Crown Casino founder Lloyd Williams didn’t intend to be overheard promising James Packer’s support to new Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during the recent election campaign.

But the not-so-private endorsement is now potentially quite helpful for the billionaire casino mogul’s interests after James Packer put his cards on the table with this ASX announcement last Friday confirming his desire to build a new five-star hotel next to Crown’s existing complex in Melbourne.

Crikey canvassed all the historical casino issues at the time of the Williams snafu, but Crown’s aggressive hotel pitch will be an early test of the governance, planning and probity processes to be employed by the new Labor leaders in Victoria.

Interestingly, the three key players — Gaming Minister Jane Garrett, Planning Minister Dick Wynne and the Premier — are all members of the Socialist Left faction. The Packer family have traditionally done well from the pragmatic deal-makers in the Labor Right such as Graham Richardson, Neville Wran, Bob Carr, Stephen Conroy and James Packer’s current employees Karl Bitar and Mark Arbib.

There has been much criticism of the permissive approach to skyscrapers that new Victorian opposition leader Matthew Guy took during his period as Victorian planning minister over the past four years.

Now that Crown has shelled out $50 million buying a share of Tony Schiavello’s property holdings on Queensbridge Street opposite Crown Melbourne, how will the government respond to a powerful billionaire’s request to build a 300-metre-plus skyscraper?

Five-star hotels are a terrific asset for any city but don’t usually generate great returns, so there is often an element of ego and indulgence driving the owners. Melbourne should by no means adopt a negative posture to the idea of a new five-star Crown-branded hotel south of the river, but there are always key planning issues around height, set-backs and traffic to resolve.

Tony Schiavello and PDG are nearing completion of the 72-level Prima Pearl residential tower on the south-west boundary of the proposed site for the new Crown hotel. Prima Pearl has 667 apartments and is the fifth-tallest building in Australia.

At the rear of this site on Prime Pearl’s eastern boundary, an Asian developer has proposed a 273-metre tower on Power Street with 395 hotel rooms and 515 apartments spread across 71 levels and a whopping 110,000 square metres.

The City of Melbourne unanimously rejected this proposal in July this year, and it doesn’t appear to be on this list of skyscrapers approved by Guy before the election.

Rich lister Schiavello will be reluctant to encroach too closely on his customers at Prima Pearl, so the temptation will be to locate the new 300-metre-plus Crown Hotel closer to the 205-metre Freshwater Place residential tower on its north-eastern boundary.

In a historic planning blunder, Freshwater Place was built only two metres from the Schiavello boundary, so it will be tricky for Crown to deliver its hotel tower without creating the smallest tower setback yet in Melbourne in terms of habitable windows facing each other.

The Freshwater Place residents are a well-organised group led by retired NAB executive Peter Renner. He was quoted expressing early concerns about the Crown Hotel tower in the Saturday Herald Sun.

It is also not yet clear if a controversial sky-bridge from the new hotel directly into Crown is still being pushed.

Southbank is the most vulnerable Melbourne suburb when it comes to climate change, rising sea levels, king tides and storm surge. Queensbridge Street has flooded several times in recent years, but the solution is surely to raise the street, not build a glass sky-bridge over it.

Fully building out the drainage system in Southbank is estimated to cost more than $100 million over the next 30 years, so it will be interesting to see if any of the proponents of this canyon of skyscapers near the casino are asked to contribute to the cost of this in a meaningful way.

It will also be interesting to see if Crown or any of its associates have donated to the ALP in recent months. Unfortunately, we won’t see the data on this until February 1, 2016, under Victoria’s and Australia’s woefully inadequate campaign disclosure laws.

Enterprising journalists will presumably be putting this question direct to Crown and the Victorian ALP as we go through the planning process of this latest expansion, which if approved would once again make Crown Melbourne the second-biggest casino complex in the world (after The Venetian in Macau) in terms of overall floor space.

*Stephen Mayne is deputy chair of the planning committee at City of Melbourne.

Peter Fray

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