23 September 2019

Mr Barr, don't pave paradise to put up an apartment block

| Ian Bushnell
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The recently approved two-tower development in Woden.

Chief Minister Andrew Barr may not like to hear this but he has a lot in common with former Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Joh was a great crane watcher, as is our Chief Minister.

If Joh could see the Brisbane city scape dotted with cranes he was happy in the knowledge that the economy was ticking over just nicely.

He was far from alone in this respect. Years later Victoria’s Labor Premier John Cain would say the same thing and a few more premiers since have practised the not so subtle art of crane watching.

Joh believed a can-do attitude, cutting red tape and clearing the way for development was part of his job description, although he may have bent the rules here or there to make things happen.

Now I don’t suggest that any plain paper bags have ended up on Mr Barr’s desk or that he doesn’t have a strong commitment to consulting the community and working within the ACT’s planning framework, but recent comments about future development in the ACT should sound alarm bells.

He may have been just stating the obvious but Mr Barr is a consummate media performer and he can ‘feed the chooks’ just as well as the old fox used to.

When he told ABC morning radio recently that there was only one way for the landlocked ACT to go and that was up, he was getting way out in front of the debate about urban development and housing in the Territory.

You would have thought he was talking about Hong Kong or Singapore, not the nation’s capital.

Clearly setting the Government’s agenda, he was arguing that the ACT had no choice given its limited land area and development bumping up against its borders but to densify, particularly with high-rise residential towers in Civic, the town centres and along our transport corridors.

It may have been music to the ears of the big property developers and the CFMEU, but it should strike a jarring note for anybody concerned about the quality of life and public amenity in the ACT.

Last week, The Planning and Land Authority (ACTPLA) approved a two-tower development for Woden, 26 and 18 storeys respectively. There are more planned close by, some up to 28 storeys. Geocon’s redevelopment of the Tradies site proposes a ‘landmark’ building that has nearby apartment dwellers wondering what kind of behemoth will cast its shadow on them.

The community is heartened at the renewed interest in Woden but despairs at the loss of services, facilities and public amenity with no sign from the Government that it intends to maintain or provide any for the hundreds of new residents that will fill the towers.

Out Gungahlin way another high-rise building was approved earlier in the month, this time 14 storeys, adding to the phalanx of towers in one section of the Town Centre. Again the community welcomes the investment but shudders at the scale of the developments there and questions their siting.

In Civic, we are promised another 20,000 residents in the next decade and the developments to house them are growing apace.

Down the light rail corridor of Flemington Road and Northbourne Avenue, one high rise development after another is being announced.

In Belconnen, the Sirius apartments will rise over Lake Ginninderra. It seems like only a matter of time for Tuggeranong.

Mr Barr and the Labor Party never believed the numbers added up for light rail as a transport option but realised what a great vehicle it could be for their catchcry of urban renewal. Onward to Woden and, with the Chief Minister saying he is already turning his mind to Stage 3, Tuggeranong.

You have to sympathise with any ACT government given the Territory’s limited revenue sources and its high maintenance citizens. Property is the only game in town and the Chief Minister and Treasurer is rolling the dice big time to keep the economy, so susceptible to Federal public service cutbacks, on the boil.

To that extent, Mr Barr is an unqualified success, to which this month’s economic data, including record jobs growth, attests. The jobs and growth mantra isn’t restricted to the Prime Minister.

And it is not all bad. Northbourne Avenue in particular will be better off without its aged and ugly public housing blocks, as will Civic. Rejuvenation is happening and welcome.

But the residential towers boom seems to be overshadowing other housing needs and choices and placing enormous pressure on our urban and green spaces, as well as distorting the visual amenity. Community leaders across Canberra generally accept densification but are crying out for better design, more strategic siting and more coordinated planning than what they see as an ad hoc building by building approach.

The Griffins’ vision for Canberra was for a compact city, even with trams, but the city was meant to coexist with its environment, not dominate it.

It seems these days that Canberra can’t even build a media box at Manuka Oval without making some grandiose multi-million dollar statement.

High rise might provide great returns and large numbers of residences but as a social instrument it has failed in great cities such as Paris and London, and the creep along the transport corridors of Sydney and Melbourne is creating a growing unease.

The vertical village is a myth and the so-called preference for apartment living is a marketing ploy as housing choices shrink in the face of skyrocketing prices and rents. While singles and couples might opt for a unit in a funky downtown area with restaurants and bars, families, given a real choice, want a house and back yard, or at least a townhouse with some green space.

