16 March 2023

Design guide needed to fix mixed-use mess, says planning review submission

| Ian Bushnell
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rows of townhouses

Two CZ5 mixed-use sites in Coombs have turned out all residential. Photo: Molonglo Valley Community Forum.

A community group is trying to head off more mixed-use disasters in the Molonglo Valley and elsewhere by calling for a new design guide to be included in the planning system.

In its submission on the planning system review, The Molonglo Valley Community Forum says much of the mixed-use development in the new district is mixed-use in name only and not providing the amenities and services promised to new residents.

This has also occurred across the ACT, where developments that promised a mix of apartments and shops or services were overwhelmingly residential with a token commercial presence on the ground floor such as a coffee shop, the submission stated.

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The Forum also calls for the proposed Molonglo Group Centre to be upgraded to Town Centre status when the new planning system is adopted due to new population estimates that put the Molonglo Valley eventually housing 86,000 residents – 20,000-30,000 more than forecast.

It says an ACT Mixed Use Design Guide will protect the integrity of commercial and community space within the Town Centre and help avoid what has happened in the Gungahlin Town Centre where residential towers have supplanted job-creating businesses.

“In theory, increased density can result in greater amenity for residents in the form of shops, jobs, facilities, public transport and high-quality public spaces within close walking distance of homes,” the submission states.

“Unfortunately, the pattern of development we are seeing in parts of the Molonglo Valley and elsewhere in Canberra suggest these theoretical benefits are not being consistently delivered.

“The result is communities with reduced levels of amenity, sustainability and wellbeing.”

The Coombs shops are only just starting to attract tenants. Photo: James Coleman.

In Coombs for example, none of the five sites zoned for mixed-use development feature a non-residential use, nor can they be easily adapted to such uses in the future, the submission states.

Coombs has been dogged by a lack of shops, services and affordable community spaces and has been the subject of government intervention to fix problems resulting from lax planning.

The submission argues that a design guide modelled on those in other jurisdictions will clearly describe and illustrate desired outcomes and detail how major new mixed-use developments should be designed to deliver community-wide benefits, including smart building design to manage competing uses.

“The overarching objective of the Mixed Used Design Guide should be to facilitate the development of sustainable and usable spaces for businesses and community service providers within mixed-use buildings and precincts,” the submission states.

“It should discourage spaces likely to remain vacant due their cost, size, or usability, and encourage building layouts that provide safe and comfortable separation between residential and non-residential uses.”

The submission states the current planning system does not make enough demands of developers through leases or zoning rules to provide commercial or community spaces, and the wording is so vague and open to interpretation that it is unenforceable.

The design guide should contain benchmarks and guidelines to ensure developers deliver building spaces that are attractive and useable by prospective tenants, it states.

Consultation with the local business community and community service providers should ensure the guide is tailored to the specific needs and commercial realities of the ACT.

The submission states that for Group/Town Centre, precinct planning with measurable targets for non-residential floorspace should go hand in hand with the design guide to achieve a “diverse, compatible, and desirable mix of uses across multiple individual sites with varied ownership”.

It urges a comprehensive urban design review to prevent non-residential uses being “squeezed out” and ensure building controls enable development that meets district needs, such as shops, office space and community facilities, while maintaining solar access to streets and public spaces.

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Forum chair Ryan Hemsley said getting genuine mixed-use development right was crucial, not just for delivering the future shops, homes and services in Molonglo, but in the rest of the city as well.

Mr Hemsley said mixed-use development had been done poorly in areas of Canberra, with noise and odour problems turning people off the idea and shopfronts in new buildings remaining vacant for years.

“The failure of mixed-use development isn’t limited to Molonglo,” he said. “Throsby lost its only shops site to a residential-only development.

“The Gungahlin Town Centre’s business park is now a cluster of residential high rises.

“This is what happens when you let the development of these key sites occur in a design vacuum.

“These issues can be avoided with smart building design, but developers need clear guidance to deliver improvements across the board.”

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HiddenDragon7:24 pm 18 Mar 23

“The Forum also calls for the proposed Molonglo Group Centre to be upgraded to Town Centre status”

That sounds like a very good idea. A centre which is sufficiently large and diverse to provide for most of the day-to-day, week-to-week, shopping and services needs of Molonglo residents would reduce travel time and costs, and help to develop a greater sense of community in what might otherwise remain a collection of dormitory suburbs.

It would also be an opportunity for the planning and economic development areas of the ACT government to think creatively about the sorts of non-retail/hospitality businesses which might be attracted to and grown in a new town centre – rather than waiting for the inevitable calls to relocate ACT or federal government jobs to the centre.

BenandVon Richards7:52 am 20 Mar 23

It would also be an opportunity for the planning and economic development areas of the ACT government to think creatively

And there’s the problem….

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