Eyesore to ‘Earthscraper’: Quarry Regeneration Unlocking Opportunities

Dubbed an “earthscraper”, it not only defies the reach-for-the-sky development approach that has shaped our cities but turns it on its head.

Instead of soaring skywards, its 18 storeys drop out of sight into the craggy depths of an abandoned quarry pit.

Built into the rock face, the 336-room Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland Hotel on the outskirts of China’s biggest city sits almost 90m below ground level.

Its ambitious design has made it the luxe poster child of a new development realm.

“The site was really a scar on the surface of the earth,” design chief Martin Jochman of JADE+QA Architects reflected when the doors of the $US550-million five-star hotel were finally opened in 2018 after 12 years of construction.

“We showed how to take a difficult and unusual site that nobody knew what to do with and make it useful again, revitalising it with a new life.”

In Australia, as land has become increasingly scarce in major cities, developers have also realised the infill potential of disused and dormant quarry sites—many of them now surrounded by urban landscapes for which they provided the building blocks.

Quarry rehabilitation and redevelopment is standard industry practice at the end of the extraction production cycle.

But until recently the transformation of these urban eyesores has been largely limited to the creation of community open spaces—parklands, sporting fields, wetlands, golf courses and botanic gardens.

▲ A render of Riverlee’s New Epping, the $2-billion revitalisation of a 51ha former quarry and landfill site.

From blight to masterplan

In the suburban northern outskirts of Melbourne, the spectre of what was once deemed an undevelopable blight is now the foundation for a groundbreaking development masterplan.

Touted as a world-leading project, developer Riverlee’s New Epping is the ambitious $2-billion revitalisation of a 51ha former quarry and landfill site as a large-scale, mixed-use precinct.

Under the plan approved by the City of Whittlesea this year, it will develop over the next 10 to 15 years into a “mini city” of five neighbourhoods—including a 7ha health and wellness quarter, 110,000sq m of commercial space as well as retail, hotels, education and 2000 homes—with a conservation corridor running through it.

“What attracted us to this was just the absolute under utilisation of this prime piece of land,” Riverlee development director David Lee says.

“It had been farmed, it had been quarried, it had been landfilled and from all points of view it was finished, it was done.

“Everything around it had more or less been developed. It was absolutely infill and prime real estate. And it just didn’t sit right with us that it was undevelopable.

“So we decided we had to find a way to make it work … and what we’ve done is add value to what normally someone would have thought all the value had already been extracted.”

But as Jochman discovered while turning his design vision for Shanghai’s Wonderland Hotel into reality, it is a development journey fraught with unforeseen challenges.

And it demands innovation—thinking not only outside the box but inside the rocks.

The complexities of building the hotel at the bottom of an overgrown and dangerous quarry pit were such that more than 41 engineering methods were patented in overcoming difficulties during its construction.

▲ A render of the 336-room Intercontinental Shanghai Wonderland Hotel.

Lee says Riverlee went in with its “eyes wide open” when it acquired the Epping quarry 18km north of the Melbourne CBD in 2015.

But the site’s history—including the added complication of contamination from being used for landfill—meant despite even the most meticulous due diligence “you never really know absolutely everything”.

“You are accepting a degree of risk … a degree of the unknown but we knew as much as we could have done at that point.

“These sorts of sites are not for everyone,” Lee warns. “We could look at it because we are a private group who can take that long-term view.

“In the instance that it didn’t go terribly right it could have gone terribly wrong and we needed the capacity to hold, if not for five years, for 10 or 20 years.”

Challenging on all fronts

By their very nature, disused quarries and landfills are inherently challenging on all fronts—environmental, geotechnical and ecological.

“Anything you could dream of that would pose a challenge to site development, that’s what we had to deal with over the first four or five years to unlock it for development,” Lee says.

According to environmental engineer Jeremy Newstead from Edge Group, up to 1000 holes have been drilled across the quarry site to date for testing of soil, groundwater and gases.

“It was a big hole where they’ve dug out the basalt rock and then turned it into a landfill that has been capped by a 2m to 4m layer of clay soil … so there’s been quite a bit of upfront assessment and works,” he says.

