklands belong to all of us – not just their mates in the development industry.”
Walker Corporation refused to comment on the documents, referring InDaily to the Premier’s office.
In a statement, Weatherill said: “These historical plans were rejected by the Government early last year.”
“Since then, the Government has been working with Mr Walker, the Casino and other parties on a plan to revitalise the area and replace the crumbling Festival Centre car park,” he said.
“We will have more to say about these plans soon.”
It was back in April 2013 that Parnell first applied under FOI laws for documents relating to Walker Corporation and the Festival Plaza.
Parnell appealed to the Ombudsman when the Government refused to release the documents. The Ombudsman upheld Parnell’s right to access most of the documents – a decision that was appealed to the District Court by Walker Corporation.
After the usual legal to and fro, the case was listed for a two-day trial on 19-20 March.
Walker then failed to meet the deadline for lodging their outline of argument and, finally, on 26 February, Walker told Parnell they wouldn’t continue with the appeal.
Parnell said the saga showed the FOI system was “hopelessly ineffective in delivering more transparent Government”.
The process also mirrors the tortuous path of Walker’s involvement in the Festival Plaza project.
Walker Corp was selected by the Government in 2012 to provide plans for a revamp of the Festival Plaza and the car park underneath it. The developer was given a period of exclusivity to develop the proposal.
There was little information provided to the public about what Walker had in mind – nor what the Government wanted to achieve from the deal.
InDaily understands that Renewal SA initially was responsible for coordinating negotiations between Walker and other key stakeholders, such as the Adelaide Festival Centre.
That process hit a stalemate, and former Department of Planning Transport and Infrastructure chief executive officer Rod Hook – axed by Weatherill last year – took responsibility for the talks.
In February 2014, the redevelopment project became an election issue with Weatherill announcing that there would be no building on the plaza – a decision which followed a similar promise from the state Liberals. Instead, Walker would be contracted to build a new 1400-space car park.
The Government would lease 400 car parks from Walker at a capped cost of $30 million over 30 years. About 400 car parks will be provided to the Festival Centre to be used as an “ongoing revenue stream”, with some reserved for Parliament House. The remaining 1000 parks will be leased to the Casino for its exclusive use “on terms to be agreed with the parties and on similar terms to that of the State Government”.
Grand plans for the site appeared to have been reduced to a simple car-park rebuild.
Further confusion then ensued in May 2014 when Walker Corp boss Lang Walker told an Advertiser journalist that he had an $800 million plan for the area. Walker added that DPTI had told him the plans would be going to Cabinet soon but, with Hook getting the axe, he wasn’t sure what would happen.
Speculation about an imminent announcement has been going on for months, with many observers presuming that at least one significant building – possibly a hotel – will be built on land adjacent to the plaza.
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