15 May 2016

Thoughts on the Boggo Road Redevelopment

The planning process for the Boggo Road redevelopment rolls ever onward, with the Draft Application currently still under bureaucratic consideration, and a formal public consultation process yet to begin.

If you are unaware of what has been proposed, the plans can be viewed here (on page 7). A summary can be read here. Basically, the original cellblocks and associated buildings from 1903 will be staying in place and used for a mix of heritage and hospitality (and hopefully arts events), while the newer 1980s structures in the north-east corner will be removed to make way for a market and green spaces.

A variety of opinions have been expressed about these plans, on a spectrum that ranges from 'knock it all down' to 'leave it as it is'. The final outcome will of course fall somewhere in between. I have made my own opinions on this subject known before (as in 'The Case For a Boggo Road Cultural Hub'), and I think that the proposals come close to striking the right balance between supporting heritage and community interests, while enabling commercial ventures that will generate revenue required to look after the old prison.

That is something that has never been achieved at Boggo Road before.

The long-term financial sustainability of the heritage prison is a key consideration. I've said this before, but it really needs to be emphasised: Right now, no level of government is going to provide the ongoing funding needed to maintain the heritage buildings into the future. I really wish that funding was available, but in the absence of a historian-led armed revolution, it just isn't. I've been very closely involved with this process since it started well over a decade ago, and the battle for full government funding was lost by 2010. That is the Realpolitik of the situation and one we have to work with. And it also means that if things go on like this, Boggo Road will be left to slowly decay until it is so bad that it is just knocked down. The money needed to save it as a viable heritage site has to come from somewhere.

This fact was also noted by heritage architect Dr Ruth Woods in her Heritage Impact Assessment for Boggo Road (June 2015):
‘Without adaptive re-use of the site there is little prospect of maintaining the cultural heritage significance of the place. The buildings are currently vacant apart from a limited use by a private tour operator. Unless the place is adaptively re-used, at least in part, the site will continue to degrade and ongoing maintenance will be further minimised.’
That is all very well, but what kind of 're-use' is planned? For a start, the eastern side of the heritage prison grounds would be home to a new market, community spaces, and retail and dining venues. This would require the demolition of some of the newer (1980s) parts of the prison, some of which is low-significance and already derelict. Much of the remainder (the high-significance area) is earmarked for heritage, event and community purposes. I have been working with the Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance for some time now on plans to create an arts and heritage centre at the old prison, incorporating improved (and respectful) historical interpretation, a full programme of cultural and community activities, and attractive hospitality and arts facilities. These activities would value-add to each other and transform Boggo Road from what is now mostly functionally 'dead' space into a thriving, living hub that becomes a drawcard for both local and international cultural tourism and also generates much-needed money to help fund ongoing heritage projects there.

And, for the first time since the closure of the prison in 1989, a significant number of new jobs will be created at the site.

The creation of a successful heritage/arts/hospitality hub would require limited changes to some buildings. This is not ideal, but allowing such works is an acceptable compromise if the plans are right. The only alternative is continued stagnation for years to come. Dr Woods' professional assessment is that the proposed re-use would RETAIN the cultural significance of the place, and that the appearance and character of the existing major heritage fabric would be preserved. She also notes that the new works would be reversible (with removed material being stored onsite).

When it comes to structural changes, it is of course a question of balance. My major concern is that Boggo Road should be perceived primarily as a heritage site with attractive dining facilities, as opposed being seen as a dining venue within a heritage setting. The History needs to remain front and centre. This means actively using a significant proportion of the space there for heritage and community activities. Although the proposals come close to achieving the required balance, I suggest that the following tweaks would help to get it right.

The cellblocks 
There are three original cellblocks at Boggo Road; D, E and F Wings. Planning permission has been sought to internally adapt both D and E Wings for use as restaurants, although I understand that E Wing would not be used as such (yet). F Wing has been set aside as a heritage space.

I believe that E Wing should be adapted for use as a flexible arts, heritage and community space. This would involve the removal of selected cell walls (and storing all removed material) to create a varied range of spaces for use as offices and 'hot desks', individual art studio spaces, storage facilities, possibly some small gallery and exhibition space, information booth, art sales booths, and ‘pop-up’ retail spaces. There are plenty of other areas in and around the prison to be used as food and drink venues, and using two out of three cellblocks for the same purpose would make Boggo Road less of a heritage site than if only one was used that way.

As F Wing will be the only cellblock left ‘as is’ (internally), it should be left as intact as possible, beyond necessary safety and maintenance upgrades. In this context, the proposed new entrance from a side yard via a cell wall seems to be unnecessary and intrusive. The historical integrity of this cellblock would be better preserved if access is provided via a discrete (possibly portable) ramp at the front door.

The issue of cell graffiti has been raised, but I have no problem with the removal of that graffiti because, for a start, most of it has recently been identified as being fake - i.e. produced after the closure of the prison - and it has already been extensively recorded. Perhaps more importantly, the cell-wall paint beneath it has deteriorated badly and is now a health hazard.

I'd also suggest that 2 Yard, adjacent to E Wing, be retained for use as a flexible outdoor arts/heritage area. Under the current proposals, only a minority of the exercise yards will be preserved ‘as is’, with some being used as alfresco dining areas or an events and function venue. 2 Yard would provide valuable extra space for identified heritage and arts activities.

Successful 'urban villages' are not as easy to create as you might think. The old prison is an ideal place to host a thriving level of genuine community activity, with people coming together in recreational and hospitality spaces. Overall, I think the proposals (with the above amendments) are an innovative 21st-century solution to the heritage funding problem. The challenge is to work within the 're-use' parameters and treat this as a very rare opportunity to create a genuinely exciting new venue. The Boggo Arts & Heritage Alliance has highly-qualified and experienced people on board from the fields of history, visual arts, drama and music, who can work together with other stakeholders to finally bring Boggo Road to life, and enhance Brisbane for residents and visitors.

Have your say on the Boggo plans here

(The above opinions are my own and not necessarily those of any organisation that I am associated with).

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