It's been a slow ferment, involving years of consultation, planning and community engagement, but the long-awaited makeover of Brisbane's historic Howard Smith Wharves is finally approaching kick-off. Construction will start before the end of the year at the 3½ hectare riverfront site, says Adam Flaskas who, together with Elisha Bickle, leads HSW Nominees, developers of the project.
The venture is ambitious. Plans include an upscale three-storey, 164-room Art Series Hotel, half a dozen restaurants, a bakery, a coffee roastery, a craft brewery, a dramatic over-water bar, an exhibition and events centre and more, all ranged alongside more than 2.7 hectares of parklands with uninterrupted city and water views. The eastern part of the site is destined to become an edible landscape, growing produce for onsite cafés and restaurants. The old wharf and heritage buildings will be restored. Public spaces, which make up 80 per cent of the precinct, will be activated and used for community events ranging from food markets and festivals to cultural shindigs. "It already has an amazing aura - there's a very distinct feeling here which will set it apart from other precincts," says Flaskas. "As soon as you set foot on the site you'll see the growing gardens, the old heritage buildings, the cliff face; you'll know you're in the Howard Smith Wharves precinct."
Flaskas says they want to work with the site, rather than impose upon it. Architects Woods Bagot have drawn up the master plan and also worked on the design of the new exhibition building. "We don't want to disrupt the feeling, we want to work with the [site's] aura. We want people to be baking bread, roasting coffee, brewing - even distilling, making vodka and gin - we want people who are passionate producers growing amazing produce that's used in the precinct and in the farmers' market."
It may all sound utopian, but the Bickle dynasty has a deep history in Brisbane hospitality, running everything from Valley nightclubs and bars, to restaurants and even a public golf course. Bickle and Flaskas both have form when it comes to conjuring magic from forgotten sites. Together with Siobhan Bickle (Flaskas's wife) and David Wadley (Elisha Bickle's husband), they recently helped transform a rundown surfer motel at Cabarita Beach in northern New South Wales into Australia's top boutique beach getaway, Halcyon House, which not only took recent honours as Australia's Top Regional Hotel in Gourmet Traveller's 2016 Australian Hotel Guide, but also scooped the award for Best Service.
The Howard Smith Wharves precinct is slated to open late 2017 and Bickle and Flaskas say, first and foremost, they're building it for the locals. And as locals themselves, they plan to be involved for the long haul. "There will be people from interstate and overseas who come and enjoy the precinct," says Flaskas. "If you're in Hong Kong, for example, you want to go where the locals eat, so by default international travellers are going to want to come here, as well as locals."
They describe the project as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to give Brisbane a precinct that offers an agenda-setting mix of lifestyle, tourism and entertainment activities, all done in a sustainable way. "It would sound a bit arrogant to call it a game-changer," says Flaskas. "We're just excited to bring to Brisbane opportunities that don't currently exist."