Pub: SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
Section: NEWS AND FEATURES
Students attain a state of Grace
E. M. FARRELLY
STUDENT housing was never like this. Traditionally the choice was stark: dour church hostel versus the rampant op-shop counter-culture of “mixed flatting”. Now an alternative is emerging. It’s upmarket, en suite and online, with international ATMs, e-mail, lap pools and wall-to-wall electronic security.
Nowhere are the changes more evident than along the nether end of Broadway, where the stolid old Grace Bros’ emporiums, after 107 years of trading and five on the shelf, are being energetically coaxed back to consciousness.
The redevelopment is in two parts. Stage II, for which demolition has just begun, will be a middle-brow regional shopping centre (Bi-Lo meets QVB) designed by the Buchan group of Melbourne Southgate fame, opening in Easter 1998. Stage I entails stuffing nearly 600 student flats into the old GBs Homemakers’ store, repackaging the whole as Sydney Campus Apartments, and opening for first semester next year. The residential refurb is a joint venture between Walker Corp (authors of the latest bid for the Woolloomooloo Fingerwharf) and Broadway Australia. The architect, Michael Ducar of the Gold Coast firm Desmond Brooks International, was personally selected for the job after Broadway Australia’s managing director, Frank Carmichael, fell for his landscape design at the Mirage Resort, Port Douglas.
Precious little palmy landscape on Broadway, admittedly. Positively trading on its grimy centralism, indeed, the project is a night-follows-day result of the way government policy and market forces have combined over recent years to transform tertiary education from a public service into an international commodity.
As students are required to be increasingly well heeled, and hail in increasing proportions from overseas, increasing numbers of distant parents (so reason the developers) will fork out handsomely to know that their offspring are securely sealed in at night. Can’t blame them for that. And profiting from the unnamable fears of others is a well-honed tradition.
Carmichael sees the project as a simple marketplace response to the welter of post-hoc inquiries from anxious parents that followed his Bradmills conversion (also by Ducar) further along the Parramatta Road in Camperdown. The way he puts it sounds positively publicspirited. Philanthropic, even.
To this extent, although there is no formal university involvement in the scheme, the move is education-led. And the up-side for students is obvious; Sydney Campus Apartments sits next to an entertainment/retail centre, spitting distance from Glebe Point Road and minutes from two universities and a TAFE. Each apartment comes fully equipped with en suite, kitchenette, sleeping loft, telephone and online university library – for a small fee.
The rooms are small for a flat, but large for a hotel. Each has a decent-sized window looking either over the street (the lucky ones get a handsome double-height bay, toughened and soundproofed) or into one of four light wells carved from the dowager’s impressive timberframed innards. There’s not a lot of space to swing anything small and furry, but then if you’re paying $10,000 a year for the privilege – or if someone else is – the pressure to abjure the extra-curricular is on.
The ground floor offers a business centre, fitness centre, Internet access, hairdresser, dry-cleaner and international food court, as well as live tutorials on tap. Sneer if you will, but the queues alone suggest this is no passing phenomenon.
Of the 585 apartments, 483 will be rented to students on a minimum six-month lease. Each “lodger”, so designated, will be required to prove good character, as well as bona fide studenthood, and will pay between $140 and $360 a week (not counting utilities, cleaning, computer rental, Internet, in-house movies and sports facilities, etc).
THE remaining apartments will be available for short-stay (hotel) guests – parents, postgraduates, visiting academics. All have been sold to investors and although a few will be owner-occupied (by the favourite niece or daughter), most will operate on a lease-back basis, with a guaranteed 6 per cent return to the investor. When it came to leasing, 218 deposits were taken in 21 days.
The architecture, such as it is, is plausible enough – aside from the extensive use of stick-on polystyrene sills and cornices applied perhaps over-generously (and almost certainly over-optimistically) in an attempt to boost the meagre graciousness of the internal, light-well facades which constitute the only view for about half of the apartments.
What’s got them all queueing, though, is above all the promise of security, real and imagined. Some 70 per cent of the applicants so far are female. The Sydney Campus Apartments blurb features liberal sprinklings of graduands and clocktowers, and the registration of interest form asks for details of Sydney University Sports Union membership – to which any tertiary student is in fact entitled.
The suggestions of official university sponsorship are powerful, and it’s no accident that the building itself lends extra cache’. Sydney’s 1890s department store craze produced Mark Foys, Marcus Clark and the new improved Horderns emporium, as well as the Grace Bros buildings – all designed to convey a level of long-term respectability comparable with that of the established city banks and commercial premises.
Typical of its time, the building is steel-framed, with fakedup stone arches and lintels designed to convey solidity, in image if not in fact. 247LThe bronze griffins and lit glass globes atop the Bay Street towers – the globes having been replaced with copper water tanks during WWII and finally removed in the 1980s – added a coup de gra^ce in this regard, and will be restored accordingly.
In other ways, too, the building has greatly supported the success of the project. The entire project budget, including property costs, is $95 million. Carmichael estimates that to have built the 585 apartments from scratch would have more than doubled that. The facade was protected by a Permanent Conservation Order, but holes could be carved to render the centre habitable, and the generous floor-to-floor heights facilitated the “New York style” loft format.
It’s all a question of packaging, in the end. Here on Broadway, a stalwart old building designed to legitimate and commodify is being polished up once more to do precisely that.
ILLUS: Not your average student “digs” … a section of the refurbished Grace Bros building and, left, griffins add style to Broadway living.
Photographs by JAMES ALCOCK