March 2016

Arts & Letters

Twelve of a kind

By David Neustein

An artist’s impression of Crown Sydney at Barangaroo. © AAP Image / Supplied by Lend Lease, WEA

Why is Australia planning so many new casinos?

Whale migration is set to have a significant impact on the character of Australia’s cities over the next few years. This elusive breed of mammal, the VIP international gambler – or “whale”, as it is called in casino circles – is known to wager millions a night on games of baccarat or blackjack. No less than 12 huge projects aimed at ensnaring these players are being planned across ten Australian cities, with a total expenditure of more than $15 billion.

Where do these whales come from? In 2002, three years after Macau reverted from Portuguese to Chinese rule, the 40-year casino monopoly that Macau’s colonial government had granted to magnate Stanley Ho finally expired. Fuelled by a combination of China’s economic growth, an influx of American casino operators and limited regulation, Macau’s gambling trade grew by the equivalent of one Las Vegas Strip every year. In 2013, gambling revenue peaked at US$45.2 billion, seven times that of Las Vegas. That same year, the newly elected Chinese president, Xi Jinping, began an anti-corruption campaign targeting the traffic of illicit funds out of the mainland. Macau’s gambling industry has since rapidly declined, its annual revenue dwindling by more than a third. The whales have gone elsewhere, with Australia a favoured destination. As the Saturday Paper reported, in 2015 Crown Resorts saw VIP revenue at its Melbourne and Perth casinos increase by 41.8% to $956 million, while VIPs wagered $46 billion at The Star Entertainment Group’s Sydney and Gold Coast casinos in the 2015 financial year, a record haul for the operator.

Jostling to capitalise on this betting surge, would-be whalers – Crown, The Star, SkyCity, ASF Group, Aquis Entertainment and Federal Group – have quickly sought to expand their facilities and secure new development sites. Since Australia’s first casino opened in Hobart in 1973, state governments have restricted licences to a single operator per city. But that is set to change.

In August 2012, a week after Crown’s James Packer met privately with the then New South Wales premier, Barry O’Farrell, the state’s Unsolicited Proposals process was coincidentally amended to remove the need for independent oversight. Despite rival casino The Star holding an exclusive Sydney licence until 2019, Packer’s casino bid was approved in just seven weeks, and subsequently cleared by the Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority in what its chief executive, Micheil Brodie, described as “one of the fastest assessments of a casino applicant in history”. Housed in a $2 billion, 275-metre tower, along with hotel rooms and apartments, Crown Sydney’s VIP-oriented gaming facility will occupy harbourside land at Barangaroo that was formerly earmarked as public open space. Designed by UK architects WilkinsonEyre following a limited competition, Crown Sydney is due for completion in 2020. Founding WilkinsonEyre director Chris Wilkinson is said to have based his design on the spiralling growth of leaves or petals, though the tower is more reminiscent of a streamlined shampoo bottle or opalescent dildo.

Not to be dissuaded, The Star recently announced plans to build its own 200-metre high-rise hotel as part of a $1 billion upgrade. Though an architect has yet to be named, images have been released of a shimmering glass obelisk, poised to glare across Darling Harbour at rival Crown. And though O’Farrell deprived The Star of its casino monopoly, he did offer a consolation prize. Just two months after Crown Sydney’s approval, new laws limiting alcohol sales and venue operating hours were extended across the Sydney CBD, with The Star’s immediate area fortuitously excluded. Naturally, Crown’s Barangaroo site was also deemed to be just outside the lockout boundary.

Though immense, the scale of these Sydney projects pales in comparison to a gigantic breed of casino complexes slated for Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Cairns, dwarfing casinos already operating in those cities. While plans for ASF Group’s 5-hectare Gold Coast Integrated Resort were amended to remove a cruise-ship terminal amid dredging concerns, Aquis Entertainment’s Great Barrier Reef Resort in Cairns will feature no less than eight luxury hotels, an 18-hole golf course and a 33-hectare artificial lake. A video simulation of the site depicts a city of angled towers and billowing domes. Throngs of visitors move past a vast aquarium and immense walls covered in Aboriginal artwork towards a central gaming lounge, where a vortex-like steel structure descends from the ceiling. Modelled on the mega-casinos of Macau, the $8 billion Great Barrier Reef Resort could be the most expensive casino complex in the world.

