Ipoh’s thwarted concept

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Walsh Bay could have boasted a Venice-style canal along Hickson Road, an internal street along Pier 8/9, jetties jutting from three piers, and a landscaped wharf promenade leading to an outdoor pool and pub at the end of Pier 6/7.

These were key elements of a ‘Walsh Bay Village’ concept announced in the late 1980s by Ipoh Garden (Aust) for a state government tender to revitalise the old dockland. Ipoh then was led in Sydney by Jim Barrett (who now lives on Walsh Bay’s waterfront) and his Kuala Lumpur-based chairman, Yap Lim Sen.

Jim Barrett in an Ipoh video announcing the Walsh Bay Village scheme.

Before the 1988 Australian Bicentennial celebrations, Ipoh Garden successfully completed an ambitious, heritage-sensitive redevelopment of the City of Sydney council’s derelict Queen Victoria Building (QVB). During this project, in 1985, the state government began canvassing major developers to rejuvenate the derelict wharves and warehouses at Walsh Bay.

In March 1986, the NSW Minister for Public Works, Laurie Brereton, advertised for expressions of interest to develop this precinct. Later the Maritime Services Board (MSB) invited four development consortia—Ipoh Garden, CRI, Comrealty and White Industries— to tender design concepts and budgeting.

In a promotional video released in 1987, Jim Barrett said this would be ‘the largest urban renewal project ever undertaken anywhere in the world”.

Ipoh expected its scheme to cost $A450 million to build (1980s value); including $A100m for replacing the rotting piles under the piers, creating public walkways and restoring heritage aspects of the buildings; $A200m for construction; $A10m for a ‘recreation walk’ (public promenade) along Pier 6/7 and $A10m for measures to minimise noise from trains along the Harbour Bridge.

The concept, designed by architects Kringas + Jahn, proposed 208 apartments, a 192-room hotel, 130 serviced apartments and more than 20 percent of the total 103,000 sq m floor area for commercial uses (tavern, restaurants and shops—not offices). Yachts would be welcomed to 128 berths along Piers 2/3, 6/7 and 8/9, and 1500 car spaces were planned.

George Kringas, chief architect for the Ipoh scheme.

What happened to this big idea? Ipoh’s proposal was favoured initially by the MSB, the Heritage Council of NSW and the National Trust. But after the 1988 state election, new Premier Nick Greiner’s Liberal-National government asked both Ipoh and CRI to review their tenders to increase revenue to the state.

Ipoh refused to increase its offer of $55m but CRI escalated its bid to $73m after its CEO, Peter Wills, obtained details of Ipoh’s tender value from senior officials. Jim Barrett protested to the government that it had breached Ipoh’s right to confidentiality and claimed that the new CRI offer would not be sustainable. However, CRI and the government signed a development contract in early 1989.

After the media reported serious allegations of government misconduct, the tender process was scrutinised by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). Beginning in mid 1989, it heard evidence of interference by senior politicians and public servants during the term of Coalition premier Nick Greiner and deputy premier Wal Murray. The ICAC report, published in October 1990, is here.

During the ICAC hearings, CRI withdrew from its development contract. The government asked Ipoh Garden to return to Walsh Bay. Ipoh declined because its updated budgeting did not promise enough profit to justify substantially increased costs and political risks. (Before it abandoned the project, CRI’s construction budget had escalated to $A500–750m.)

Jim Barrett’s tender concerns reported by the Australian Financial Review.

In 1995 (a development lull before the Sydney Olympics), a new Labor state government, led by Bob Carr, called for new expressions of interest from developers.

By this time, Ipoh had completed its second project with the City of Sydney council—a widely applauded redevelopment of the historic Capitol Theatre in Haymarket. Although Ipoh again expressed interest in developing Walsh Bay, the government indicated it was not a suitable applicant.

The Carr government signed an ‘exclusive negotiation agreement’ with Walsh Bay Partnership (WBP—a Transfield-Mirvac alliance), to develop detailed concepts. These were strongly opposed by Millers Point residents (concerned about gentrification), artists (some with cherished views from Lavender Bay) and heritage architects (concerned to conserve the early 20th century wharves and warehouses). But the WBP completed most of the redevelopment by 2002.

Jim Barrett chaired the Heritage Council of NSW’s approvals committee which accepted the Transfield-Mirvac scheme. He said: ‘What they ended up with here is pretty good.’

Note All these images, except the AFR clip, are grainy screenshots from the Walsh Bay Village stakeholder video that Ipoh circulated in 1987. This scheme was refined over the next few years.