There are times, at what was once billed as the future of Australian entertainment hubs, when you can almost see the tumbleweed rolling through the near-deserted streets.
But now, nearly 20 years on from its glitzy launch, the opening titles are about to roll on what’s hoped to be a bright new future for Sydney’s Entertainment Quarter at Moore Park in the city’s eastern suburbs.
With a fresh masterplan for the 11-hectare old showgrounds site next to Fox Studios currently being finalised by the owners’ consortium led by Gerry Harvey, John Singleton and Mark Carnegie who paid $80 million to lease it in 2014, there’s a new call of ‘Lights, Camera and Action!’
The architectural practice Esquisse Design Studio, fresh from its success with the Tramsheds Harold Park, has been hired to work with the owners Carsingha Investments on regenerating the space, and the first of a new set of retailers, Fratelli Fresh, has opened, with others, like Rosebery’s fashionable Black Star Pastry, about to move in. There’s also been a refurbishing of the children’s playgrounds and new seating has been created for families and umbrellas installed for shade and shelter.
“While the existing open space is significant, it suffers from a lack of diversity of scale, space and use,” says Esquisse partner Naomi Fry. “It also has limited weather protection in the form of trees or shade structures, which has an impact on how the precinct is used in wet weather or on hot days. In addition, the development suffers from a stale and dated identity associated with the original Fox Studios vision.
“Yet the amenity of the site is significant in terms of it having the wonderful aspect of the show ring open green space, with shaded and well-articulated streets, and a car-free environment. Under the new ownership, the opportunity exists now to create a community-focused civic environment which can also be evolving experiential space.”
The precinct originally opened in 1998 as an adjunct to the Fox Studio Backlot, 20th Century Fox’s first theme park, and intended to be along the lines of Universal Studios in Hollywood. That opened in a blaze of publicity, with crowds pouring through the area to see its Titanic ride, Babe movie set and The Simpsons Downunder attraction, and thronging through the adjacent retail and recreation space.
It closed just two years later and the precinct, with movie theatres, restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and entertainment venues was left to stand alone. While it’s busy during the Wednesday and Saturday markets, before and after sports games at the nearby Allianz Stadium and Sydney Cricket Ground, and with concerts and special events, at other times it can seem almost deserted.
But with the light rail arriving in 2019, and the new owners taking over, preparing an ambitious new masterplan for the area, it could indeed be revitalised. A Carsingha spokesperson said they can’t yet disclose their specific plans as they are still in the process of finalising the masterplan. “It is currently in draft and commercial in confidence until approved by the relevant bodies,” he said.
Newcomers like Fratelli Fresh, which has just opened a seven-days- a-week 300-seat Italian restaurant, beer and wine garden at the site, are very optimistic about the future, however. Thomas Pash, CEO of the Rockpool Dining Group, which owns Fratelli as well as the Bavarian Bier Café there, says last Friday, they even did 300 covers for lunch.
“We are very excited about this,” he says. “Three years ago, it was very quiet there, and we were relying on game days to help us pay the bills, and the rest of the time it was really dead. But the new owners have really ambitious plans, say they want to bring in great brands and have brought events like the Cirque de Soleil, the Titanic exhibition and the Padel Tennis courts, and have plans for a huge food hall.
“We’re starting to see traffic to the site gradually grow and we were so optimistic about what’s been happening there that we decided to open up a big Fratelli Fresh there. It’s a perfect location and catchment, with easy access and parking and with the light rail coming in, and there’s a lot more now to attract people. We believe it will become a destination that will become one of the hottest areas of the city.”
At the moment, features of the Entertainment Quarter – nicknamed EQ – also include The Comedy Store, a kids’ play centre, a gym, a dance school and the Australian Film and Television School, while Carsingha’s future plans encompass indoor sporting premises, offices, more food outlets, and perhaps a hotel.
“It’s a great opportunity to reinvent the public domain to make it a much more hospitable environment and to revitalise the existing retail strategy with new and interesting tenants,” says Naomi Fry. “It’s a huge scale project which will evolve over time.
“But as it starts to grow and have a stronger events program and a better quality environment and strong mix of businesses, it will start to become more vibrant.”
Her partner at Esquisse Allan Stevens says it’s important too to change the old vision of EQ. “The opportunities for it are immense,” he says. “It’s so ripe for regeneration and bringing it back to focus on the community and the people of Sydney.
“It’s hard to change people’s perceptions of it but, by getting in new tenants like Black Star which is one of the most Instagrammed food outlets in the country, curating the public realm and having lots of pop-up events, that will happen. We want EQ to be a great destination for families, everyone, in a city that needs good open space and a quality entertainment area.”