When billionaire property developer and Rich Lister Lang Walker first looked at Parramatta about a decade ago, he saw more than just a shrewd investment opportunity for his company, Walker Corporation.
“It was time for Parramatta to [get] some life and generate into something really, really special,” he tells The Australian Financial Review.
An artist’s impression of Lang Walker’s $3.5b Parramatta Square project. 
As Australia’s biggest metropolitan region, Sydney has for decades borne the brunt of the nation’s job growth pressures. Traffic congestion, unaffordable housing, and rising costs of key services have been perennial complaints.
The relentless pressure on Sydney is unlikely to ease in the near future, as Australia’s population experiences a post-COVID surge and businesses look overseas to fix the most acute skills shortage crisis in living memory.
But with the vast majority of Sydneysiders living well away from its iconic CBD, Parramatta, located at the geographic heart of the greater Sydney, is emerging as an economic powerhouse for the decades ahead.
In December last year, Walker Corporation put the finishing touches on Parramatta Square, a $3.5 billion rebuild of city’s civic precinct in one of the largest urban renewable projects in the country.
Towering over Parramatta’s 140-year-old town hall, the development includes a $220 million, 10,000 student campus for the Western Sydney University, and a $136 million community, cultural and civic hub.
Walker’s contribution includes 267,000 square metres of retail and A-grade office space spread across four towers that constitute the largest commercial development in the nation by lettable area.
The project connects to Sydney’s existing commuter train network, while Sydney’s $3 billion Metro, $2.4 billion light rail and $3.2 billion WestConnex motorway all promise faster transport connections to almost everywhere.
“I just knew with all the transport going in there, that had to eventually be a monty for us and for western Sydney,” Walker says, using racetrack slang for a horse certain to win.
The completion of Parramatta Square to many marks an important milestone in Parramatta’s journey and a recognition of the growing importance, both commercially and socially, of the western Sydney region.
Lord Mayor Donna Davis, who was also elected as the local state member at Saturday’s election, says Parramatta is coming of age.
Parramatta Mayor Donna Davis stands amidst the $3.5 billion Parramatta Square development. Oscar Colman
“Parramatta is a city in a state of acceleration. We have truly come of age, attracting unprecedented population growth, talent and public and private investment. There’s nowhere else like it in Australia,” Davis says.
“We’ve got more than $20 billion in public and private investment being realised over the next five years, and a community that’s expected to nearly double to 400,000 by 2036.
“Without a doubt, the future of Greater Sydney is in Parramatta.”
The redevelopment of Parramatta Square was a key part of realising the NSW government-backed Greater Cities Commission’s vision for the city as another CBD at the geographical heart of greater Sydney.
That vision was first articulated in 2017, when the Lucy Turnbull-led Greater Sydney Commission delivered an ambitious blueprint outlining a 40-year plan to transform Sydney into a three CBD metropolis by 2056, with two-thirds of Sydneysiders living within 30 minutes of their jobs and services.
“[The plan] supports Parramatta CBD’s emergence as a powerhouse of new administrative, business services, judicial and educational jobs, with Parramatta Square as its heart and Western Sydney University as its knowledge-producing engine,” Turnbull said at the time.
And even when the vision for Sydney was expanded after the COVID-19 pandemic into a six-city region running from Newcastle in the north to Wollongong in the south, Parramatta remained at the heart of it all.
Along with a two government anchor tenants – the departments of planning and environment, and communities and justice, which lease about 44,000-square-metres for 4200 staff – Parramatta Square has secured a clutch of high-profile businesses looking to strengthen their footholds in western Sydney.
National Australia Bank leased 13 levels at No. 3 Parramatta Square that will accommodate 6000 employees, while big four competitor Westpac leased 10,000 square metres for about 1000 staff.
