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How can Civic be rejuvenated?

By Paul Costigan - 20 May 2015 41

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Urgent action is required by the ACT Government to see Civic regain its position within Canberra as a popular centre, a place with its own character and charm and a precinct that attracts locals and visitors. Having previously outlined the issues behind Civic’s decline (see parts one and two of this series), it is timely to open up the debate with some ideas on Civic’s overdue rejuvenation. Hopefully there will be other ideas.

The open plaza areas of Civic should be renamed as the Civic Village Precinct. The Civic Village encompasses the areas bounded by East Row/Mort Street, into Bunda Street, then Petre Plaza till it meets City Walk, then to Akuna Street onto London Circuit.

Developments within this precinct should be guided by a new set of design principles to ensure that the Civic Village develops a unified attractive character suitable for the centre of Canberra. This precinct needs to have a people friendly atmosphere with a targeted range of commercial outlets, new amenities and activities and a substantial increase in residential apartments.

The civic precinct must not be allowed to descend into a zone dominated by high-rise bland boxes with the boring and unfriendly plazas. It is absolutely mandatory that the Civic Village guidelines and subsequent legislation address sustainability issues with the emphasis on climate change adaptation.

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The project is to be overseen by the Committee for Civic established to develop a detailed vision and a Civic Village master plan, that is to be subsequently linked to legislation. The panel must be composed of a range of interests and expertise and not have anyone who may benefit directly (make money) from the outcomes.

This Committee for Civic model is proposed to deal with the common perception that the government’s planning and development agencies and their processes are not respected by the Canberra population. The Committee is not to be dominated by the property sector as is the present Civic management panel – CBD Ltd.

Resident groups across Canberra despair about the culture of the ACT Government’s planning agencies and long for a friendly, transparent and humane way of doing the business of planning and development. The Committee for Civic must therefore engage with all interested parties, including the property sector.

It is time to try something different. The Committee for Civic is to be answerable to ACT Legislative Assembly and is to be charged with setting design and development guidelines that cover this precinct’s planning and development including an aesthetic design guide. These guidelines, once accepted by government, are to be incorporated by the Planning Authority into new planning legislation specifically for the Civic Village Precinct.

One obvious challenge for the Committee for Civic is to deal with the dominance to one side by that big box mall. The plazas and their buildings need to be rejuvenated to become an alternative experience to the mall. This will mean encouraging a different range of shops so as not to duplicate of the style of outlets in the mall, being mostly fashion.

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The hindrances to updating Civic are the current restrictive and inadequate planning legislation (overseen by ACTPLA) and that most of the buildings are owned by finance companies and developers who have shown little desire to upgrade their building stock (market forces at work).

The brief should allow for high-rise in some areas of Civic. No, this is not a call for developers to go crazy with their high-rise towers of bland boxes glass and steel (sorry guys and gals).

Where possible, remaining plaza level building frontages are to be enhanced as low rise. This would apply to those remaining low rise buildings along City Walk, Garema Place and Petrie Plaza. The owners would be ‘encouraged’ (a polite way of saying forced) to renovate their street frontages in line with the new Civic Village design guidelines. Where possible some limited higher levels (4 stories?) could be built behind in such a way not to send any shadows into the plazas or to become visually dominant.

The possibility should be explored to see if service lane-ways could be redeveloped to have well designed and attractive eight stories apartment buildings (a challenge) built behind the lower buildings. These open alleyways would then become covered service lanes with the buildings above containing well designed apartments (that challenge again). They should be real apartments not the tiny bed-sits and one-bedroom cupboards adored by many developers (but not lived in by developers).

A limited number of stand-alone cafes and small shops should encouraged into the centre areas of the plazas along with a well designed parent friendly children’s playground. The number of trees in and around the open spaces must not be reduced. Some trees may have to be removed to allow for new facilities, but the total number and the amount of shade should be maintained – if not increased – through replacements.

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There are many more ideas to be included – here is one selection: Solar panels on all buildings; Bunda Street for service vehicles only; more lockable spaces for bicycles; real gardens with flower beds; the centres of City Walk and Petrie Plaza redesigned for regular markets; encourage a different range of shops to the usual box mall variety; more public art to add character; and some previous events should no longer be staged in these Civic plazas (more on this in a future post).

There are loads of other ideas out there and bringing these together needs to be the major task for the Committee for Civic.

The biggest challenge is to engage the creative expertise within the Canberra community given that residents continue to have bad experiences on planning and development matters and most would rather get on with their lives than have contact with the dreaded planning agencies.

The other challenge is to get ACT politicians motivated (we can try) and committed to real actions on behalf of the people who may elect them at next elections – which are not far away!

Note one: the high rise photo is of Chatswood in Sydney – a shopping area being crowded out by high-rise.

Note two: Melbourne initiated a Committee for Melbourne decades ago and this led to many initiatives – most successful but not all. It is now dominated by corporate suits at the exclusion of the wider community sectors. This needs to be avoided.

Note Three: This piece was written before the Bunda St Shareway was opened so any reaction to this was not included. Comments will follow in another post.

How would you like to see Civic rejuvenated?  

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41 Responses to
How can Civic be rejuvenated?
switch 12:12 pm 21 May 15

gosh said :

so let’s allow experienced, qualified planners and developers the freedom to come up with good ideas and consult heavily.

1) The developers may have the freedom, the rest of us will pay heavily.

2) After the above process is done, they’ll go ahead and botch it up. It’s the Canberra Way!

Maya123 12:11 pm 21 May 15

Paul2913 said :

Get rid of much of the public “art” that has been added to Civic… the majority of it is an embarrassment to Canberra.

