13 February 2021

How the proposed Arts and Cultural Precinct will pay its way

| Ian Bushnell
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Canberra Theatre

An expanded Canberra Theatre will be the centrepiece of the proposed Cultural Precinct. Photo: Michelle Kroll.

The proposed new Arts and Cultural Precinct in the city, including a revamped Canberra Theatre complex, is likely to be a mixed-use development encompassing commercial, residential and retail components that would help pay for the project, according to Chief Minister Andrew Barr.

As envisioned, the precinct will span from Constitution Avenue to Northbourne Avenue, bordered by London Circuit to the east and City Hill to the west. It also includes Ainslie Avenue from London Circuit to City Walk.

Mr Barr this week provided fresh information on the cultural precinct project, which some in the arts community fear is languishing with no clear timeline and a lack of detail on its actual form.

The final mix of the precinct is yet to be decided, but as well as cultural and arts uses, Mr Barr said it could include a hotel, retail, apartments and underground parking, similar to the recently completed Constitution Place development nearby.

These uses would also provide ongoing revenue that would help pay for the development.

The government will fund the project, but it is also dependent on proceeds from the sale of nearby ACT land on the corner of London Circuit and Northbourne Avenue, opposite the Sydney Building, which is currently a surface car park.

But with the car park land next to the courts already on the market, Mr Barr said the timing of the land release was still to be decided.

“We don’t want to take all of the surface car parking opposite Sydney and Melbourne buildings at the same time,” Mr Barr said.

But he said the new Constitution Place car park would also provide hundreds of spaces for the theatre precinct.

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He added that economic modelling on the project was well advanced, but he still expected the first sod to be turned before the next election, and completion by 2025-26. However, in December he had told Region Media the government was committed to developing the precinct in the coming four to eight years, “subject to planning approval and prevailing economic and investment conditions”.

To be delivered in stages, the project will also have to fit into the government’s busy infrastructure program, and Mr Barr has admitted that as all states and territories embark on their own economic recovery programs, competition for construction resources and skills will be intense.

In December, Mr Barr said a draft plan was expected to be released for public consultation in mid-2021, which will ”establish clear principles” for new buildings and the improvement of public spaces within the area.

The precinct’s centrepiece will be an expanded Canberra Theatre with capacity for about 1,800 to 2,000 patrons, and the existing venue potentially repurposed with a flexible flat floor suitable for standing, cabaret-style and live music events.

The precinct could also include more flexible spaces for live music and rehearsals and experimental and local performances.

But the future of the city library and the Canberra Museum and Gallery in the precinct is unclear.

The Cultural Precinct remains the government’s development priority ahead of a new stadium and convention centre, in that order.

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