A decision to turn normal Olympic Games planning on its head has resulted in an enduring success story for Sydney, with the former athletes’ village now a sought-after suburb.
Before 2000, Olympic Games planners would build accommodation as temporary athletes’ villages which would later become government housing in rundown areas or expensive white elephants rarely used again.
So the Sydney Olympic Committee and developers Mirvac and Lend Lease, decided to take another tack entirely.
What if they built the accommodation as the housing it was hoped to eventually become, then temporarily converted it into athletes’ accommodation for the duration of the games, and then finished off the housing project once the Games were over?
The ‘houses’ would have bathrooms, but no kitchens as the athletes had communal dining halls. Rooms would be large enough so that they could be subdivided for the duration but then reinstated to family homes once the Olympic circus had moved on.
Demountables would be dropped into backyards then craned away after they were no longer needed. Garages became bedrooms and rooms in the homes were built wide enough so they could be subdivided comfortably into bedrooms for two. A four-bedroom house ended up sleeping up to 24 people.
After the athletes had gone home, contractors moved in to reinstate the rooms, install kitchens and remove the demountables (many of which were bought by Aussies and turned into holiday homes and granny flats).
Meanwhile, to establish the Games Green credential, the village would be supplied with solar power and recycled water. Now called Newington, the former Olympic Village is still an example of how smart thinking can create vibrant communities.
However, writes Sue Williams in Domain, one of the most enduring legacies of the 2000 Sydney Olympics very nearly didn’t happen.
Just days before the NSW Government was to award the tender for the bold experiment, the developer literally walked away from the deal, it was revealed last week on the 20th anniversary of “the best Olympic Games ever”.
As the only bidder left in the race, the entire $590 million project was left teetering on the brink. And it was all because of Aussies’ old-fashioned blinkered attitude, preferring free-standing homes to apartments.
“We wanted to put low-rise apartments along the edge of the site on Haslams Creek looking towards the Olympic stadium,” said retired Mirvac Group co-founder Bob Hamilton, revisiting the site two decades on.
“But the government wanted us to put houses there, with the apartments behind.
“We knew, however, that didn’t make sense. The three billion people around the world watching the Games would just see from the stadium lots of flat roofs instead of a clearly defined edge, and many more people in the apartments would have outlooks and views than if you had houses there.
“So I stood up and said, ‘Sorry, it won’t be going ahead’, and I walked out of the room.”
The officials sat stunned for a few seconds then raced out after him. The apartments on the water were built, and the model for the athletes’ village that became private housing afterwards has ended up serving as a template for all the world’s major sporting events since, and changed urban planning and design in Australia forever.
Newington itself has become a major residential success story too, a low-rise green suburb of solar power, water recycling, lush pocket parks and towering trees, with all streets – bar the main thoroughfare – named after Olympic athletes.
No home is more than 400 metres from a significant green space and demand for them constantly outstrips supply, with prices rising by about 250 per cent since they were built.
Back in 1997, the project was a massive gamble. No one could really be sure that the village and suburb would work, located, in those days, on what was little more than a massive swamp 2km north west of the Olympic Stadium, dotted with World War I bunkers used as a Navy armaments depot.
The joint venture partners who won the bid to build it, Mirvac for the housing and Lendlease for the infrastructure, had only three years to create a series of functioning solar-powered, water-recycling homes for 15,300 athletes and officials from all over the world, as well as a network of roads, parks, sewerage and drainage systems.
A $200 million bond was payable if it wasn’t all finished by June 30.
Those homes had to be designed expressly so that, when the month-long Games were over, they would be easily reconfigured back into permanent dwelling places for a projected population of 5,000 in what became, at the time, the world’s biggest solar-powered suburb.
“There were no kitchens because we had the enormous dining marquee serving up to 25,000 meals a day,” said Mr Hamilton.
“The accommodation were like shells of homes and we came back afterwards to refit them.”
Three hundred of the homes were sold off before the Games, with investors guaranteed 12-month rentals after the Games, with the rest sold off later.
“The major challenge was to accommodate the athletes temporarily in homes that were substantial,” said Peter Cotton, then the national practice director of Mirvac Design who now advises to the company.
“It was like a jigsaw puzzle fitting all the elements in.
“When the athletes arrived, they were startled to find they had real, well-built homes to live in, with marble bathrooms and courtyards they could style to express their own countries. It became a benchmark for planning and developing greenfield sites and a lot of things we put in, like the solar panels, batteries and cross-ventilation, have now become standard practice.”
The project became so successful and lauded around the world, and won so many awards, that it became a benchmark going forward, with every Olympic host city now visiting Newington.
“After the Games, we had a constant steam of people, from Greece, China, Japan, coming through Newington to see how it was done,” said Toby Long, Mirvac’s general manager residential development NSW. “It was seen as an example of how to do it properly.
“Many of the ideas at Newington were also carried over into our more recent big sporting events, like the Melbourne athletes’ village from the 2006 Commonwealth Games, and Gold Coast 2018. Both of these villages, and indeed the briefs for Olympic villages after Newington, used the principles of permanent dwellings that had games overlays to deliver the beds required for athletes.”
Nine hundred houses and townhouses and 700 apartments were built at Newington, along with 300 modular units which were later sold off and which can now be found all along the coast of NSW as holiday homes.
Newington Village Real Estate agent Chuck Lee said two-bedroom apartments that started at $270,000 now sell for around $685,000, three-bedroom townhouses at $345,000 are now $800,000 and houses that were $500,000 sell for $1.3 million.
“We never have enough to satisfy demand,” he said. “People just love living here.”