Veteran visionary property industry developer Sid Londish dies

Veteran visionary property industry developer Sid Londish dies
Veteran visionary property industry developer Sid Londish dies

The Sydney property developer Sid Londish, the 94 year old giant of the property industry, has died.

He still had all his charm when we last caught up in Milsons Point, one of the many suburbs that he helped transformed through the decades. He'd walked across from his Grandview apartment.

The raconteur wanted to talk about his plan for a $130 million residential retirement devel­opment at Woodend, 70km from Melbourne.

Always sharply dressed in a navy reefer jacket, often with cashmere cardigan, along with personalised cuff links, and gold watch, the ever forthright Londish was a true pioneer of the industry.

"I like being out in front,'' said Londish of his 60 plus years in property. He was the grandfather of the industry, taking over the mantle from Sir Paul Strasser in 1989.

I first came across him in 1986 when he paid $11 million for the air space above the Kings Cross tunnel with his initial plans to construct a luxury 500-room international hotel on the one hectare site sold by the NSW Department of Main Roads site. He was, at the time, a 62-year-old self made millionaire, who shunned my comparison to any likeness to Blake Carrington, the coiffured oil mogul from the then hit television series, Dynasty.

The workaholic, thick-skinned property developer was born in April 1924 at Tientsin, in northern China, arriving in Australia as an 11 month old. His British father, who had come to Australia in 1885 as a 17 year old, had been in China to set up a typewriter factory where he'd met his Russian wife.

His father introduced him to the phrase from Euripides: "Men honor property above all else; it has the greatest power in human life."

He pioneered a range of visionary commercial and residential property developments across Sydney. 

He'd built NSW's first shopping centre at St Ives in 1960, then went onto develop Australia's first village-style shopping centre in Kings Cross. There was the 1963 Southside Plaza, the £800,000 development which included the popular Rockdale Bowl.

In the early 1980s he developed the Tower Square Village at North Sydney which SMH writer Valerie Lawson noted was aimed at people with plenty of disposal income and were attracted by glitter and glamour. The Big Bear office and retail complex in Neutral Bay came in the late 1980s too.

He developed the Hunter Connection, the major pedestrian retail food court thoroughfare to Wynyard Station, where retailers are currently unhappy with how Brookfield is dealing with the pending redevelopment distruption.

Then it was creating Australia's first bulky goods Supa Centre at Moore Park in 1993. Then there was the redevelopment proposal for the opposite corner, The Reschs Brewery site.

In 1988 Londish's Comrealty Ltd and the Japanese firm, EIE Developments, headed by Dr Bungo Ishizaki, unveiled plans for an $850 million office block to be built on the site of Sydney's first Government House.

The Young Street project would be "as important in Sydney as the Bond Centre is in Hong Kong," he noted. They are now the prestigious Governor Phillip and Macquarie towers in the CBD.

There were the Ritz Carlton hotel projects. Australia's first Ritz-Carlton was established when Londish constructed it on Macquarie Street in the late 1980s for Japanese millionaire singer, Masao Sen.

His prestigious residential developments included Pulpit Point at Hunters Hill; No. 9 Elamang Avenue, Kirribilli; The Wintergarden Apartments, Rose Bay, Grandview Apartments, Milsons Point among many others.

These all had such extravagance which are now actually the norm. 

Londish pioneered the luxury trend on the Kirribilli waterfront in the early 1980s. It was long before the term empty nester was conceived. His low rise residential building - in the grand southern Mediterranean tradition and finished with Corinthian scrolls and balustrades - was designed by architect Michael Stanley. The six apartments, with north-east aspect over Careening Cove, originally fetched about $500,000 each. In 1990 prestige apartment specialist Andrew Macluran sold one for $3.5 million, setting a record price for a North Shore apartment and an Australian record for a resale apartment. 

Londish had a policy of living in his own buildings, proclaiming he was not frightened to be in daily contact with his fellow occupants.

"That's how confident I am of presenting a quality product." 

There were certainly failings, financially and in his relationships. 

In Woolloomooloo, his joint initiative with the Moscow Narodny Bank came unstuck in the 1970s recession. He was undone again in the 1990s recession.

But his enduring legacy includes pushing for the development of Sydney's third runway, as chairman of the Sydney Convention and Tourist Bureau.

"The government has a responsibility to tell us why we can't have it and I'm not talking about saving someone's bloody arse in Parliament," he forthrightly said, referring to the Minister for Aviation Support, Gary Punch, whose constituency was near the airport.

Much earlier he was apparently creating and operating Australia's first offshore oil rig too. And sand mining at Lithgow.

In 1986 the extraordinary specimen of a Plesiosaur was found partially preserved in opal.

Londish purchased the damaged specimen and then employed Australian palaeontologist Paul Willis to reconstruct the sea beast. 

The opal mining machinery had crushed the skeleton into hundreds of fragments with Londish having the idea that he would donated it to the Australian Museum under the Tax Incentives for the Arts scheme.

Paul Willis, then a doctorate student, but later to become a Quantum presenter on the ABC, spent some 450 hours joining all the broken fragments together. 

Liking light opera, he was credited as assisting Paul Keating's pursuit of opera. He once told how he often gave Keating "fatherly advice" until they lost contact after falling out over fringe benefits tax.

Londish's linkedin profile indicated his education was "the school of hard knocks." 

Sid Londish often recalled "poverty everywhere" growing up in harbourside Woolloomooloo.

He got his first job aged nine filling nail polish bottles being paid sixpence fornine-hour shifts.

