An 85-year-old western Sydney bowling club has lost the final round in its two-year fight for a $50-million redevelopment it believes would have secured the club’s future.
The board of directors of The Hills District Bowling Club will tell its 4700 members this week that long-awaited plans to keep at least two playing greens, build a new clubhouse and add up to 196 apartments as well as 32 senior-living units in four buildings have been refused for a second time.
In a decision late this month, the Sydney Central City Planning Panel refused a rezoning review that would have allowed for the mixed-use development of up to 18 storeys.
The Hills Club had appealed to the planning panel after the Hills Shire Council said no.
Hills Club management, who were described as “in a bit of hurt at the moment” had no comment about the second refusal, but the planning panel’s decision highlights the challenges facing sporting clubs and leagues clubs as they try to upgrade facilities, retain members, turn a profit, and stay relevant.
Many are real estate rich, cash poor.
The Hills Club, for example, sits on 1.34ha at 6-18 Jenner Street in Baulkham Hills—a suburb of about 40,000. But, despite gaming revenue of $1.9 million and bar sales of just under $1 million in the 12 months to May last year, the bowling club reported a loss of $231,280.
“For a lot of them it’s about obviously developing their land to support the redevelopment and the improvement of their own facilities,” says Macroplan general manager for projects Bruce van Niekerk.
“I think the thing they often struggle with is that their bottom-line financials aren’t generally strong enough to allow them borrow to just redevelop or expand or improve their club facility,” he says.
Twenty kilometres south of Baulkham Hills, the Canterbury League Club—with 66,000 members and one of the country’s biggest rugby league clubs—has planning headaches of its own.
Liverpool City Council has said no to a proposal by the club for a half-a-billion-dollar lifestyle, entertainment and recreational precinct on the edge of their city. The club wants 10 buildings, which would house 1150 apartments, 44 serviced units, 150 hotel rooms, up to 1000sq m of commercial space and a registered club.
Council officers maintained the planning proposal “was not consistent with the objectives of the RE2 Zone,” and a rezoning review is now under assessment by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment.
And therein lies the problem, according to van Niekerk. Clubs in NSW generally sit in an RE2 land-use zone, that is, zoned for private open space or recreational purposes.
“There isn’t a lot of flexibility in what you can do in an RE2 zone,” he says.
“So you have to go and convince council that it’s appropriate to put housing—whether it’s regular apartments or seniors apartments—in an RE2 zone. You have to convince them that the loss of what is just normally RE2 to become some sort of residential land can be supported.”
Macroplan advises on all elements of the planning process, including research, strategy and property management, with a special focus on clubs looking to develop and grow. Van Niekerk was the development manager for the Hills Bowling Club’s failed plans.
“There’s a challenge here between the state government’s planning policies that say RE2 zone is ripe for redevelopment for seniors, and councils….a lot of them struggle with development uplift when it’s not planned by councils.”
For its part, the Hills Shire Council welcomed the planning panel’s decision. Hills mayor Peter Gangemi said, like the council, the panel highlighted that the development had not demonstrated strategic merit.
“In addition to this, the panel acknowledged council’s position that traffic issues within the Baulkham Hills town centre should be resolved before any further uplift can proceed beyond what is already permitted by existing controls,” Gangemi said in a minute sent to the council.
He told councillors the Local Strategic Planning Statement specifically identified that council would “discourage commercial and residential uplift in Baulkham Hills town centre until transport and traffic issues are resolved”.
Macroplan has three other service and sporting clubs on its books, all looking to grow their facilities with residential development.
There’s a golf club in western Sydney that wants 200-plus units in a seniors’ development that will give them cash for a new club house.
South of the city a greyhound racing club is planning a block of serviced apartments, and in the same area is an RSL club looking at a residential development, also designed around seniors.
RSL clubs are particularly keen to develop their land.
With the forced closure of poker-machine venues during Covid-19, club revenues have taken a big hit, particularly in Victoria where income generated by sub-branches with gambling machines reportedly fell by 58 per cent in 2020.
There’s been a corresponding fall in RSL club memberships, with the Victorian organisation understood to have lost more than 2500 members in the two years to 2022.
Clubs are also bracing for a time when gaming revenues can no longer be relied upon. With more than 90,000 machines and counting, NSW is second only to Nevada in the US for gaming facilities.
But NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet went into a state election with a plan that will see all machines cashless by 2028. The cash will be replaced by cards—linked to bank accounts not credit cards—with limits set by the user every seven days.
“So, with the expectation that pokey revenue is going to fall, where else will these clubs get money to reinvest in their facilities?” asks Van Niekerk.
And, he points out the clubs are providing social infrastructure that councils cannot.
Hills Council acknowledged as much in their arguments to the planning panel.
“The positive aspects of the redevelopment of the bowling club such as increased activity and vibrancy for the centre are acknowledged,” council officers said in a report.
“While not a technical planning matter, the opportunity to retain some social infrastructure in the form of the club within a town centre location is desirable and is an offering and outcome that is unique to this individual site.
“The council is not in a position to provide this kind of social infrastructure and relies on private delivery of sporting and social clubs to contribute to the overall fabric of the community and vibrancy of an area.”
Niekerk says there needs to be support from a planning point of view to help clubs grow.
“Seniors living alongside the clubs’ social assets provides a convenient and safe community, allowing people to live in and around what they’ve been doing for a long time,” he says.
“It’s natural to provide housing within these locations.
“And if clubs get the business model right, that’s where we will all end up gathering eventually.”
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