Queensland

UQ at loggerheads over 47-storey tower near Customs House

The University of Queensland has launched a legal challenge against Brisbane City Council's pre-Christmas approval of a 47-storey apartment building next door to its heritage-listed CBD property, Customs House.

The council approved the Cbus Property's $375 million building, without fanfare, three days before Christmas and UQ's challenge was lodged in Brisbane's Planning and Environment Court a week later on December 29.

There are fears a new 47-storey building will affect the heritage value of Customs House.
There are fears a new 47-storey building will affect the heritage value of Customs House. Photo: Robert Rough

The development, which would tower over Customs House, has raised the ire of local residents, who have set up a group to fight the proposal.

Protect Customs House Precinct group committee member Tracie Rodwell, who lived in the Aurora apartments across the road, questioned the timing of the approval.

Artists' impression of the proposed 443 Queen Street building, as seen from Kangaroo Point.
Artists' impression of the proposed 443 Queen Street building, as seen from Kangaroo Point. Photo: Supplied

"It really smacked of scamming us, sneaking it through at Christmas time like that," she said.

"If the council were really genuine about listening to objections and assessing it properly, why not take the extra time?

"Why did they sneak it through right at Christmas close-down?"

Mrs Rodwell said residents at Aurora bought at the property on the understanding the Customs House precinct was protected and would not be built up, thus preserving Aurora's river views.

An artists' impression of Cbus Property's proposed development.
An artists' impression of Cbus Property's proposed development. Photo: Supplied

"From my personal point of view, yes, we were sold here on the fact we were overlooking a heritage precinct that was coded to only be low-rise," she said.

A spokesman for Lord Mayor Graham Quirk said the proposal, as lodged, was code assessable, which meant it could be approved without the need for public submissions.

But it would have required public submissions had Cbus Property not taken advantage of a little-known mechanism – transferable development rights, introduced during the Sallyanne Atkinson administration – to the property.

That allowed Cbus Property to transfer development rights it would have otherwise had over another property it owned, the NAB building on the corner of Creek and Queen streets, if it was not heritage listed.

"The application triggered code assessment procedures under state government law after a formal change was made to the proposal in November, adding transferable development rights to the site," Cr Quirk's spokesman said.

"This town-planning provision allows building height development potential to be transferred between sites within the same area of the city centre and has been in place since 1987.

"…While the matter is before the courts it is not appropriate to make any further comment that could prejudice any proceedings."

In its submission to the court, UQ said the development application was "piecemeal and unlawful".

"In broad terms the purpose of (transferable site area) is to encourage the preservation of heritage sites," UQ said in its application to the court.

"…The effect of the purported approval is to subvert, rather than comply with, the stated intent and express assessment criteria of the planning scheme.

"Further, the addition of the TSA has ostensibly impermissibly made the application no longer subject to impact assessment, and thereby excludes the custodian of the Brisbane Customs House (UQ) from being able to exercise the right which it would have otherwise been lawfully entitled to, to challenge the council's decision to approve the development application."

UQ has argued the allocation of a TSA should "only be approved where the conservation of the heritage value of the transferring site is certain and where the council is satisfied that the conservation of the transferring heritage place is assured".

"Yet, paradoxically, the effect of the approval of the allocation of TSA in the present circumstances is to treat heritage values inconsistently, that is, indirectly to fail to treat as certain or as assured the heritage value of Customs House," UQ said in its submission.

UQ's application was due to be heard in the Planning and Environment Court on January 29.

Cbus Property chief executive Adrian Pozzo said he would not comment on the development while it remained subject to court action.

"We'll have to wait to see what happens on January 29," he said.

But prior to the lodgement of the DA, Mr Pozzo told Fairfax's Australian Financial Review the building was the "right product" for Brisbane.

"To date, Brisbane apartments generally have not been designed well to address and take advantage of the city's subtropical environment," Mr Pozzo told the AFR.

"We think 443 Queen Street is a new generation of design for subtropical living."

The council's City Centre Neighbourhood Plan specifically set out strict guidelines for any development at 443 Queen Street, including maintaining "the heritage and aesthetic significance of Customs House" and not building within 25 metres of the site's southern boundary.

Cbus Property's application fell well within that buffer zone.

A spokesman for Labor lord mayoral candidate Rod Harding said the approval of  443 Queen Street represented "so much of what is broken with Graham Quirk's CityPlan".

"The fact that council can approve a 47-storey skyscraper, right next to Customs House, one of the city's most iconic heritage landmarks, without public consultation, is proof that Graham Quirk's CityPlan is a simply not working," he said.

It is understood a proposed six-story building on the site was rejected about a decade ago.

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