Doubts are growing about the progress of the signature Kingston Arts Precinct project, with inner south groups and the National Trust being met with a wall of silence.
A Geocon-led consortium that also included architects Fender Katsalidis and Oculus won the right to develop the precinct more than four years ago, in February 2017.
It took until July 2019 for the ACT Government to seal the deal with Geocon to deliver the $78 million project, and now there appears to have been little progress.
Inner South Canberra Community Council chair Gary Kent, who is also the president of the ACT National Trust, says the community was promised that it would have a key role in the project’s design development, but it was being left in the dark.
“We’re extremely concerned about it because there hasn’t been a community consultation meeting about it for many months,” he said.
“We’re very nervous that they’re going to pop out an Estate Development Plan and it will be something that nobody wants.”
The council comprises a number of community groups, including the Kingston Barton Residents Group that sit on the Community Panel created to be part of ongoing consultation.
Last November, the Panel member from the KBRG, Richard Johnston, described design changes as marginal, and the panel’s questions had been met with “architectural arrogance”.
Changes included the retention of the 1948 Switch Room, improved views to the Power House from Wentworth Avenue, the introduction of a green forecourt and retention of heritage trees on Wentworth Avenue, and improved views to and from Eastlake Parade and Bowen Park.
At the time, the Panel was still waiting on advice from the Heritage Council, the finalisation of the Conservation Management Plan from Phillip Leeson Architects and responses from the project architects to the report from Community Liaison Elizabeth Judd that listed 56 key issues.
The architects had also offered little response to three sets of advice from the National Capital Design Review Panel.
Mr Kent said many concerns remained unaddressed, including threats to the heritage values, building mass and heights on Wentworth Avenue that would obscure the heritage sites, and the four-storey car park, which the council believed should be at least be partially underground.
He said there had also been reports of a possible planned expansion of the glassworks towards the Old Bus Depot that would impinge on the heritage values.
“So there are a lot of issues we want to be engaged in, all sorts of groups, not just us,” Mr Kent said.
“We can’t get a due date for the Estate Development Plan; we get emails from the Suburban Land Agency about how complex it is. We’re just concerned that it will be another one where the profit will be maximised.”
The groups were aware that agencies and the Heritage Council discussed the precinct but nothing was being made public.
“We’re scared that something will pop out as a fait accompli and the values that we see reflected in the development aren’t there, and it will be too late because the work’s been done and there hasn’t been informed input going forward,” Mr Kent said.
He added that the project was always difficult because of the public’s great love for the area, and it was not a private space.
He noted the project was not just some other development, such as a block of flats, and doubts were growing about Geocon’s willingness to deliver what the community expected.
Nothing had been heard from Arts Minister Tara Cheyne, and Region Media questions to her were directed to the SLA.
A spokesperson said the significance of the project had required a detailed and carefully considered approach to address the complex site conditions and infrastructure.
“The Tender Concept Estate Development Plan is currently being considered to recognise the heritage and cultural nuances of development,” the spokesperson said.
“This is a complex project and the ACT Government is taking the necessary time to ensure prior engagement outcomes can be addressed to ensure we can achieve the best possible outcome for arts in the ACT.”
Asked whether Geocon and the government were negotiating on the development mix, the spokesperson said the design of future arts spaces was in response to arts organisations’ requirements and statutory compliance, not up to the developer.
A firmer development timeline would not be available until the ESD was approved.
Four of the site’s 5.6 hectares can be developed, with the rest housing existing buildings such as the Power House and the Fitter’s Workshop.
That 4 ha is split 40:60 public and private, and according to Geocon will be a $750 million development in total.
The Territory land will host the arts facilities and galleries, artist accommodation, the public car park, outdoor events space and public domain, for which the government has budgeted $78 million.
The private land, which Geocon will acquire as part of the tender process for a negotiated price, will be home to retail, restaurants, commercial office space, a luxury range of residential apartments and a hotel.
The spokesperson said all arts facilities, including new artist accommodation, activation space, a public car park and open space would be owned and managed by the ACT Government.