▲ New Epping’s first stage is under way and so far comprises 151 social and affordable apartments across three buildings.

To minimise contamination risk from leachate as well as methane and carbon dioxide gas emissions from the buried waste, a complex groundwater pumping mechanism and boundary venting system have been installed.

“It’s amazing to see the scale of the site revitalisation and its transformation into an impressive development,” Newstead says.

“If you had asked me seven years ago, I wouldn’t have said you’re crazy but I would have said do you know what you’re getting into here? Not many people would take this on.”

New Epping’s first stage is under way and so far comprises 151 social and affordable apartments across three buildings, which were fast-tracked by the Victorian government’s Building Victoria Recovery Taskforce and have recently been delivered.

As well, construction of the $133-million, 127-bed Northern Private Hospital to be operated by Ramsay Health Care is scheduled for completion early next year.

With landfill sites prone to subsidence, all the buildings are constructed on concrete platforms that sit atop dozens of piles driven up to 18m below ground level on to the stable basalt rock bed.

Lee says with the site’s engineering and buildability challenges largely resolved the only way was up from now on.

“We are in the design and planning stages of four buildings in the medical, office and hotel spaces. So we’re working on a number of new opportunities.

“Hopefully, come next year we’ll be in construction for one, maybe two or even maybe three more buildings.

“It’s really a blank canvas opportunity and it’s not limited to just one use so we have the versatility to move with the market. We can pivot when the market pivots.

“We do have a masterplan but masterplans must be dynamic. So it’s anyone’s guess as to exactly what it will look like in 15 years but it’s quite exciting to think about it.”

▲ A render of part of the $500-million The Quarry project at Keperra, in Brisbane’s north-west.

Dynamic process

Frasers Property Australia development director Nick Kostellar agrees.

“The whole design and delivery process has to be very dynamic, also just due to the fact that when you cut a rock face, you might have it designed a certain way but the natural geology and how that rock comes away ultimately dictates your outcome,” he says.

Kostellar is the pit boss of the Singapore-backed group’s $500-million transformation of a 49ha open-cut granite quarry site on a hillside at Keperra, 9km north-west of Brisbane’s CBD.

To be delivered in eight stages—and aptly called The Quarry— the masterplan for the residential resort-style development comprises almost 500 new homes, a community recreation precinct, childcare centre and elevated amphitheatre events precinct.

“We’re trailblazing in a lot of instances,” Kostellar says. “At the end of the day, we’re ultimately re-sculpting a new face for this hillside.

“And, simplistically, we’re running a mine that’s delivering bulk earthworks, stabilising a cut face and delivering large-scale retaining walls.

“The rest of it after that, the civils and landscaping, is really straightforward and happens very quickly because you’ve dealt with all the unknowns of ground conditions.”

To stabilise the hillside, so-called “rock nailing” has been undertaken up to 6m into its solid granite rock face.

But Kostellar says because the site had been an operating solely as a quarry for more than 60 years it was “relatively honest” with none of the complications associated with subsequent landfill or other uses.

And one of the key advantages of having the quarry operation onsite was a lot of the extracted materials could be re-used for boulder retaining walls, gravel f

▲ The Brisbane site operated exclusively as a quarry for 60 years.

Three times the timeline

Nevertheless, he points out: “It does take three times as long to develop an outcome compared to a greenfield site.

“This is a five to seven-year journey ahead of us, and we’ve already owned the site for three years. So you’re playing the long game.”

Having grown up in the local neighbourhood, Kostellar has known the site for even longer.

“It’s great to be part of its transformation,” he says. “Because of the scarcity of land developers are having to take on more complex sites.

“But with that, too, we can achieve quite unique outcomes that drive the value proposition of these precincts as well.”

Lee agrees, adding: “This is true urban regeneration at its best and there will be more to come.

“There’s plenty of quarry and landfill sites out there. Not many of them at all are being looked at for current development.

“But when the market sees that it can be done and it is viable, I think it will become a little more mainstream as we further prove-up the concept.”

Article source: Queensland Property Investor