And they are prepared to cross borders to find it, especially with house prices in Canberra rising at double the rate of units last year.

Instead of the constant focus on high rise development, the Government needs to speed up the release of land for detached houses and encourage more low-rise developments designed to promote social interaction. With more supply we might be able to see whether the price of land, which many say is too high anyway, actually falls or whether other measures are necessary to help young Canberrans into their first home. Further reforms to stamp duty even might assist more turnover of homes within existing suburbs. And even dual occupancy is preferable to urban aberrations like Wright.

It needs to rebuild its planning resources to achieve better outcomes.

It needs to accept that while building more units creates more housing, it doesn’t necessarily provide shelter that is desirable or affordable. This market failure, of which the investor-fuelled apartment boom is a part, needs to be addressed with more public and community housing investment because there is a growing proportion of the population shut out of the housing market paying income-gobbling rents.

The sense of urgency Mr Barr’s argument implies does not address these needs but is an attempt to shepherd discussion down a certain track.

There is land – in the Molonglo Valley, Gungahlin, the East Lake area, West Belconnen and across the border Mr Barr refers to as a barrier. Perhaps he can use the Canberra Region concept to discuss cross-border arrangements for people who are priced out of the market, aren’t sold on apartments and want their own patch of dirt. Of course, they would not be ACT ratepayers but the border is only a line on a map and people are voting with their feet.

Mr Barr is happy to promote Canberra as Australia’s most livable city, and Lonely Planet’s third best city in the world to visit. But perhaps he should take a breath and reflect on why this is so. Will it still be thus if Canberra simply becomes just another city, dotted with cranes?

Are we building too many apartment blocks? Is it the only way to deal with urban sprawl? Do we need to curtail suburban development and preserve our remaining open spaces? Have our planners lost the plot?

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HiddenDragon5:48 pm 07 Feb 18

“To that extent, Mr Barr is an unqualified success, to which this month’s economic data, including record jobs growth, attests. The jobs and growth mantra isn’t restricted to the Prime Minister.”

Much of that success still depends on debt-funded public sector spending. Sooner or later, the federal Government’s capacity for stimulatory spending is going to run into a brick wall (possibly in the form of international money markets reluctant to lend at the sort of rates we can afford) and when that happens, things will get very interesting in Canberra.

Still, every cloud has a silver lining, and the long overdue market shakeout could make accommodation in Canberra a bit more affordable for people on low and moderate incomes.

michael quirk3:06 pm 07 Feb 18

Ian Bushnell’s comments reinforce the need for a review of the ACT Planning Strategy and for greater strategic expertise within government.
A review would enable issues including housing demand and supply, housing and employment location and transport requirements to be comprehensively explored.
The current pattern of development of residential settlement to the west and employment growth to the east and centre of the city is resulting in increased travel congestion, greenhouse emissions and increased infrastructure costs. The review should thoroughly investigate the environmental, travel and infrastructure costs of alternative greenfield areas including Kowen, West Murrumbidgee and Stromlo and alternative redevelopment opportunities.
Town centres and nodes along transport corridors are the logical locations for higher density housing, while locations near centres in existing towns are the sensible locations for medium density housing including dual occupancy. However, the level of approval of higher density housing greatly exceeds demand – locations for higher density housing need to be prioritised to achieve defined strategic planning outcomes for the Territory.
The Gungahlin light rail is regrettable as the transport task could have been adequately handled by a busway at a fraction of the cost. Major redevelopment was already occurring in the corridor prior to the light rail decision. The acceleration of redevelopment as a result of the project is occurring before adequate social and physical infrastructure is in place.
The extension to Woden is even less justifiable with the task more than adequately handled by buses and the greater difficulty in intensifying the corridor. The ACT has far higher priorities in housing, education, public transport, health and disability services.
The review would enable a rational assessment of the future needs of the Canberra community and how these should be met rather than the current opportunistic, ad hoc and developer driven approach of the Barr Government.

“You have to sympathise with any ACT government given the Territory’s limited revenue sources and its high maintenance citizens.”

Actually, you don’t need to sympathise at all. This high-density spree is creating the next crisis. This concentrated development is not being matched by concentrated services which these new residents will need. What is the solution to all those crises?

