No doubt the City Renewal Authority and the National Capital Authority would have cracked the metaphorical bubbly last week after sealing the West Basin-North Curtin horse paddocks land swap deal, which they then quietly announced.
It’s a win-win for both parties and in the rarified air of the dealmakers would have seemed an elegant solution.
The ACT Government wanted to get its hands on West Basin, where a major urban renewal project involving possibly 2000 apartments is in train, and the NCA sought to secure land for its diplomatic estate where it will build embassies and residences over the next 25 years.
Heritage activists, the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians, who were aware the fix was on, were still devastated, realising their five-year battle to preserve the area as open space parkland and retain the integrity of the lake design was facing defeat.
The ACT Equestrian Association was completely blindsided, learning of the done deal in a polite letter from the NCA advising horse owners that nothing will change for at least two years while the preparatory work – rezoning and an estate development plan – was completed.
In one fell swoop, Canberra has been taken to another stage in its evolution from bush capital to conurbation.
With a portion of the lake bed to be reclaimed to extend the boardwalk and a new urban park planned that will be big on concrete and not so much on open green space to fit in with the inevitable apartment development, West Basin will become an extension of the city and home to its expanding population.
Some will welcome the transformation and trendy inner-city housing it will bring to an area that has been bitumen car parks and neglected lakeside open space.
The Guardians say 200 trees and parkland will go in the process, at a time when the climate is warming and the Government says it is committed to a green envelope as part of its climate change and sustainability goals.
In this clash of wellbeing indicators, housing and the dollar appears to have come out on top.
We will only have to hold the NCA to its word that any development over which it has the final say will be of the highest quality.
Meanwhile out at Curtin, where developers have for so long cast glassy eyes at the rolling paddocks so tantalisingly near blue ribbon suburbs and only a short drive to the city, horse owners and long-term residents are wondering if this is the beginning of the end for the network of agistment land and trails that have provided a green buffer between the suburbs for decades.
The Commonwealth has acquired 70 per cent of the North Curtin paddocks, or 21 hectares, in a deal that will leave a 10-hectare strip along the top of Yarra Glen, perfect for the light rail corridor development.
Questions to the Planning Minister Mick Gentleman and the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate about the future of that land remained unanswered last week but it may not be the dismissive ‘no’ that Mr Gentleman fired back at me when I asked him directly about the Curtin horse paddocks and housing in December 2018 at the launch of the Planning Strategy Refresh.
With the NCA to play such a significant role in the approval process for light rail stage 2, one can only speculate on the conversations that may have gone on behind closed doors.
The Guardians called the deal a ”frightful precedent”, and whether you agree with that or not, the agistment paddocks around Canberra, particularly in the inner suburbs, must now be considered no longer sacrosanct, and in play.
One could argue that if you were going to carve off agistment land then at least it could go to housing for Canberrans, not to creating a privileged enclave for overseas diplomats.
Many will also sense the passing of an era and mourn the loss of a greener, more pleasant Canberra.
The calculations may have been that the only losers will be a small group of horse owners, perhaps themselves considered privileged, and a community heritage and conservation group with little public support standing in the way of progress.
But there will be a price to pay for a deal that many will judge as sneaky and underhanded, and another strike against an entrenched government used to getting its way and accused of being arrogant.
The fact that it was announced by a cursory media release from the NCA as everybody’s attention was firmly fixed on the coronavirus public health crisis may have been coincidental but it was not a good look.
It will create baggage for Labor, not to mention the Greens who have stayed silent on West Basin, and the Guardians have already stated their intention to campaign against the Barr Government and again recruit the Canberra Liberals to the cause.
The Liberals have taken an anti-apartment, if not anti-development, stance in recent times, and in a Territory where land is currency and housing is at a premium, they have their own ambitions for more land releases to bring the price of homes within the reach of more Canberrans.
So whatever the outcome in October, Canberra will continue to grow and need housing of one sort or another and all parties seem committed to that.
The question is whether the ACT can have a proper balance of apartments, townhouses and free-standing family homes within the climate and sustainability framework the government has signed up to, without the kind of behind the scenes deals that continue to erode trust in our elected and public officials.
Or confining the horse-riding community to an ever-tightening corridor or banishing them to the outer limits of the city.