IT HASN’T got harbour side views and it’s never been touted as the next suburb on the hipster hit list.
Traffic chokes Parramatta Road as it rushes through the area towards western Sydney and the smell of hops lingers in the air from a local brewery. But big things are happening in Lidcombe.
Hoardings line the high street, new apartment blocks slowly rise from behind the Catholic Club and cranes dot the skyline. In large letters across the cranes appears one, now famous, surname. “Mehajer.”
No less than five separate residential blocks, backed by the former deputy mayor of Auburn’s property company, are either under construction or in the planning stages on Lidcombe’s main drag of John St. So many, it may as well be renamed Salim St.
Salim Mehajer’s boulevard of dreams. The two developments on the left are owned by his companies but it's the row of shops on the right — and car park behind — which has attracted the most attention.Source:News Corp Australia
MEHAJER’S MONEY PIT
John St is just a short walk from Salim Mehajer’s home which hit the headlines last year.
Not only because of its unique illuminated marble staircase, which appeared in a music video by rapper Bow Wow, but also as it was the centrepiece for his lavish wedding last August that closed down a street and propelled the former councillor to stardom.
But it’s a far less salubrious setting currently causing Mr Mehajer, and all the residents of Auburn, a serious headache.Salim Mehajer's council suspended
A weed strewn council-owned car park and run down row of shops, sitting in the shadow of the cranes bearing his name, should be well on the way to becoming a nine-storey residential and retail block with about 100 apartments.
Instead, this forgotten corner has become Mr Mehajer’s own personal money pit. Already the asking price of the stretch of concrete, edged by small fruit trees, has increased by $2 million. Now, the suspension of Auburn Council, which the NSW Government announced Wednesday, threatens to cost Mr Mehajer millions more.
Salim Mehajer and his wife Aysha pose with rapper Bow Wow beside the lavish staircase in his home. Source: InstagramSource:Instagram
On January 21, Local Government Minister Paul Toole announced a public inquiry would be held into Auburn Council to investigate “serious concerns” about “perceived decision-making in relation to planning matters and the appearance that those decisions may have delivered an inappropriate benefit to some councillors”.
The minister singled out a decision in December to sell Mr Mehajer the car park on John St as a cause for concern.
The development has been a long time coming. In 2011, Auburn Council agreed to sell the car park to Mr Mehajer for $6.5 million, an amount he only needs to pay once a development application is approved. He already owned the shops bordering the site and together they would add to his burgeoning property empire.
But nothing happened, for years, and last November council voted to cancel the contract. The following month that decision was swiftly overturned but not after a new valuation for the car park meant the one-time deputy mayor, who had excused himself from council’s deliberations, upped the asking price to a reported $8.5 million, reported Fairfax Media. But at least the issue was resolved right? Wrong.
The Mehajer name on cranes towering over Lidcombe. Picture: Justin LloydSource:News Corp Australia
‘BURIED DEEP IN THE DOCUMENTS’
It was at a Christmas barbecue that fellow councillor, and long-time critic of Mr Mehajer, Irene Simms discovered that there was another valuation for the car park. And this one was considerably higher, which would have led Mr Mehajer to be millions more out of pocket.
The other valuation, which it’s understood could be higher than $13 million, wasn’t hidden but in the same council papers as the lower sale price. However, Ms Simms said it was buried so deep in the document many councillors simply didn’t see it.
“Nobody said, ‘Hold on there’s another valuation there,’” Ms Simms told news.com.au last month, “No one drew anyone’s attention to it.”
Along with a number of other councillors, Ms Simms lodged a rescission motion to overturn the decision to sell the land to Mr Mehajer at the next council meeting, which was due next week.
“If it’s going to be sold, it should the best result for our community not councillor Mehajer,” she said.
With Mr Mehajer part of a majority voting bloc on council, there’s every chance he could have seen off the threat. But with council now suspended, and Mr Mehajer and all the other councillors sacked, that next council meeting will never come threatening the future of the flats.
A PLEA FROM HIS WIFE
It’s a prospect that concerned the director of his Sydney Construction and Developments company — Mr Mehajer’s wife Aysha — so much that she wrote to the minister last week pleading for the council not to be suspended.
“Suspending the council could lead to extensive delays to building the property or even mean it would have to withdraw from the development altogether,” she said.
It was a plea that fell on deaf ears, with an administrator, Viv May, on Wednesday taking over the running of Auburn.
Director of the Centre of Local Government at the University of New England, Professor Brian Dollery, said the administrator had enormous power.
“They do everything, the minister gives a hell of a lot of latitude to the administrator to ensure the ship keeps sailing.”
While council elections could happen in September, and Mr Mehajer could theoretically stand again, Prof Dollery said noises from the government suggested a poll could be held as late as March 2017.
By which time, Auburn Council could be well on the way to being merged out of its existence and divided up among neighbouring local authorities.
Until then, any planning decisions are up to the administrator, who could decide if Mr Mehajer wants the car park he should pay the higher price — potentially around $7 million more than the land was originally sold for. Alternatively, Mr May could restart the whole tender process for the car park taking Mr Mehajer back to square one.
Salim Mehajer leaving a council meeting last month, his last as Deputy Mayor. Picture: Britta CampionSource:News Corp Australia
SALIM REMAINS BULLISH
But, said Prof Dollery, mindful of the fact they are only temporarily in charge, administrators are often shy of making decisions on major or particularly controversial developments.
“I would imagine it stays in limbo until they elect a new council because it’s bloody contentious,” Prof Dollery told news.com.au. “If I was the administrator I just wouldn’t make a call on it.”
On Thursday, Mr Mehajer told news.com.au he couldn’t talk about the sale price of the car park as it was discussed in a closed council session. But he remained bullish on the prospects for his new units. “There has been no impact since suspension of the councillors and the council remains operative as usual.”
If development on the car park had begun when Mr Mehajer first agreed to buy the site, almost 100 families could now be living in the apartments and thousands of people could be visiting the ground floor supermarket every day — all the time bringing in income for Lidcombe’s most famous resident.
As it is, it could take years and involve millions of dollars more before the bulldozers start building on Mr Mehajer’s money pit.