Sandridge Bridge and the Casino
Southbank Boulevard leads on across City Rd to meet Southbank Promenade and the Yarra River. The Sandridge Bridge comes into view, crossing the River at a sharp angle. This bridge is a remnant of the former Port Melbourne railway line, opened in 1854, the first railway line in Victoria, which connected Port Melbourne’s piers and Flinders St Station. This Bridge, built in 1888, is the third in this location. It has an impressive solidity combined with expressive engineering. You may know it from Mark Strizic’s well known photograph held by the State Library.
In the 1980s, the Labor Government resolved to replace the heavy rail on the Port Melbourne line with light rail. The decision was contested at the time as people were concerned about a lesser service and the loss of connection with Flinders St Station and the wider rail network. Instead, the light rail service runs along Spencer St past Southern Cross. The last train ran on the Port Melbourne Railway line on 16th October 1987.
In 1993, the viaduct at Queens Bridge which connected the Port Melbourne line with Flinders St Station was demolished to make way for the Casino. This photographs illustrates how Crown Casino occupies the space where the railway line and Queens Bridge viaduct used to be.
A plan for a casino was first put forward by Labor Premier Joan Kirner in 1990. A casino was seen as a way of stimulating the stagnant economy following the recession of the late 1980s. But it was under Jeff Kennett’s Liberal government, elected in 1992, that the casino made the first moves in an operation now considered too big to fail. The winning bidder for the development of the Casino and associated Crown Towers was Lloyd Williams’ Hudson Conway. The company also owned the HMAS Londsdale (south site) in Port Melbourne where they were pursuing an ambitious development that pushed the planning boundaries – later to become hm@s apartments.
In the early ’90s, activists including Tim Costello campaigned against the Casino, apprehending the gambling related harm that would follow. This week’s release of the report and findings of the Royal Commission into Crown Casino found that “perhaps the most damning discovery … is the manner in which Crown Melbourne deals with the many vulnerable people who have a gambling problem. The cost to the community of problem gambling is enormous. It is not only the gambler who suffers. It also affects many other people, and institutions.”1
The Royal Commission also found that Crown Melbourne was not fit to hold a casino license – “no other finding was possible”. ‘The Commission discovered that for many years Crown Melbourne had engaged in conduct that is, in a word, disgraceful. This is a convenient shorthand for describing conduct that was variously illegal, dishonest, unethical and exploitative.”2
The Royal Commission concluded that the Casino was too large to fail and should be given two years to reform under the supervision of a Special Manager with power to oversee and exercise control over the affairs of the casino operator.
After the Sandridge Railway Bridge was de-commissioned, it deteriorated to the point where it was a regular subject of public debate and criticism in the papers. It was not ‘the media’ then.
The Commonwealth Games provided the opportunity to re-imagine the severed bridge as a shared pedestrian and cycling connection between Queensbridge Square and Flinders St Station. Architect and multi-disciplinary Lebanese artist Nadim Karam was commissioned to create a public artwork on the theme of migration and how it has shaped Victoria. The artwork begins in Queensbridge Square with an elevated stone work acknowledging the First Australians3, while along the length of the Bridge the sculptures explore stages in Victoria’s history of migration. Glass panels record the countries of origin of all subsequent migrants in alphabetical order.
First among them is Afghanistan. On the days preceding the American and Australian withdrawal from Afghanistan in September, this particular sculpture representing refugees fleeing was illuminated by the morning sun.
The work led me to explore The Travellers gallery on Nadim Karam’s website, which I highly recommend. The online exhibition reveals the development of the concept for the Bridge with maps and beautiful drawings exploring the themes and concepts. The public artwork reinforces Port Melbourne’s strong association with the stories of migration and Port’s connection to and relationship with the city of Melbourne.
In 2017 Crown Casino Casino Resorts applied for a planning permit for a 90 level development including 388 six-star hotel suites and 708 apartments. It would have been the tallest building in Victoria, if not Australia, at the time – that dubious claim to fame. The project promised $100 million in public benefit – though that figure was contested – which would have included a $15 million refurbishment of the Sandridge Bridge, improvements to Southbank Boulevard as well as access to public gardens on the higher levels of the building. The nature of the improvements to the Sandridge Bridge was not publicly exhibited though ‘greening’ was mentioned. The State Government approved the project, even though it exceeded planning guidelines, on the basis that is was of state significance and for the public benefit it offered. A condition of the permit was that the development was to begin within 2 years.
The planning permit expired and was not renewed. The Queensbridge Hotel, which was to have been demolished to make way for the development, has since been heritage listed by the City of Melbourne.
The Royal Commission recommends that a Special Manager oversee the operations of the Casino operator for two years.
1 & 2 Overview & recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Casino Operator and License The Commissioner Hon. Ray Finkelstein AO QC presented to the Governor on `15 October.
3 in a sign of how much has changed since 2005, in 2021 it would be most unlikely that anyone other than a First Nations artist would be given such a commission.
Nadim Karam 2005 The Travellers
Sandridge Rail Bridge over the Yarra River photographer Mark Strizic State Library of Victoria