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

Ian Bushnell 23 September 2019 64

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?

What's Your Opinion?

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64 Responses to Mr Barr, don’t pave paradise to put up an apartment block
Arjay 10:31 am 06 Feb 18

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:

    bikhet 11:45 am 06 Feb 18

    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.

    Arjay 2:05 pm 06 Feb 18

    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.

Donna Venables Donna Venables 12:40 pm 06 Feb 18

The town centres are turning into slums.

    Alex Thomson Alex Thomson 1:16 pm 06 Feb 18

    The town centres were always slums. Thankfully, they are now building nice apartments, which will activate the area, more business for restaurants and cafes, make it safer

Alan James Alan James 12:41 pm 06 Feb 18

The cost of ownership of a strata titled apartment or Town house is far in excess of that of a single dwelling and is not a viable option for those n fixed incomes. Build some separate title Town Houses and that would allow the freeing up of larger homes.

    Justin Watson Justin Watson 9:03 pm 06 Feb 18

    Hmmm really, not for me in my townhouse. my rates are very affordable and body corporate is also not much more when you consider it includes the building insurance also. I personally think though we could provide blocks of land for people who want to live in tiny houses as well. You could fit 4-6 on a block easily.

Alan James Alan James 12:41 pm 06 Feb 18

Canberra is becoming ugly and poorly maintained.

Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 12:42 pm 06 Feb 18

Paradise was already paved. Literally with parking lots in most cases. I think it's an excellent idea to make better use of the space by building up on those lots (and adding more parking than was there to start with in the process) rather than speeding the outward expansion of low rise suburbs. (and more paving)

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 12:48 pm 06 Feb 18

    But they’re not adding parking. New apartment blocks have one park per unit at best, when most occupants are two car families. Many new apartment blocks have no parking at all. Have you tried parking in the city lately?

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 12:51 pm 06 Feb 18

    I can't remember the last time I had a problem parking in the city.

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 1:22 pm 06 Feb 18

    I have a problem parking in the city almost every time, which is several times a week. And there are two parking lots which are earmarked to go.

    I know it is Kerry, but I don’t think it will work out the way they imagine. I’m a big greenie but I will not catch the bus. Never. Busses are just way too inconvenient for me, would add a lot of time to my already packed days.

    Trevor Melksham Trevor Melksham 1:36 pm 06 Feb 18

    To catch the tram you have to live in the north. To catch a bus efficiently you have to live inner. Best not to work in Civic.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 1:38 pm 06 Feb 18

    Lauren Melksham Can you provide evidence for your claim that there are new apartment blocks being built in Canberra with *no* parking? My understanding is that there are quite strict parking minimums for new developments. i.e. One bedroom apartments need one space, two bedrooms need an average of 1.5 spaces, etc.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 1:49 pm 06 Feb 18

    That's why you end up with buildings with massive parking podiums above the ground floor, like the Wayfarer in Belconnen.

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 2:32 pm 06 Feb 18

    In Kingston foreshore they haven’t adhered to that. One park period. Not enough street parking to cater for the amount of business they want for the restaurants, and as the city developments are going to be built by the same companies, why would they be any different?

    The parking lots that are set to be developed are public parking lots. One part of the Canberra centre, one just across from it. So where are those cars going to go? We’ve already lost one near the theatre recently. The Canberra centre multi-storey can’t take that much additional traffic. I honestly have it down so specific that Monday’s and Tuesday’s are good days for parking, Wednesday’s are a gamble and on Thursdays and Friday’s you can forget about it. This is in the evenings I’m talking about. After 5pm. When I need to get to work.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 2:57 pm 06 Feb 18

    Lauren Melksham, the examples you've provided really don't support your earlier claim that developers are building 'many' new apartments with *no* parking. You made it seem like every resident would be forced to park out on the street.

    In regards to the Canberra Theatre development, the 225 public surface car parks are being replaced by 550 basement car parks, 250 of which will be public:

    I imagine similar constraints will be placed on the car parks opposite the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings, which are currently being expanded to cater for the temporary loss of the Canberra Theatre car parks:

    At the end of the day, I would say that the transformation of the London Circuit carparks into mixed-use precincts is ultimately a good thing. City Hill is the heart of the city and deserves far more than being left isolated by arterial traffic and blighted by surface parking.