Greater Sydney Commission’s three cities plan. Greater Sydney Commission
When NAB moved into its offices in August 2020, head of group property Kevin Davine noted that with western Sydney currently home to more than two million people – one in every 11 Australians – and projected to grow to three million by 2031, NAB’s major commitment of resources was a no- brainer.
“Parramatta is part of an incredible growth region and being at the centre of activity ensures we’re always listening to and learning from our customers,” Davine said, adding 300,000 NAB customers already lived in the region.
Big four consulting firm Deloitte also made a sizeable commitment, leasing 3500 square metres, while KPMG announced a new “Greater Western Sydney HQ”, also across 3500 square metres of the development.
KPMG opened an office in Parramatta with about 40 staff in 2016. The big four consulting firm now employs about 500 staff out of the office, offering its full suite of services to a growing client base.
“[Parramatta] was a recognition of the number of clients we have in the Greater Western Sydney area and their aspirational growth, and also a recognition of the number of staff and people we want to have working with us who live in the Greater Western Sydney region,” says Kaylene Hubbard, partner and Greater Western Sydney geographic lead at KPMG.
It’s not just Parramatta Square attracting high-profile tenants. More than 30 per cent of Australia’s top 500 companies have offices in Parramatta, according to analysis by the city council.
In January 2021, GPT Group completed the $300 million development of 32 Smith Street, a 27-floor office tower boasting 26,800 square metres of office space with insurance giant QBE as its anchor tenant. Later that year, GPT doubled down on Parramatta, spending $90 million to expand an existing site on which it plans to build two office towers, including one at 60 levels.
KPMG moving into Parramatta was a ‘recognition of the number of clients we have in the Greater Western Sydney’, says Kaylene Hubbard. 
But the flood of construction pushed A-grade vacancy rates up from 11.4 per cent to 17.6 per cent at the end of 2021, the Property Council of Australia says, despite the strong demand. And with property valuers warning of commercial CBD price drops, there is a risk of a boom and bust cycle.
Peter Poulet, Greater Cities Commission central district commissioner and the City’s Institute director at the University of NSW, says it makes sense businesses want to invest and have a presence in Parramatta.
“The opportunities here are vastly superior to some of the other parts of Sydney at the moment,” Poulet says.
Parramatta is already Sydney’s second-largest economy, generating about $33 billion in gross regional product. Over the next three decades about one- third of Sydneysiders will live in the “Central River City”, and it will accommodate close to 40 per cent of Sydney’s growth over that time.
But Poulet eschews the phrase “second CBD”, suggesting it has negative connotations; a “second CBD” indicates a hierarchy or order of quality that unnecessarily elevates the harbour-CBD.
“I call it the administrative centre of metropolitan Sydney or the six-city region,” he says. “It’s the geographic centre of that, it’s the population centre, and it has many of the government departments managing the state.”
Poulet says the Greater Cities Commission’s long-term vision is to rebalance Greater Sydney to create more equity across the city.
“That plays to access to jobs, access to housing, access to opportunities, access to care and all the services that are required for a population to thrive. That’s all being built in Parramatta or is already here,” he says.
As for repudiating perceptions of Parramatta as playing second-chair to the main act 20 kilometres to the east on the banks of Sydney Harbour, Poulet has a pretty clear answer.
Peter Poulet, Greater Cities Commission central district commissioner and the City’s Institute director at the University of NSW. Wolter Peeters
“This city is being built and is growing for the future generations, not for those already entrenched or ensconced in comfortable lifestyles,” he says, noting Parramatta has a much younger population than the rest of Sydney.
“I think it’s a matter of illustrating the quality of life – the cultural offering, the offering of jobs and opportunities – that is here for another generation.”
Lang Walker certainly sees more opportunities in western Sydney’s future. Earlier this month, he inked a $2 billion deal to repeat his Parramatta success, this time in Blacktown just to the north-west.
The deal between Walker Corporation and the Blacktown City Council includes a new office, health and retail developments and a green square.
For the shrewd operator, it’s no doubt another monty in the making.
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