News / Council

Frith Street park suffers new cost blowout

Soil contamination and an unstable wall cause budget to grow to $7.1 million

Work is continuing on the park but it is still a long way from completion. 

Mark Phillips

THE final cost of the new Frith Street park in Brunswick has blown out to almost 50% higher than the original budget following the discovery of more contamination and construction issues at the problem plagued site. 

The opening date for the new park has also been set back again to the end of this year, about six months later than planned. 

At its monthly meeting on August 9, Merri-bek Council approved an increase for the project’s budget to $7.1 million, the second time it has had to be boosted this year. 

The original contract in February last year was for $4.8 million with an extra 10% contingency cost. That was raised by 25% in May this year to just under $6 million

But since then the project has encountered more “latent conditions”, including structurally unstable heritage brick walls facing Lobb and Frith streets which pose risk to the public and the discovery of more soil contamination. The extra contingency amount approved in May has now been exhausted. 

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In a report to councillors, the director of city infrastructure, Anita Curnow, said it was not possible to make any further reductions to the scope of the project to remain within the allocated budget. 

“With the project in its advanced state, it is not conceivable that the project should be abandoned and there is no other obvious scope reduction that could avoid the costs currently faced by the project,” the report said. 

Instead, councillors were asked to authorise increasing the contract cost by $1.1 million to $7.1 million, which is 48.5% above the original February 2022 budget. This includes an extra contingency of $350,000 for more “unknown unknowns”. 

Most of this amount will be clawed back from savings of $900,000 from the redevelopment of Fleming Park in Brunswick East, while $221,617 will be drawn from council reserves. 

The park is being built on the site of the former Fletcher Jones office building and an adjacent steel foundry in a 2700 square metre block bordered by Frith, Lobb, Howarth and Beith streets. 

An artist impression of how the park will look when it is completed. Illustration by Craig Perry.

Work began in June last year, but the level of soil contamination has been much greater than anticipated. It will cost another $150,000 to remove the contamination. 

The retention of parts of the office building and the foundry for heritage reasons is another cause of the cost blowout. 

While a café that will be housed within the shell of the Fletcher Jones building has been largely completed, landscaping and other works will be delayed until the high brick walls on Lobb Street can be made fully safe. The walls will need to be propped and then completely rebuilt. 

A further complication has been the discovery of public water drainage outlets on the site which will need to be capped. 

Growing costs have led to many of the original design features of the park having to be set aside, including a children’s water play area, a barbecue area, and one of the two public toilets. 

Cr Mark Riley said it was with “some reluctance” that he was in favour of again increasing the budget for the park. 

“It’s been very challenging and a little bit of a vexed question because if we don’t invest this extra money all of the efforts and the work we’ve done so far will become undone, but if we do, it’s going to cost us this extra money, so it’s not a very nice decision to make,” he said. 

But Cr Lambros Tapinos said he could not support another variation in the contract cost and the council should instead look at making changes to the park to deliver it within budget. 

“A contract like this needs to work within budget and I want to send that message quite loud and clear to the organisation that we just can’t be coming back and say we need a variation and then we need a variation and then again we need a variation,” he said. 

“We are talking about significant community dollars which has an opportunity cost as other open space, other gaps are not being filled because this project keeps going over budget … and we just keep approving.” 

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When the project is finished, the council will conduct a major review so it can avoid similar issues in future park developments on former industrial land. 

Cr James Conlan said in future, the council should be make contractors bear more of the risk for unexpected cost increases on infrastructure projects. 

The continuing cost blowouts at the Frith Street park highlight the perilous state of the council’s $112.6 million capital works program this financial year, following a warning in the draft council budget that uncertainty about building costs could impact on its ability to deliver the full program. 

A new park for Brunswick?

Meanwhile, Brunswick is likely to gain another new park following an innovative arrangement between Merri-bek Council and the developer of a new apartment building. 

The council has been approached by the owners of land at 20-22 Hope Street with a proposal to convert a public car park at 1-9 Breese Street into green space with an underground car park below it. 

The developer would pay the costs and bear the risks of exploring the idea and if it was found to be feasible and worth proceeding with to underground the car parking and create the basic park on the council-owned land. 

It is estimated this would cost between $4.2 million and $4.8 million. 

The council will enter into a heads of agreement with the developer which does not commit it to any course of action but will allow further exploration of the proposal by both parties before a final decision is made. 

Cr Tapinos, within whose ward the land is located, said the project could potentially be replicated as a model to unlock other land for community use in the city. 

“What’s been proposed here is fantastic,” he said. 

“If it eventuates it will be a new park in Brunswick at next to no cost to council and that is just an amazing opportunity and really worth going down this path and pursuing this partnership and seeing all the benefits that come out of it because it’s really a win-win scenario.” 

Cr Riley said the Breese Street area is one of the most densely populated in Brunswick and any extra open space would be welcomed by local residents. 

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