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 3:32 pm 06 Feb 18

    I work on the Foreshore and even there there's heaps of parking if you accept that you might have to walk a block or two, and may have to pay for your park.

    Mark Dando Mark Dando 4:14 pm 06 Feb 18

    Lauren Melksham I live at the Kingston Foreshore. All the apartments in my development have at least one carpark and many have two. As far as I know, this is mandatory for all developments on the Foreshore. There is no shortage of parking for visitors behind the restaurant strip. When the arts precinct is developed, the surface parking will be replaced by more parking than is currently available. For any shopping or entertainment precinct you can't expect unlimited kerbside parking. Sorry, you just have to walk a few more metres from your car. Better still, walk, cycle or catch a bus (or in the future a tram). Do you really think the great cities of the world are characterised by vast areas of surface parking?🚊

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 4:50 pm 06 Feb 18

    Oh, and the 325 surface car parks opposite the Canberra Centre will be replaced by 1179 (!) basement car parks:

    Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 9:36 pm 06 Feb 18

    Which is great if you like apartments and/or parking bays. Some of us nutters like the occasional piece of greenery. You know. The reason why Canberra was once known as the bush capital.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 9:40 pm 06 Feb 18

    The whole point of building on top of existing surface parking lots is that you don't lose any green space. Unless you consider the miserable, half-dead trees scattered across the asphalt 'greenery'.

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 9:42 pm 06 Feb 18

    Yes. Canberra is plagued with oceans of awful flat surfaces parking. It's already there.

    No one is building apartment buildings in green spaces. They're building on existing sites. (Or sites that are already allocated to be some sort of development)

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 9:44 pm 06 Feb 18

    And if Canberra's reputation as the 'Bush Capital' is damaged by the loss of a few surface car parks, then we definitely need to find a more robust slogan.

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 7:26 am 07 Feb 18

    Ok well good. I didn’t know about the new parks. Jesus. Hope you got some joy from that little attack rampage Ryan.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 8:18 am 07 Feb 18

    Lauren Melksham, I'm sorry if I came off as aggressive. I'm just tired of Canberra's town centres being so *empty*, and perfectly good proposals getting strongly criticised because people think they're going to lose the ability to find a carpark.

    Trevor Melksham Trevor Melksham 9:47 am 07 Feb 18

    I live on the Kingston foreshore too, and parking is a pain in the arse. Many spots are 1hr only, even where there are no completed developments. If you want more than one car park in your building, be prepared to pay for a penthouse.

    Rob Smith Rob Smith 10:25 am 07 Feb 18

    Ryan Hemsley the basement car parking woill not be affordable public parking, most will be taken up by business. SO no real gain there. There is enough green space around, spare a thought for those who need to drive to town centres in a city where public transport is appauling

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 10:29 am 07 Feb 18

    It's interesting that the article was partly lamenting the loss of green space to apartment buildings (and in particular invoking a song that talks about the loss of green space to surface parking), and a large number of people opposed to apartments actually don't care about green space at all and literally do want it all paved and turned into parking lots.

    I suspect this is one of Henry Ford's "If I asked people what they wanted..." moments.

    Ryan Hemsley Ryan Hemsley 10:41 am 07 Feb 18

    Rob Smith unless the businesses take up more than 850 of the 1179 new parking spaces, there will still be a net gain of public parking spaces. That area (Section 96) is currently operated by the Canberra Centre, so the price of parking is unlikely to become any more expensive than the surrounding parking stations.

    Rob Smith Rob Smith 10:45 am 07 Feb 18

    Ryan Hemsley This is correct however, take manhattan in civic for example, all parking on site is for residents and there are only 3 parking spots for visitors to the apartments. We end up going out of the city to dinner with friends so not supporting local venues.

    Rob Smith Rob Smith 10:47 am 07 Feb 18

    Gabriel Spacca perhaps you should move to the suburbs then!!

    Rob Smith Rob Smith 10:51 am 07 Feb 18

    Mark Dando really you think there is not a parking problem for visitors to kingston foreshore..your kidding. I agree you should not expect unlimited kerb parking, but vthere should be some parking. Your alternative to catch a bus is just as silly, the awful canberra bus service does not allow this. What makes you think a pie in the sky tram will be any better

    Rob Smith Rob Smith 10:55 am 07 Feb 18

    Kerry Baylor this would be fine if buses didnt only cater for 9-5 public servants

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 11:00 am 07 Feb 18

    At the Foreshore right now.

