29 March 2020

Land-swap smell will linger for government

| Ian Bushnell
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The North Curtin Horse Paddocks

The North Curtin Horse Paddocks: 70 per cent of the land will be a diplomatic estate. Photo: Ana Stuart.

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.

The portion of the North Curtin Horse Paddocks acquired by the Commonwealth

The portion of the North Curtin Horse Paddocks acquired by the Commonwealth. Image: NCA.

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.

The planned West Basin boardwalk

The planned West Basin boardwalk and park. Image: City Renewal Authority.

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.

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Virginia Dodson1:09 am 06 Apr 20

I took a drive along Denison St in Deakin yesterday. The huge water filled hole in the ground on the corner of Beale Crescent has been there for years. It is reserved for the Embassy of Kuwait, as are two other sites further along. There are a number of vacant blocks in Beale Crescent including one for the Embassy of Qatar who have recently built an imposing structure on Melbourne Avenue Deakin. One wonders why it is necessary for the Curtin horse paddocks to be sacrificed when there are so many unused blocks reserved for embassies that have been vacant for many years. Both Qatar and Kuwait already have embassies in O’Malley. The Barr government are notorious for ignoring community concerns if it upsets their plans for selling off to developers who don’t know or care about green space, trees or anything remotely resembling architectural integrity. I suppose they do have to recoup some of the 3 billion dollar deficit somehow and the appalling West Basin development might help towards that end. The Greens of course are missing in action as usual. Situation normal.

This is like a broken record this topic now – like others on other things like the old Downer Club site in Dickson. Blown way out of proportion by an interested few.

Just who are these ‘Guardians of the Lake’ and who elects them? Or is it still like it was a few years ago, where most aren’t even residents of Canberra….

Capital Retro9:06 am 02 Apr 20

Chele Forest says I’m looking forward to the day that I can leave this monstrosity that is this new Canberra.

Many others doing the same thing including retirees who can no longer afford to live in “the coolest little capital in the world”.

If you prefer a “house on a bush block” you had better be quick because while there were many this time last year there are very few still available.

I don’t see a problem. I don’t think maintaining paddocks for the private use of a few horse owners is a priority. Different story if it was a nature reserve. I think developing West Basin could be terrific, especially if it’s well connected to Civic and offers plenty of outdoor space to residents and visitors. The pool would be a great addition, if it’s viable. The worry is that in the coming financial environment, the ACT government gives away too much scope/control to developers.

The myopic and shouty Guardians of the Lake are stuck in a time warp. They want to put a glass bowl over central Canberra and preserve it in their image of a city of the past, constantly looking back and never forward. Despite years of transparent and open public consultation about the future of West Basin they selfishly refuse to accept the consistent and majority view which is to create a different place that reflects the contemporary city. This was the Griffins’ ambition, because unlike the Guardians, they understood that cities evolve and are responsive to their citizen’s aspirations. Heritage protection is essential but when it is pursued from a purely preservationist mindset it threatens the the potential of Canberra as a progressive, forward looking city, able to balance the best of the past with the ambition of the future. Move on Guardians, we’re not in the 60’s any more!

HiddenDragon8:04 pm 30 Mar 20

“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.”

Today’s ‘Job Keeper’ announcement, together with the earlier stimulus measures, and likely big falls in Commonwealth revenues, will see net Commonwealth debt skyrocket. That’s a simple statement of fact, and in no way a criticism of the scale of what has been done – with more likely to follow.

When the worst of the crisis has passed, and the national economy finds a new level (likely lower than before the crisis, in spite of bold talk of bouncing back bigger and better than before) a Commonwealth Budget burdened with servicing huge debt, and relying on constrained revenues, will simply not be able to provide the same level of support for the Canberra economy as before. There may well be greater ongoing Commonwealth activity, but the bulk of that will be “on the ground” service delivery, 98% or more of which won’t be happening in Canberra.

Some very well-connected fingers may get burned in this exercise.

No, there’s no “smell” about this, Ian B., it’s simply re-purposing land over time as conditions change. A similar land swap was done over the Acton land where the National Museum now sits (which was previously ACT) with the area around Kingston where the Kingston Foreshore development is (which used to be Commonwealth land). You can try to beat it up all you like but the simple facts don’t bear out the hyperbole. There is other land available for horse riders. The land in Curtin now has a different purpose. likewise the land near West Basin can be more usefully employed, particularly with its proximity to a growing City Centre.

The Curtin horseparks should have already been developed, keeping such a large and valuable space for privileged horse owners is ridiculous when it is so close to a major transport route.

And the less said about the self appointed people (they arent guardians of anything) opposing the West Basin development the better.

They are literally complaining about an area of mostly unused car parks next to a man made lake. To say it has heritage value is ridiculous, the lake itself is only 50 years old and wouldn’t have been built in the first place if attitudes like they are displaying were listened to in the 1960’s.

Yes just when we our attention is diverted to important matters the City Renewal Authority and the NCA come to a deal. Funny about that. After four years of consultations with these organisations I think it would have been been respectful to at least had a phone call or such before the announcement. So much for consulting in good faith. Good societies feed on people showing respect and empathy. Our beautiful city is turning into a badly planned concrete jungle.

There are at least 10 vacant diplomatic sites in O’Malley, and at least a further 10 in Deakin, that have been allocated for many years, decades in some cases, that have never been built on. A check of Google maps also show vacant sites in Yarralumla.

These should be immediately withdrawn, no negotiation, and re-allocated to those embassies that will start work immediately.

There are no new countries being created; there are already sufficient embassy sites (up to 30 currently vacant) in existing enclaves – they just need to be properly managed.

The Curtin area is not needed for this purpose.

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