25 August 2020

Government to sell Watson site to AIE in campus development deal

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra Technology Park in Watson

Canberra Technology Park in Watson. The government has agreed to a direct sale to AIE. Photo: File.

The old Watson High School site, known as Canberra Technology Park, will be redeveloped as a campus and global headquarters for the video game and film special effects educator, the Academy of Interactive Entertainment (AIE), under a deal struck with the ACT Government.

The government and AIE have been in talks for years over the future of the site, where the organisation has been based for the past 24 years.

It first unveiled its plans in 2014, and the following year submitted a business case and master plan to transform the almost 6 ha site into a multi-million dollar education precinct.

Public consultation in 2018 on the future of the site found support for AIE’s unsolicited proposal but there were community concerns about the loss of green space.

The government has now agreed to a direct sale of the site to AIE at market value, with green space around the site to be retained, upgraded and maintained by the Territory. Further consultation will take place with the community about the detailed design of the green space.

AIE will need to develop a future intentions plan and engage with the community on its plans for the site, which includes administration and teaching facilities, a business incubator, space for industry partners, workshop spaces and student accommodation. Consultation is expected later this year.

The government says that plan must be approved by the Territory before the sale of the land can go through.

The project will mean a $200 million investment in Canberra over 20 years, including a dedicated School of Cinematic Arts and School of Business.

The precinct is expected to employ more than 250 staff and create more than 200 new jobs including in teaching and administration, it says.

As part of the agreement, the government will demolish the buildings and remediate the site, while AIE will also make a significant financial contribution to the replacement of the site’s existing tennis courts with two new multipurpose courts within the community green space.

Demolition work will occur in a two-stage process that will enable AIE to maintain business operations in the existing buildings while it constructs new facilities. Any demolition work is unlikely to start before 2021.

Construction is not expected to start until 2022 after the development application process.

John De Margheriti

AIE CEO John De Margheriti says the focus will be on a pathway to jobs. Photo: Twitter.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the project would help create local jobs, support the economic recovery from COVID-19 and further cement Canberra as the knowledge capital, with another world-class higher education facility to be established in the ACT.

”This is another vote of confidence in Canberra’s economy and our education sector and follows UNSW’s announcement earlier this year that it will build a new $1 billion campus in the city,” he said.

”The flow-on benefits to the local construction sector once development work commences are also an important part of the project, contributing to jobs and investment in the Territory.”

Simon Clarke from the Watson Residents Association welcomed the news that something was going to happen with the site rather than it being left to disintegrate and that the inner north might finally be getting some infrastructure.

He welcomed the stipulation about green space, but the association wants to see ongoing maintenance and a toilet block near any recreational area, as well as pedestrian and cycle paths.

Mr Clarke hoped that AIE had dropped plans for three-storey unit blocks for student accommodation which the planning rules did not allow.

The government has based its decision on the outcome of community consultation undertaken in February and March 2018, which showed 85 per cent support for the proposed future use of the site as a higher education and community precinct, including student accommodation and upgraded public green space.

AIE is at the forefront of education and training in computer game development, 3D animation, technology, film production and the visual effects industries and also has campuses in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide.

”Its presence and continued growth in Canberra will attract investment, support innovation and create more job opportunities for young people,” Mr Barr said.

AIE CEOs and founders John and Vicki De Margheriti said they wanted to deliver a world-class educational precinct that marries vocational and tertiary education with essential industry partnerships and research and development opportunities ”that have a strong commercialisation focus in games, film, and technologies like virtual production and other future careers that haven’t even been imagined yet”.

“We are committed to helping students realise their dreams and will be focusing on initiatives that provide a direct pathway into jobs so we can help to grow Canberra’s economy,” they said.

The Canberra Technology Park site, on the corner of Windeyer Street and Phillip Avenue, is a public asset that served as a high school from 1965 to 1988. The Canberra Institute of Technology (CIT) took over the site and the AIE and Canberra City Band have been the main tenants since.

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