The sky’s the limit, but will this West Side Story produce a happy ending for Brisbane?

Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner is creating his own Westside story with a plan – or at least some sketches – to boost the high-rise along the riverfront of West End. But will it end more happily than the dramatic fates of Riff, Bernardo and Tony in the enduring musical? David Fagan reports

Mar 13, 2023, updated Mar 13, 2023

Adrian Schrinner has made his ambitions for CBD-height apartment buildings the talking point of his Brisbane housing strategy released earlier this month.

In coming weeks, we will see some maps to accompany the pretty pictures that portray a strategy to deal with ongoing and very real issues for the nation’s largest council.

Now, as has been the case for several decades, Brisbane faces the issue of how to accommodate more people, continuing to grow its rates base to meet the need for the higher level of services residents demand of a major Australian city.

The days of mass add-ons to the city’s footprint – say, a Carindale or a Jindalee – are past, leaving the city little option but to infill existing estates or to build up.

Jim Soorley, with some help from the then federal government’s Better Cities initiative, was able to navigate this with conversion of Teneriffe in the inner north from low-value industrial land to high-value residential land, without needing to concede high-rise development rights.

Since then, Brisbane has fallen for apartment living at a rate that exceeds any other big city. South Brisbane, Kangaroo Point, Woolloongabba, the Valley and the CBD itself are now entrenched centres for high-rise apartment dwellers.

What Schrinner proposes – although it is barely a thought bubble in the documented housing strategy the council published on March 2 – is to extend the high-rise zone further west along the Brisbane River and to lift the height limits.

His argument is sound – the West End/Southbank area is well serviced by public transport and is approximate to the leisure facilities that support inner city living as are the big suburban shopping centres where he also wants to see more housing.

But he has a few battles ahead. The neighborhood he wants to elevate is in the heart of Greens political territory and the idea of any development – let alone towers that reach 200 metres or more into the sky – will excite the locals, although it’s unlikely to cost him a vote in council elections just a year away.

Then there’s the issue of the river. Last time I checked, the Kurilpa reach of the river had flooded at least twice this century. While it’s very well to be living above the flood line, there remain issues of access if floods are to occur with current frequency. (Mind you, flooding is not a big issue in the council’s strategy document, getting only a passing mention through its 32 pages).

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And there’s also the issue of the current land use. The land the Lord Mayor wants to become high-rise apartments is currently the established home to two substantial industrial enterprises – one the Paramalat milk factory, the other the Hanson concrete plant.

My understanding is that Parmalat was even more surprised to hear the Lord Mayor wanted to move them on than it was in 2011 when Anna Bligh in the dying days of her government proposed to resume the factory for parkland. Then, the government had raised the issue but not reached agreement in a series of meetings; this time there’s been no discussion.

It seems logical to continue the de-industrialisation of the river. A third major industrial site, owned by Visy, is already earmarked as the Olympics and Paralympics media centre and the future demands more near-city accommodation for a population that is both ageing and more demanding of services.

But land owners have rights – and the milk, if not the concrete, has to be processed somewhere.

Let’s assume that Lord Mayor Schrinner gets the town plan amendments he wants through the state government.

Our hopes then should be that we see some precinct development, rather than the patchwork of apartments that unfortunately has been the case in Kangaroo Point, the city’s closest residential suburb. It should be a showcase of the best Brisbane can offer but the council’s flexibility on height limits, allowance of too many buildings without setback and too little attention to streetscapes has made it what Kurilpa shouldn’t be – just another Westside rumble.

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