Completion of the Kingston Arts Precinct will be delayed until at least 2025 after the ACT Government dropped its private sector partner, Geocon, from the multi-million dollar project.
The dramatic decision announced today comes after community organisations and the National Trust complained about a lack of progress on the project and that their concerns had been met with a wall of silence from the government.
They also feared for the site’s heritage values and it is believed that arts organisations had lost faith in the project.
Now the government has announced that after a review of the Precinct’s direction, the Suburban Land Agency will take over delivery of the project, pointing to issues of balance within the development.
It says the precinct has a range of heritage and design complexities that require the government to take the lead in developing the area appropriately.
The project timeline is being reviewed, recognising complex site conditions and infrastructure approval processes, with completion now likely in 2025.
The SLA will continue consultation with stakeholders and the community to finalise the design and development of the Precinct, which will be home to a number of Canberra’s leading arts organisations and a space designed to allow the region’s arts and creative industries to flourish.
It will work with artsACT and other arms of government on a new delivery model for the arts organisations’ ‘built for purpose’ accommodation.
The SLA will deliver the design and construction of the new estate development plan for the Precinct and explore options for how this will take place.
Asked whether there would be any compensation payable to Geocon, the government said both parties were interested in the project going forward and were working together on mutually acceptable commercial outcomes.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the government was committed to ensuring this is a premier arts precinct that supports the ACT’s arts community for generations to come.
“It’s important for a balanced outcome to be achieved, and to date, we have not seen the progress that we had hoped,” he said.
“Therefore, following a review on how best to progress the project to integrate arts and heritage, the ACT Government has decided to change the delivery method.”
Arts Minister Tara Cheyne said the government wanted to ensure that the Precinct was fit for purpose and allowed arts organisations to excel in delivering their programs.
An SLA spokesperson said design development was about 50 per cent completed, which will allow the current design to continue to be developed in line with ACT Heritage advice, National Capital Development Review Panel advice and objectives presented by the community.
“SLA and Geocon planned for the design to be further advanced by now; however, delays have occurred,” the spokesperson said.
The SLA would be reconvening the Community Panel and engaging with Heritage, NCDRP and stakeholders on design objectives.
It would also continue the design development of the integrated precinct and the estate development plan that has already been through two rounds of engagement.
This had resulted in retention of the 1948 Switch Room, improved views to the Powerhouse from Wentworth Avenue, the introduction of a green forecourt and retention of heritage trees on Wentworth Avenue, improved views to and from Eastlake Parade and Bowen Park, and early development of a Place Plan and establishment of place themes together with the Community Panel and the arts organisations.
The spokespersons said the practicalities of electrical infrastructure on the site and its proximity to the heritage area was being looked at, and impacts on the extent of the development area were under review.
“Noting extensive land area within the Kingston Arts Precinct development will remain in Territory’s ownership, SLA is better placed to deliver an estate in line with the government’s current and emerging policies,” the spokespersons said.
Some re-engagement activities will commence as early as December, but a development application was unlikely until later in 2022.
The original project was to be split 40 per cent public and 60 per cent private.
Four hectares of the 5.6 ha site were to be developed, with the Territory land to host the arts facilities and galleries, artist accommodation, the public car park, outdoor events space and public domain, for which the government had budgeted $78 million.
The private land, which Geocon was to 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, amounting to a $750 million development in total.
A Geocon-led consortium that included architects Fender Katsalidis and Oculus won the right to develop the Precinct in February 2017, with the government sealing the deal in July 2019.
But the proposed design ran into trouble almost immediately with concerns raised about the scale of the private buildings and impacts on the site’s heritage values, including that the building mass and heights on Wentworth Avenue would obscure the Powerhouse heritage sites.
There were also concerns that the private sector development would take precedence over the arts venues.
Ms Cheyne said the government would continue to work closely with arts organisations impacted by today’s announcement.