The ACT Government is fast-tracking plans to bring more shops to the service-starved Molonglo Valley as it revealed that it had pursued buying back the ill-fated Coombs shopping centre but negotiations had broken down over price.
It also says it is taking steps to stop a Coombs-like situation happening again in other developments.
Residents in the fast-growing Molonglo suburbs of Coombs and Wright have had to cope without shops and services for years, exacerbated by the tardy delivery of the Coombs shopping centre and the owner, Renato Cervo, not being able to find tenants, particularly an anchor supermarket.
The only tenant has been a small Indian Grocery store and the rest of the centre has laid empty since its completion in 2018.
The government says its hands have been tied under the terms of the lease but Planning and Land Management Minister Mick Gentleman says the lessons learned in Coombs have led to changes in the way commercial land is sold to ensure buyers deliver what they are supposed to, with more planning changes on the way that should improve the viability of centres.
It will also accelerate the development of the nearby Koko Molonglo development in Wright, which includes a supermarket.
”I share the frustration of Coombs residents that the shopping centre owner has been unable or unwilling to tenant the shops,” Mr Gentleman said.
“It defies belief that a commercial property owner would do this to a growing community. This is a poor outcome for everyone and it’s extremely disappointing.”
Mr Gentleman said the government had actively investigated acquiring the shopping centre but the current asking price was ”very unrealistic”.
”It is significantly higher than the market valuation and would not represent value for money for taxpayers,” Mr Gentleman said.
He said that in the wake of the Coombs saga the government had revised the process for selling commercial land including several important changes to give preference to prospective purchasers who have demonstrated they are able to deliver ”good outcomes for the community”.
The planning for the major Molonglo Commercial Centre was well underway and additional land for shops would be released in 2021-22, Mr Gentleman said.
”After discussions with the Chief Minister on possible regulatory reforms in my portfolio to support job creation and economic activity, I have also asked the Planning Directorate to prepare draft Territory Plan amendments that improve the viability and competitiveness of local shops,” he said.
This could involve changes to rules on floor space, particularly when it comes to supermarkets.
The 1000 square metre limit on supermarkets in certain smaller centres has often been seen as unattractive to the major retailers.
The supermarket space at Coombs is only 1000 square metres but at Koko Molonglo 1500 square metres has been allowed.
Mr Cervo bought the Coombs site in 2015, a development application was approved in late 2016 and he completed the centre in 2018 but, to the frustration of residents, it remains empty.
In March, the site was listed for sale by negotiation but it is still on the market. There was speculation that Mr Cervo wanted $12 million for the centre.
The lack of services in Coombs and Wright has had implications for the nearby Weston Group Centre where parking and services are under pressure from Molonglo residents.
The issue was integral to the establishment of an independent review into development in the Molonglo Valley, which was tabled in the Legislative Assembly in June.
The review had suggested that the government might have to buy back the Coombs centre.