In 2015 he kindly participated in a school program at Plunkett Street Public School – Me, You and Woolloomooloo – which gleaned first-hand history of the suburb when Year 4, 5 and 6 students conducted interviews.

Londish spent about $20 million buying Woolloomooloo terrace slums and proposed a $400 million redevelopment in the early 1970s, seeking a 12:1 floor space ratio. The locals dubbed him "Quick Quid Sid."

His overly ambitious Woolloomooloo proposal came after he met one of his mentors, Daniel KLudwig, a fabulously wealthy shipping magnate, and richest man in the USA, who created the upscale suburban communities of Westlake Village in California.

By 1974 after two years of green bans, Londish’s backers withdrew, forcing Londish’s company Regional Holdings to abandon the project.

Some two decades earlier the Londish family's Woolloomooloo engineering workshop had closed two years after Prime Minister Robert Menzies scrapped the engineering depreciation allowance in 1950.

In the early 1990s SMH writer Deirdre Macken wrote his face went purple whenever he spoke of planners, council officers, and bureaucrats.

The Weekend Australian journalist Kate Legge wrote of him three years ago in a feature on 90 plus year olds who were living life to the max.

Describing him as "tall, with a weathered countenance, gold-rimmed glasses, combed furrows of white hair and a cautious gait, his appearance belies an indefatigable zest for the next big wave."

That was endeavouring to create a better lifestyle for elderly Australians with his new concept in aged living resorts.

After a lifetime building city towers, golf courses and shopping centres, he was hell bent on a mission to revolutionise aged care because the places he'd visited horrified him.

"I thought, 'If this is going to be my old age, I'd shoot myself'." 

She described Londish as a poster boy for the idea of "active" ageing underpinning the Intergenerational Report.

Londish, the ex-RAAF pilot in PNG, had a vision for aged care.

He envisaged serviced offices at his retirement village proposal.

"On offer will also be lectures on financial planning, how to update your computer skills, and many more courses to ensure guests have something to do both physically and mentally every day."

"I know what old people need and they need two things.

"First of all they can't be lonely. They need to be mixing with people and doing things every day.

"The second thing is if you don't keep your mind and body active you'll become a vegetable, so this place is all about living. It's all about getting out of bed and having something to do. I do this myself. I swim for half an hour every morning, it keeps everything moving; it allows me to turn my head when I'm driving."

Reinventing aged care became his mission after visiting a former golfing buddy who'd retired, sold the family home and moved with his wife into assisted living units with a central lounge.

"We went into this room and it smelt of death, like a repository. They were all sitting around watching each other die. So I came to the conclusion that this is not the way for elderly people to live. I started to look around and the more I saw, the more I was horrified.

"If ever my kids put me into one of those, I've had the richard.'' 

But his grand plans for deluxe retirement villages never quite got there.

Initially there was a 20ha site at Campbelltown in Sydney's west in 2003 where he drew up plans for 1000 apartments.

"It was the first time in my life that I've left council with a standing ovation," he chuckles. But his partners took a quick profit and sold up.

Next he chased a bigger parcel of land in Sydney's north at Oxford falls but the council blocked his proposal through the Land and Environment Court.

"They're all frightened of aged care but I'm telling you it's the biggest problem coming in this country. Not one of the politicians can see it coming. If they do not wake up soon we're going to be so far behind."

He was just as fortnight in 1991 at the Royal Commission into Building Industry Productivity addressing the disruption on his trouble-plagued Premier Apartments site at North Sydney.

The cost of the project blew out from $22 million to $58 million and took twice as long as scheduled.

"A couple of unionists got sand in their meat pies up on the 11th floor," Londish told the commission.

"Strike.

"They all walked off the job.

"I got so frustrated with that job I could not bear to look at it because every time I did I used to get ulcers." Mr Londish said.

He work from his his earliest days to the end this week.

"They'll cart me out of here with my shoes on," he told me as he turned 65 in 1989, with no plans for retirement.

It was in 1957 when Londish's father, who lived until 96, sent him to America in search of new products for their reduced engineering business.

Sitting next to him on the flight to San Francisco was the manager of a Melbourne grocery chain on a trip to investigate cash registers.

"I had no idea what he was talking about but was interested to know more," he recalled to Legge.

"We went to this place called a supermarket where we met the manager who showed me the pre-packaging machines that bagged sugar, cut up butter, cellophane-wrapped tomatoes ... I saw shoppers selecting products from shelves and carrying them to a checkout basket at 10pm at night and I was stunned."

Londish came back and constructed the supermarket at St Ives in 1960.

"Sweetie," he told Kate Legge, "it's all about keeping your brain working. I'm still physically, intellectually and sexually active and I want this for everybody else."

"What I want to leave is a legacy," he says. 

"I want to give old people something better. They will live longer, happier lives and they'll have fewer medical problems. Why? Because they won't get depression sitting on their bum at home which is mostly what happens when their partners die. They watch bloody television until they get to the stage where they have to go into a nursing home."

In 1990 he participated in the documentary done by the Beyond 2000 reporters Simon Reeve, Amanda Keller and Ian Finlay that took a look at the future of the Lucky Country.

Australia 2020, the TV documentary produced by Tim Worner and Peter Abbott, had Londish warning about Australia's apathy and tendency to be "great muddlers."

He feared it would lead to a situation in the year 2020 of where "we're eating bread and jam again . . . or dripping."

The reviews suggested Londish was one of the more outspoken characters on the program.

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor

Jonathan Chancellor is one of our authors. Jonathan has been writing about property since the early 1980s and is editor-at-large of Property Observer.

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