The consortium behind Brisbane’s Queens Wharf casino development has also looked offshore for inspiration. Beating out Crown’s rival bid, The Star Entertainment Group partnered with Hong Kong’s Far East Consortium and Chinese conglomerate Chow Tai Fook Enterprises on a proposal that promises to transform George Street’s historic precinct into waterfront Singapore. The most prominent feature of this proposal is a curving “SkyDeck” promenade on the 25th floor, which links three green-flecked glass towers – an undisguised copy of the surfboard-shaped “SkyPark” atop Singapore’s Marina Bay Sands casino resort. But whereas Marina Bay Sands is built on reclaimed land, Brisbane’s new casino will loom over some of the city’s oldest edifices and demolish the award-winning Neville Bonner Building, which was completed just 17 years ago.

Then there’s Adelaide Casino’s recently approved $300 million expansion. The casino is set to spill out of its current home within the 19th-century Adelaide Railway Station and into a bloated mass of gold-tinted glass next door. The Ville casino in Townsville (formerly known as Jupiters) is also undergoing a multi-million-dollar renovation. And in Tasmania, it is not yet known whether the heritage listing of the Wrest Point hotel casino will affect Federal Group’s plans for a pancake-like $70 million addition to Roy Grounds’ landmark tower. In any case, the developer has warned Tasmania’s government that it will proceed only if David Walsh’s request for a second Hobart casino licence is rejected.

Aquis is also poised to commence a $330 million redevelopment of Casino Canberra, the only Australian casino that remains free of poker machines, but has threatened to call off the project unless poker-machine restrictions are removed.

Considering the financing required for these projects, along with “six-star” hotel additions planned for the casinos in Melbourne and Darwin, it is clear that a gigantic windfall is anticipated. Yet while investment banker CLSA has predicted that Chinese tourism to Australasia will grow by an average of 22% a year until 2020 – the highest increase of any global region – it also forecasts that VIP growth for Crown and The Star will improve by just 2% over the next financial year. It seems inevitable that China’s crackdown on wealth leaving the mainland will expand beyond Macau to ensnare those spending big in Australia. Meanwhile, Japan, no stranger to whaling, looks to become a new force in international gaming. Boasting a domestic gambling industry worth US$40 billion, China’s near neighbour is considering legalising casinos in time to cash in on its 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

As competition for these whales increases, how many new Australian casinos will actually break ground? Will reality set in before or after construction? Just as state governments rushed to approve coal seam gas projects, undaunted by environmental concerns and dwindling markets, this new breed of casinos is being ushered in at pace, subject to abbreviated planning, heritage and economic assessments. To save time and minimise fuss, the public is being carefully excluded from this process. At Crown’s Barangaroo site, for example, while the northern headland and southern commercial zone will now be open to pedestrians, its central area remains a terrain vague, off-limits and out of sight. It is unclear what form it will eventually take, how much public space will be retained, and whether anyone will be able to recall what has been lost when the construction hoardings finally come down.

If these present-day Atlantises and Xanadus are doomed to fail, at least they might promise fantastic future ruins, mouldering Monacos. But the architecture of today’s casino is a cheaply built envelope of steel and glass, its vast plasterboard interior mechanically ventilated and artificially lit. Looking back on a long and storied career, architect Philip Cox has described The Star, which he designed in the mid 1990s, as his “worst building by far”. You would hardly recognise Cox’s building today. It was simply swallowed up within an expansion completed in 2013, the only evidence of its ingestion the occasional lumps underfoot where the florid carpet spans inconsistent floor levels. Despite Cox’s experience, Cox Architecture will design the Canberra Casino redevelopment, while offshoot practice Cox Rayner will oversee the Gold Coast Integrated Resort.

Worse than the soulless architecture of the casino is its effect on the surrounding city. In Las Vegas, the public domain has been eroded to the point of non-existence, with internalised sky-bridges and shopping malls eliminating sidewalks and open space. Learning from Las Vegas, WilkinsonEyre’s design for a new 90-storey Melbourne hotel and apartment tower bypasses the street to plug directly into the main gaming floor of Crown’s Southbank casino.

H2 Gambling Capital reported in August 2015 that Australians are the world’s greatest gambling losers, parting with $1279 per adult in 2014. A dramatic increase in casino machines and tables will only deepen our well-documented addiction problems. Gambling the future of our cities on a frenzied whale hunt, we risk far greater social, environmental and cultural losses.

David Neustein

David Neustein is The Monthly’s architecture critic.


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