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Sad decline of a once-vibrant city: Here's how to breathe new life into Brisbane CBD

Business

Working from home, Covid, online retail or just a change in the way we live our lives, it appears that Brisbane’s CBC has been hit by the perfect storm, writes David Fagan

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The Brisbane CBD has lost its spark and is less compelling to visit than at any time in the past 40 years.

Blame the rise of online retail or the Covid-licensed right for CBD staff to log on from home. Or just put it down to what passes for planning in what should be the jewel in this great city’s crown.

Ties are out and fluoro jackets are in whether it’s at the never-ending construction of the Brisbane Metro at the City Hall end of the CBD or the Star Casino and associated hotels at the other end of the city.

Tack on the blocking of Albert St for Cross River Rail and the demolition of a city block on Eagle Street and you see a CBD that’s more a construction pit than a central place of business.

It’s no wonder Myer has shut up shop in its eponymous building and even less wonder that food courts are under-patronised and small retailers have either gone online or moved to the suburbs for cheaper rents (and cheaper parking for their clients).

While this raises questions about the future of the CBD’s other department store retailer, David Jones, shoppers and staff can rest easy for now. A DJs spokesperson told InQueensland today: “ Queens Plaza is a valued store that will provide Queenslanders with premium in-store and omnichannel shopping experiences well into the future.”

My inner optimist hopes and believes this won’t always be the case. The Metro will be finished next year and as will the Cross River Rail. So will the casino complex – although its promised full house of restaurants may take a little longer to be in place. The rebuild of the Eagle Street waterfront will take at least another two years by which time the CBD will hopefully have regained some of its lost vigour.

Official Brisbane office vacancies are running currently around 10%, among the healthiest in the country. But the real vacancy (if you count the offices which are being rented but not used) is running at least twice as high.

My travels around the city in the past year or two have taken me to several buildings with spectacular entries and panoramic views but they are often shared by a mere handful of people occasionally using expensive floor space. This can’t go on.

And there remain some big gaps to fill.

Take for instance the Victorian era Treasury building, home to the gambling floor of the city’s soon-to-be-redundant casino for the past 30 years.

When Star announced its grand redevelopment plan for the western CBD half a decade ago, the Treasury was to be converted to high-class retail. That was quickly cast aside as Star needed to offload the real estate to restore its balance sheet. One deal was done but fell over and the property is on the market again.

There’s no chance in the current environment that it will become a shopping centre but there is some agitation for it to become, wait for it, a university campus.

The building would be an attractive CBD home for Griffith University, the only one of our major tertiary institutions without a CBD presence. There’s also a natural historical link. The building was built during the government of one of greatest politicians, Sir Samuel Griffith, the architect of national constitution and first Chief Justice of the High Court. Griffith Uni bears his name.

Its owner, Star Entertainment, would do well to buy back some of the corporate reputation it shed through its indulgence of money laundering by finding a way to put it in the hands of Griffith. The conversations are happening. You can bet the Griffith chancellor, former state Treasurer and corporate mover and shaker Andrew Fraser would not let such an opportunity pass.

And their success, in my view, would right the error of judgement the Goss Government made in turning one of our great colonial buildings over to a gambling hall.

It would mean the city’s three universities all occupied commanding positions on the CBD riverfront – Griffith joining QUT at Gardens Point and the University of Queensland at Customs House.

This would be a useful signal to the world that we remain a “smart state” by the time the Olympics and Paralympics come around, despite having turned over a big part of the CBD to a resort built around a casino.

And let’s not underestimate the dynamism students can bring to a city, particularly if their parents are going to keep insisting that it’s a better idea to work from home than come to the office.

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