    Within a three minute walk (maybe five if you don't walk with the same sense of purpose as I usually do) of every business in the area.

    Stuart Herring Stuart Herring 11:15 am 07 Feb 18

    I don't doubt that people are facing parking problems both here and in the city, but I also can't help but wonder if that's because they're either unaware of or are self-limiting their options.

    Also, opposing apartments entirely on the basis of parking isn't going to help. Instead lobbying for higher parking minimums would solve both problems.

    Mark Dando Mark Dando 12:41 pm 07 Feb 18

    Rob Smith there is plenty of parking at Kingston Foreshore as Stuart Herring has just pointed out - a large surface car park off Eastlake Parade just behind the restaurant strip. When this area is developed for the arts precinct, the existing surface car parks will be replaced by a much larger number of car parks in multistorey car parks.

    Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 9:02 am 08 Feb 18

    Now try your experiment on the weekend!

Lauren Melksham Lauren Melksham 12:46 pm 06 Feb 18

Yeah, at least put up a parking lot for god damn once.

Rob Sanders Rob Sanders 12:58 pm 06 Feb 18

The lack of infrastructure and facilities to support expanded residential growth is downright criminal. This will end with an unsustainable territory and further tax and rate hikes while we are left wondering where all the money from land sales disappeared to.

David Lindsay David Lindsay 12:59 pm 06 Feb 18

Having just relocated to Canberra from Sydney, I was shocked to see how many of these apart blocks are springing up. I don't think it has anything to do with housing affordability, it's developer greed plain and simple.

Jan Gulliver Jan Gulliver 1:10 pm 06 Feb 18

Far to many apartments, once fed labor is in and change the rules re negative gearing it will curtail this, however it may be too late for canberra

Mark_Dando 1:25 pm 06 Feb 18

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?

    JC 5:51 pm 06 Feb 18

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

Tanya Louise Tanya Louise 1:26 pm 06 Feb 18

Urban sprawl is devastating for the environment. Infill allows growth without the sprawl.

Dave Phillips Dave Phillips 1:28 pm 06 Feb 18

The ACT can manage a population of around 500,000, any higher than that and there will be no open space except for locations outside the metropolitan area. Road traffic density is already starting to bite, with the short term solution usually being to increase vehicle access rather than promoting public transport, more roads = more cars, just look at Perth for an example. The light rail project is a step in the right direction. People want safe, clean, punctual public transport services that have routes for all parts of the ACT's housing and industrial areas, with the cost of fares at a rate to encourage people to leave the car at home when going to work. Any more than 500,000 and public housing will be unable to cope with demand and the rental market would strain already tight family budgets trying to pay ridiculously high rents, impacting on their ability to save, most people will begin dropping expenses such as private health premiums adding to public health issues, dropping vehicle insurance to 3rd party only instead of fully comprehensive, just to save a few dollars for things like food, some families are really that desperate or one payday away from homelessness, especially if they lose their job. I don't know how people on welfare can manage!

Belconandonandon 6:28 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.

dukethunder 7:17 pm 06 Feb 18

Re minimum carpark spaces for apartments see-

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.

watto23 8:59 pm 06 Feb 18

“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.

Bayer Mitrovic Bayer Mitrovic 9:29 pm 06 Feb 18

ACT government continues to sell public land to private people while the number of parking spaces in the City Centre is diminsihing. Canberrans who live further from the city center are contuinuously deprived of their right for afforadble acces to the Center. It is hypocritical to sell publica parking to private company who charge exorbitant amounts for the third hour. How would enyon someone from Gor

Bayer Mitrovic Bayer Mitrovic 9:30 pm 06 Feb 18

How would anyone expect someone from Goprdon to drive 30km to the City and then stay for only two hours.

Dot Thompson Dot Thompson 8:22 am 07 Feb 18

Already too many!

Mark Casao Mark Casao 9:25 am 07 Feb 18

Mr. Barr, Canberra is a great place now. If more appartments pop up then you better damn be giving us mass improvements on infrastructure (otherwise we'll have poor roads and construction to repair them all the time), another hospital which is managed well and better and CHEAPER services to the people! Fun fact: there are people who are living in Canberra that arent public servants and politicians? Shape up. Listen to the people. Cheers.

bringontheevidence 12:12 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.

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