Linda Gregoriou on the future of precincts

Rose Mary Petrass  The FifthState

Australia’s city centres have become virtual ghost towns during the past few years, presenting both opportunities and challenges as more people move to the city fringes and regional areas.

For Linda Gregoriou, the art of creating a precinct is of paramount importance. It’s about incorporating the history, the geography of place with a focus of what gives an area its “point of difference”. It’s thinking about the liveability, the climate, the building typologies and materials; the emotional aspect and, as she puts it, the “sensual” whether it be real or imagined.

“That’s always going to be your little guiding light.”

Ms Gregoriou has an impressive background in multidisciplinary property development, moving from the creative to the financial elements, that gives her particular insights into precincts.

She’s worked on projects as diverse at the first masterplan for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the National Arts School precinct in Sydney to the large scale Mountbrooke development site in Dublin in 2007, a 16 hectare mixed use on the edge of the CBD. There’s also been a range of her own private projects and she’s been director of the reworking of Jabiru in the Northern Territory, soon to be handed back to the traditional owners.

Currently, she’s head of property development at TrueGreen, a private equity investment group with an emphasis on environmentally sustainable projects.

Linda Gregoriou in conversation with Vince Frost at the NSW state government and CBRE’s experiential event Flow & Glow in Sydney city’s Wynyard neighbourhood. Image: Linda Gregoriou

It’s not a bad record to call on; and this energetic woman knows how to take full advantage of the insights to talk up a storm on stage when she spoke at the NSW state government and CBRE’s experiential event Flow & Glow in Sydney city’s Wynyard neighbourhood last Thursday, where she was interviewed by Vince Frost, founder and chief executive of Frost Collective.

Building to last

The conversation tackled the complex question of what makes a great precinct.

Design excellence should be the central core to any precinct, Ms Gregoriou said. Key is to understand that it also adds value.

The built environment conditions our behaviour and good design, architecture and placemaking affects the way we live, work and recreate, she said. It also delivers financial benefits by stimulating economic growth and activity as well as developing aesthetic and functional innovation.

But money should not be the driving force behind precinct developments. Yes, money gets us to the end goal, but it should not inform the creative process.

A strong eye to sustainability should also be front of mind. In a profit-driven world, developers are so quick to “pull stuff down” and replace it, Ms Gregorious said.

“It’s quite shocking, it’s disturbing… It’s not sustainable at all.”

Precinct developments should be more about taking a multidisciplinary note of the past to carry into the future a human-centred design approach that allows buildings to remain in use for decades to come. A well-built and designed building also offers the opportunity for adaptive reuse and retrofitting in the future so the whole building does not need to be rebuilt with changing trends.

“When we’re designing a precinct we have to think about enduring quality – whether it’s the building, the landscape, the way you deal with the topography and the geography, how the community engages – it’s all crucial.”

For example, the Olympic precinct in Sydney was built for an event that lasted just 16 days, but the long-term use of the area when designing the masterplan was the main focus.

She also spoke about creating a market. All too often developers and architects are told by real estate agents that the market won’t respond to the creation of a new building or typology.

“Part of the problem is that quite often designers will be told to follow what the market wants. But you’ve got to ask, who is ‘the market’? I’m the market, you’re the market. Have the guts to create your own market. That is really important.”

Our changing cities

Ms Gregoriou said that migration out of the major cities (Melbourne and Sydney) which started around 2010, pre-pandemic, she says, presents opportunities for the sector to evolve and refine the purpose and nature of both our inner city and regional precincts.

“The city is constantly changing – it’s organic, like the human body, it’s like a relationship, it’s changing all the time and needs to be nurtured.”

Migration out of a city’s CBD is what she calls “the doughnut effect” – an urban phenomenon started in the 1960s when a number of American cities experienced decline as a result of growth in suburbs and regional areas, which leaves a big hole in the CBD.

The property sector, she says, needs to rethink the way our CBDs are structured to offer more mixed uses with an emphasis on the small, in particular encouraging small independent  retailers rather than just big retail chains. The way cities are currently structured and the land use practices offer little by way of culturally interesting attractions for residents.

She also believes that urbanists need to acknowledge the new opportunities that migration to regional areas offers, which across the country offers plenty of promise.

“People will come if we offer something culturally and socially interesting and a sense of place,” she said.

Ms Gregoriou points to South Eveleigh by Mirvac as an example of a thoughtful and well-designed precinct. The project balances history, community expectations, land use and capital flows.

Creating a well-loved and liveable precinct is about incorporating all these aspects and tweaking what doesn’t work to make it better.

“You’re not always right, and that’s the whole thing about refining things.

“[Designing a precinct] is like unblocking writer’s block. You sort of tweak and refine constantly and then it’s a slightly joyous moment when you get it right… Everybody who creates understands that process. You’re always having blockages but it’s part of the process.”

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