A s Sydney’s girth stretches to new holes in its belt, the delicate balance between new population densities and the infrastructure required to house, feed, move and educate them has been tested like never before.
That’s clear in the Hills district, as thousands pour in in search of a comfortable life, and lifestyle, and roads and metro rail lines are laid out in what is probably record time for Sydney.
Their need for a place to live and work is being catered to by property development companies whose approaches to the task vary as much as the buildings they erect.
Steve Grant is every inch the self-made man. From early school leaver to executive chairman of a development corporation with $2 billion of development in the pipeline has been a journey of a little more than two decades, during which it appears that he has very rarely put a foot wrong.
“I grew up in the western suburbs, and as soon as I could I got out of school — I arranged with my parents that if I got a job I could leave,” he told Sydney Hills & Hawkesbury Living. “I got a job estimating, and then moved to the Hills district for a job with Zadro Constructions. After about four years I was offered an interest in the company, and promoted to general manager when I was about 26.”
Rapid rise in high rise
In the 1990s Steve Grant established Grant Constructions, which was sold in 2004 so he could concentrate more fully on property development with his new venture, Capital Corporation. In 2009 he joined forces with Ben Fairfax to form Bluestone Property Solutions, and in 2015 they combined the companies to form Capital Bluestone.
Capital Bluestone is an integral player in the development of Norwest Business Park, with 45 buildings to its credit, in total valued in the vicinity of $700 million.
In that time, and with so much experience under his belt, Steve has inculcated a development ethos that might at first glance seem back-to-front. That’s because it is. The process begins with a vision — and an inventory — of the finished project, and a precise summation of its overriding criteria for ensuring complete fitness for its role in the future.
“The idea I pushed when I started this company was to focus on the end user of a building,” said Steve. “I thought there’s got to be a better way to do it. When we set up the business in the early 90s it was more a point of providing a one-stop shop, so if someone wanted to lease a building, own a building, have a building built and then take it over, we were there to facilitate them.”
A new proposal in development
Norwest Business Park is a prime example of reimagining a project, said Steve.
“Norwest was originally conceived for larger companies, but we came up with the concept of putting a number of smaller groups together and to give them the opportunity to be in a place where they normally wouldn’t be able to set up business. It was about meeting with those people, looking at their issues with the buildings they inhabited, and what they needed. They’re not really interested in the building per se; they want somewhere to house their business, have their employees in very comfortable surroundings, so they can get on with making their widgets.
“When Norwest was originally designed it was never considered that there would be so many smaller companies working here,” he continued. “We got onto that really early and that was what underpinned our success here — we’ve done 45 buildings here, and about $700 million of work. You don’t bring that many people to a location unless you really understand it.”
In the 30 or so years of Norwest’s development, its face and character have changed enormously from one of industrial park to a conglomeration of commercial, entertainment, residential and community facilities.
In other words, a “mixed use” precinct. What must have seemed like a gamble at the time has paid off for developers, resident businesses and the residents themselves.
“It was always an adventurous person who came out here,” Steve recalled. “We didn’t have trains, although we had a reasonable bus service. If you look back, the Hills had the highest number of company cars in a municipality. They were middle managers. In the good times they’d think, ‘I’ll start my own business’. In the bad times they’d be laid off and think, ‘I’ll start my own business’.
“I had a belief that it was going to be a great place to invest, and the infrastructure that was going to be put in was going to be well maintained. And the Hills Shire Council, or Baulkham Hills Council back then, has always been progressive and pioneering. Even today, they’re pushing for more community activities and facilities. We’re being encouraged to look at what we can do for the community in our Esplanade Norwest project. Where are they going to play sport, what activities are the kids going to have?” he said.
“If you look at Nexus [a Capital Corporation development] in Norwest, it has serviced offices and smaller offices, and they’re full. It’s about understanding the market. They’ll grow into a bigger office as their business grows. We’ve moved people six times in this area as their business grows. We developed a very good name for focusing on what they wanted and looking after everything, even down to moving them from where they were.”
Swimming with the Sharks
Capital Bluestone’s development at Woolooware Bay in the Sutherland Shire proved him right, with apartments selling as fast as they’re released. A large development, it showed what can be achieved with council and community cooperation.
“Our development at Woolooware Bay, in a joint venture with the Cronulla Sharks, will end up with about 850 apartments,” said Steve. “People get scared of that, so we took the planner from the Hills Shire Council to show them. After they saw what we’re putting in at Woolooware — it has a spa, a resort style pool for families, a rooftop pool just for adults, a rooftop theatre, a men’s shed, an inclusive park for disabled children — big cost items, but they can see how it all fits together. In 10 years’ time those people will leave that area occasionally to do something different, but there is so much to keep them busy there we know we’ve got it right.”
Fit for the future
Steve Grant envisages that this combination of home, work and entertainment in a precinct will only become more popular as young people establish themselves.
“We’re changing the way we’re living. Rather than spend time mowing the lawn we’d rather spend the time down in the park with our family,” said Steve. “We have the choice now to live the way we want to.
“As a community it enriches most of us to meet people and widen our horizons. A community really needs to be self-sufficient, and while everyone can go outside for entertainment and larger shopping, the community must be able to exist and be happy in an environment.
“That’s why we’ve developed buildings that a variety of people will occupy. When we develop a building in a built up and vibrant area, we want to have activity there all the time. So in a group of buildings we’ll look to have people working there, people living there, people working part-time in a serviced office, gymnasiums, good restaurants and bars. There might even be student accommodation. Then you’ve got a vibrant, active life all the time, with people coming and going all the time,” he said.
“I think The Esplanade will be as good as living in your own holiday house. It has a great spa and entertainment areas, a pool and so on. And it has work areas, and it’s right next to the train station. People don’t realise how much that will change their lives.”
He also sees a significant change in Australian expectations. The traditional dream of owning a home on a quarter-acre block is no more. Enter the Millennials with other ideas.