ACT hospitals are the most expensive in the nation, but still perform amongst the worst. Solution: fire the top 3 floors of ACT Health, and get health bureaucrats from other states that do the job far better.

Education: see hospitals.

The jail is the worst nationally, and per-prisoner costs are far more expensive than NSW, which was where they used to get sent. Solution: close the jail, dissolve corrections, and return to previous practice.

Tax breaks for developers: stop them.

Funding for “arts” and “culture”: see developers.

Community Services: fire and dissolve the entire directorate. The darwinian arrangements currently in place could not be worse without the directorate.

bringontheevidence12:12 pm 07 Feb 18

Sorry, but these arguments just don’t stack up. The absolute worst outcome for ‘paradise’ would be to continue the urban sprawl and the road and parking lot construction required to service all those cars.

And the irony of demanding more housing ‘options’ while simultaneously decrying anything that isn’t detached housing is amazing. Research by the Grattan Institute found that, given a certain budget, roughly half of all households would prefer to live in a detached house in a suburb, while the remainder would prefer either a townhouse or apartment closer to services.

Currently Canberra is about 70 per cent detached housing, so that means rather than a surplus of apartments, we actually have a surplus of detached houses. In my mind the more the inner areas can be converted to townhouses and the more wasted carpark land or derelict offices can be redeveloped as apartments the better.

“Mr Barr and the Labor Party never believed the numbers added up for light rail as a transport option but realised what a great vehicle it could be for their catchcry of urban renewal. “

Wasn’t it always the point of light rail to have a high density transport corridor. That was my understanding of it, of course on current residents it won’t stack up. Again thats how I understood it, but many others who like to argue about these things seem to prefer linking light rail expenditure to money not being spent on health or other failed political message.
Perhaps if this was going to be such an issue the ACT Libs, should have used that instead of the negativity they learnt from Tony Abbott.

That said there really isn’t lots of land in Canberra for more and more houses. So we need medium and high density living options and the town centres are perfect for that. Not the Curtain shops or in the suburbs. That after all is one of the benefits of light rail, keep the high density living away from those who don’t want it. Its a far better solution than the urban infill that circulated a few years ago of building on all our grasslands etc between the suburbs. That would be a far greater tragedy and would ruin the character a lot more than building high density in the town centres.

I’m all for rational and reasonable arguments. But we Canberrans do a lot of whinging with very little ideas other than saying stay as we are now, yet so progressive on other social issues.

Re minimum carpark spaces for apartments see- http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/da-lodged-for-two-towers-at-woden-town-centre-bus-interchange-20170601-gwi8lh.html

If u can afford $60k for a house deposit chances are u own a car and need to park it somewhere. Stupid attempt at social engineering.

“Mr Barr and the Labor Party never believed the numbers added up for light rail as a transport option but realised what a great vehicle it could be for their catchcry of urban renewal. “

This is so true. Genuinely impressed with Gallagher/Barrs use of the light rail project as a trojan horse for urban infill/renewal.Placates Rattenbury and gives them a mandate for gentrification of the inner north/south.

Belconandonandon6:28 pm 06 Feb 18

By “pave paradise” do you mean replace the decrepit 1970s office block that currently sits on the site? When you’re referring to a Woden office building as a “paradise”, I think you really need to rethink your ideology. I know some people (particularly older people) have this entrenched mentality that no one wants to live in apartments, but this is simply not the case.

High density development can and should be part of a good urban planning policy. Having higher density residences close to a major transport interchange and town centre with jobs, shops and amenities is good urban planning.

Just a couple of quick questions:

How does construction of a couple of residential towers that are apparently replacing a disused office building add up to a ‘loss of services, facilities and public amenity’?

How do residential towers place ‘enormous pressure on our urban and green spaces’ compared with, for example, detached housing?

Come on common sense like that has no place around here.

Most new high/medium density developments in Canberra tend to be no more architecturally offensive than the fence-to-fence McMansions people now insist on building in greenfield RZ1 lots. I’ll take a handful glass towers over whole suburbs of this any day: http://78.media.tumblr.com/aa8278ddfeddfd658a27b8e031e6db97/tumblr_inline_ola14vc0Ib1sppt0x_1280.png

True, but at least the McMansions are one or two stories high and don’t block the line of sight, or the sun, to the same extent.

What use is having all that sun when the houses have no backyards or greenery to speak of? Even the front yards tend to be astroturfed and left with a single, Government-planted street tree.

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