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New Canberra Theatre plans take shape as contract envisages reinvented arts precinct

Genevieve Jacobs 24 June 2019

The current Playhouse’s use is yet to be determined in plans for a new Canberra Theatre. File photo.

Further details about plans for a new Canberra Theatre at the centre of a southern CBD entertainment, hospitality and retail precinct are beginning to emerge as the government’s business case brief has been made public.

They are evidence of a revised and more realistic City to the Lake style reinvention of the area around the existing Canberra Theatre and Legislative Assembly, and more widely around the waterfront.

The government’s contract is with consulting architects Ashton, Raggatt, McDougall for the new Canberra Theatre complex design and technical analysis and is valued at $544,500. The business case will be prepared in collaboration with the City Renewal Authority as part of the master planning for the Civic, Arts and Cultural Precinct.

On the opposite side of Northbourne Avenue, the Morris Property Group is constructing the Barracks development on part of Section 63, while the government has a tender out for an Estate Development Plan for the remaining part of the section. The ongoing discussions about West Basin also form part of the intentions to activate the southern CBD.

Last week, the preferred site for the new theatre (on the current politicians’ carpark site) was revealed during the estimates process. Despite the recent resurgence of discussion about a stadium in Civic, Chief Minister Andrew Barr has been clear for some time that with a limited major infrastructure budget, the Theatre represents better value for money and utility for the whole community.

The business case brief says that the redeveloped theatre complex will provide high-quality facilities that enable the ACT to host large scale concerts, musicals, ballet, and opera as well as smaller-scale performances. The substantially larger facility, with a seating capacity of around 2000 will then improve Canberra’s visibility on the touring circuit for major productions.

The rationale is that the success of Mamma Mia and expectations around West Side Story later this year show that major productions bring substantial regional tourism to Canberra and boost the hospitality sector. Mamma Mia producer Louise Withers says that in addition to locals, interstate visitors to Mama Mia spent around $500 to $750 each. The production attracted 32,000 visitors, almost a quarter of whom were from interstate.

The current Canberra Theatre’s size, with seating for just over 1200 and a restricted stage space limits these possibilities, especially as the Theatre’s business model relies on external touring productions rather than locally developed productions. The plan also envisages better food and beverage offerings in the immediate area around the new Theatre, which will also require further parking options.

The development is adjacent to the Capital Property Group’s $300 million Constitution Place development by the Snow family. Reporting earlier this year in The Australian Financial Review indicated that Capital Property Group had filled almost the entire commercial space available for the major project, which is currently going up next to the Assembly and across the courtyard from the current theatre.

The business case will explore several options for whether the current Playhouse can be reconfigured and reoriented or retained in its current form. The current Canberra Theatre would likely be repurposed to a flat floor with retractable seating, maintaining the current capacity of 1200 with an estimated 2000 standing.

The full business case for the two approved options will be considered by Cabinet for inclusion in the 2020-21 ACT Budget. Final design concept options are due by September this year while project approval is due in June next year.

The government’s arts and urban development strategies will inform the business case, as will the National Capital Plan and the strategies developed by the City Renewal Authority.

 


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