No one should be surprised by new Planning Minister Chris Steel’s push for apartments to be built around and above local shops.
Government master plans include scope for new housing, community facilities and the development of surface car parks at several group centres such as Weston Creek, Mawson and Kippax.
Already apartment blocks have sprung up next to or above local shops such as Chapman and Curtin, the latter after a bitter fight that won some concessions to ensure the central square was not overshadowed.
But there is no doubt that the Curtin development has revitalised the shops, which like many around town, was past its best and showing it.
Whether every makeover needs to be like that depends on the locality.
For example, in Manuka, stage 1 of the Liangis family’s European-style hotel development is standing and construction on stage 2 will soon commence as the demolition of the old Capital Theatre comes to a close.
When that side of Franklin Street is complete, it will stand in stark contrast to what is mostly a tired and dated strip of buildings that will be crying out for a fresh look.
That should not have to be half a dozen or more storeys of modernist apartments with some shops on the ground floor but kept to a Parisian scale size and style, like those at the Griffith shops, that will complement the new hotel.
Elsewhere could be a different matter. It will be all about context, character and locale.
But the principle is right. Our local shops and group centres, already located on bus routes and in some cases destined to be on a light rail route as well, unless the Canberra Liberals can convince enough Canberrans that the “tram” is dud, are the obvious starting points for sensible infill.
The Property Council sees the government-owned car parks as land that can be leveraged for affordable housing – either government-owned public housing or social housing run or owned by community housing providers.
That, too, makes sense. Going underground opens up all kinds of possibilities for shopping centres in need of a refresh.
Above all, they must be places for people.
Putting housing into local shops not only provides much-needed homes in established areas close to public transport but also residents who, in turn, will boost the vitality of businesses benefiting from greater foot traffic and a captive market.
This “ecological” approach will drive local economies and communities.
But change is difficult and as we have seen in Curtin – and I think the apartment building could have had a kinder design – there will be opposition and fights over heights, aesthetics and green space.
Like much of Canberra’s densification debate, it will be about how it is done and its outcomes.
That is where the new planning system comes in. If it works as intended, innovation will be encouraged and bad, inappropriate design won’t pass muster.
But there should be little affection for ageing, run-down buildings, grunge, nostalgia or what some call “charm”. Heritage value? Well, that will be up for debate.
If designed and built correctly, these new buildings, in some cases retaining worthy facades, should hopefully last longer than some of the dilapidated examples they will replace.
None of this will happen overnight, but Mr Steel has served notice that change is on the way.