26 July 2021

Government needs to break silence over Kingston Arts Precinct

| Ian Bushnell
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Kingston Arts Precinct

A render of the proposed Kingston Arts Precinct. Image: Fender Katsalidis.

The Kingston Arts Precinct development is one of a number of transformative projects the ACT Government has on its plate. Given the sensitivities about the heritage-laden site, it’s understandable that it wants to get it right.

But from the beginning, community buy-in has been crucial to the project so it is alarming that as the developer Geocon and the Suburban Land Agency nut out the Estate Development Plan, the government has gone dark.

Inner south community groups on the Community Panel set up to have input into the project and receive updates on its progress haven’t heard anything for months apart from being brushed off by comments about it being a complex development.

That they know. The site is much loved and the community doesn’t want it lost to a development that fails to reflect its heritage values and becomes just another bunch of apartments.

The site is also, as they say in the planning game, constrained, meaning there is a whole bunch of limits and rules that the developer will have to navigate to get anything done.

That deterred some from taking on the challenge, so it is to Geocon’s credit that it has committed to building a world-class precinct.

But it still needs to be commercially viable for Geocon. That means it has to find a way to balance the needs of arts and heritage components on the Territory portion of the site with the commercial and residential sections on the land it will acquire.

For Geocon, by far the biggest and most successful developer in town but also one with an image problem, the project offers prestige and a way to redeem perceived past missteps.

There is no reason to doubt that it wants to do a good job, given it will be a signature development.

But doubts and rumours abound in an information vacuum, and as the months drag on, the community is rightly wondering what is going on.

Geocon was named the preferred developer in 2017, signed up in 2019, and in 2021 the community is still waiting.

READ ALSO Fears grow for Kingston Arts Precinct plans as community shut out

Arts Minister Tara Cheyne is silent, the SLA is providing the bare minimum of detail, and the community is not receiving the information it needs so it can contribute to the project as was promised.

At present, the public conversation that was supposed to guide the project is very much a private one between the SLA and Geocon, and the community does not want to be presented after the event with a limited number of options, or worse, a fait accompli.

The concerns about building heights, vistas, parking and the crowding out of the heritage components are real.

There also seems to be waning enthusiasm from artist organisations, most of which are funded by government and therefore unwilling to say much publicly.

The government is driving this project. It needs to re-energise the conversation, expedite whatever studies are being done, re-open the lines of communication and take the community into its trust.

As Arts Minister, Ms Cheyne should take the lead, but Heritage Minister Rebecca Vassarotti, Planning, Land Management Minister Mick Gentleman and Suburban Development Minister Yvette Berry should also step forward and stop hiding behind the bureaucracy, if only to reassure the community that all is well.

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As well as potentially great public art the major attraction of this area to be maximised is its heritage. The ACT Heritage Council needs to be supported to ensure commitments made by former Heritage Minister, Mick Gentleman, to meet all heritage requirements are honoured by the SLA and Geocon. There has also been absolutely zilch mention of a statement piece of public art to highlight the arts precinct. 1 Dairy Road has set the standard for public art and the Kingston Arts Precinct needs to exceed it or look second rate. The community does not want a predominantly commercial development marketed as an arts precinct.

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