Which pieces exactly? I haven’t seen any I would use such strong words about. Some I like more than others; but I don’t think there’s any I hate. Let’s have more, not less; it enlivens the city. And the city sure needs enlivening! I would be embarrassed if the art were removed. It would show what a backward community we are.

gosh 11:09 am 21 May 15

why are we always looking to create villages? 8 storey apartment blocks and high rises don’t sound like a village to me. This is the city area for around 400k people and the nation’s capital so let’s use that as our guide for what is needed now and in the future. I agree there needs to be an upgrade the Civic area, but this article is way too prescriptive in what must and must not be done.

In my opinion, civic is not in a great position to begin with having been transformed at various stages of its life to remove roads, put in high rises, shared roads, the Canberra Centre expansion and introduction of the bus terminals. It is a very confused space already, so let’s allow experienced, qualified planners and developers the freedom to come up with good ideas and consult heavily.

bryansworld 11:03 am 21 May 15

Solidarity said :

Open City Walk to cars again, but close off Bunda St – So in effect adjusting the entire Garema Place precinct up a few hundred metres.

I like that idea.Shifting the focus away from the Monster Mall!

Solidarity 10:28 am 21 May 15

Open City Walk to cars again, but close off Bunda St – So in effect adjusting the entire Garema Place precinct up a few hundred metres.

rubaiyat 8:55 am 21 May 15

Paul2913 said :

Get rid of much of the public “art” that has been added to Civic… the majority of it is an embarrassment to Canberra.

I agree. We are having a kangaroo cull, let’s move onto the “art”.

A fair bit of it is not bad, just badly sited and overall a grab bag collection.

Paul2913 11:10 pm 20 May 15

Get rid of much of the public “art” that has been added to Civic… the majority of it is an embarrassment to Canberra.

Rustygear 10:03 pm 20 May 15

I recognise a bit of work and thought has gone into this piece, but I still don’t get it. The call here seems to be for a series of tweaks to the streetscape. It’s doable and commendable, but I don’t see how it would cause more than a modest increase of patronage. The real problem is that there is no theme to the retail offerings that makes Civic stand out from all the other retail precincts. Yet it has natural advantages. Civic is still the geographic centre of Canberra (could be a meeting place), still has a good mass of business activity within it (lots of occupied office space), and is the main public transport hub. And for a city that has real problems with a sterile urban landscape and shopping centres that all have the same clone-like consumer glossiness, its relative oldness and worn-ness could be a real advantage for an entertainment/food/arts theme. The cookie-cutter malls and suburban centres couldn’t compete on that. But how to get that alternative theme eventually predominating over the humdrum franchise stores that currently populate Civic? The other option is to not try and engineer a revival, but just relax planning controls and just leave it to the market – which would probably invest in high density apartments.

dungfungus 8:21 pm 20 May 15

Weatherman said :

Extending the railway from Kingston to Civic. Commercial precincts, such as Queen Street Mall or Melbourne Central have good transport accessibility. Civic centre is hardly accessible to locals as well with limited parking available during weekdays.

That would have been a good idea 20 years ago but now that the Airport precinct has traction the railway terminus at Kingston should be relocated to the Airport.
All interstate bus services should also be moved to the Airport.
The only future for Civic is high-rise residential with services to suit.

sepi 6:08 pm 20 May 15

I don’t think you can fix the whole thing in one hit.

I’d do it in quarters – starting with the side of Bunda st that has Gus’s cafe and milk and honey etc.
that area is not too bad, and if there were some nice cafes people would sit there and kids could run around in Garema place.

the area near the old electric shadows also could be promising. It get s a lot of foot traffic from the big offices down there heading to the mall. There is a nice little market down there on a thursday already with fresh veg and cakes etc.

Weatherman 4:07 pm 20 May 15

Extending the railway from Kingston to Civic. Commercial precincts, such as Queen Street Mall or Melbourne Central have good transport accessibility. Civic centre is hardly accessible to locals as well with limited parking available during weekdays.

bryansworld 12:46 pm 20 May 15

Rollersk8r said :

bryansworld said :

Sounds good. Some cars on the Shareway still treating it like a 50 km/h street.

Agree – the education campaign was way too early, before the entire shareway way opened. Great for all the pedestrians and cyclists that got flyers – but I don’t think too many reached people inside their cars.

Cars aren’t giving way to people and you can’t really blame them – how are you supposed to know how it works if you’ve never driven down there before?? Yes it looks different but there are no signs telling cars to give way.

There are smallish “Give Way to Pedestrian” and 20 km/h speed limit signs at each entry point, but not very prominent. I think the bigger factor is that it still more or less looks like a normal street, a fact that is exacerbated by the parking along both sides. I ride through there regularly, and you need to be pretty careful. It’s not quite Piazza Nirvana yet. 🙂

Rollersk8r 12:06 pm 20 May 15

bryansworld said :

Sounds good. Some cars on the Shareway still treating it like a 50 km/h street.

Agree – the education campaign was way too early, before the entire shareway way opened. Great for all the pedestrians and cyclists that got flyers – but I don’t think too many reached people inside their cars.

Cars aren’t giving way to people and you can’t really blame them – how are you supposed to know how it works if you’ve never driven down there before?? Yes it looks different but there are no signs telling cars to give way.

RiotFrog 11:40 am 20 May 15

“…nuke the entire site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure”

bryansworld 9:49 am 20 May 15

Sounds good. Some cars on the Shareway still treating it like a 50 km/h street.

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