A bid by the private owner of the Coombs Community Centre to change the lease purpose so space could be more easily let has been roundly rejected by the planning authority.
When WSL Investments applied to change the lease to make its operation more financially viable, the proposal was called “outrageous” and an attempt to wriggle out of its community obligations.
The 8844-square metre, community-facilities-zoned site at 110 Woodberry Avenue in Coombs is home to a child care centre, but the rest of the building has lain mostly unused since it was built despite a desperate need for community space in the growing area.
But many people in the community say the owner has never been serious about letting the space to community groups, with rents reportedly far too high, the space not fitted out and not advertised.
The building’s lease includes a mandatory requirement to provide a minimum 120-place child care centre and a minimum 300-square metre community activity centre.
WSL Investments wanted to change the lease to a “300-square metre minimum in relation to all community uses excluding child care centre”.
Weston Creek Community Council chair Tom Anderson, who first called the proposal outrageous, said the applicant knew when purchasing this land what the requirements were for the Community Facility Zoned Land and they were written into the lease.
“Coombs and Wright have been crying out for a community facility to use and this sale was conditioned to allow the community to use this facility,” he said.
Mr Anderson said the space had been unused due to the lack of furniture or floor coverings, a manager, the commercial rates charged, and little to no advertising as to how to rent the premises.
Molonglo Valley Community Forum spokesperson Ryan Hemsley said the Forum was very grateful to see this lease variation application refused.
“Molonglo already suffers from a severe shortage of community spaces that are both affordable and available to local community groups. Had it been approved, this lease variation would have further entrenched these ongoing issues,” he said.
“We look forward to working with the site owner to see if we can work out an arrangement whereby the community activity space can be utilised for its intended purpose.”
The decision from the planning authority – based on input from the Suburban Land Agency, child care regulator and the community – says the lease must continue to apply as the communities of the Molonglo area are still developing.
It says removing a child care centre from the lease clashed with the Coombs Precinct Map and Code and the objectives of the Community Facilities Zone, and the company had failed to provide any evidence that the centre was not financially viable.
“The site is already developed as the Molonglo Health Hub, which includes Coombs Early Learning Centre for 120 child care places. There are currently no other child care facilities in the CFZ in which the site is located,” the decision says.
The Children’s Education and Care Assurance (CECA) said the mandatory requirement for an education and care service on this site remained critical to meet the community’s needs in an area where the need for early childhood education and care is growing.
The SLA also strongly opposed the proposed change, noting that the asking rental rate for the CAC was more than double the standard Community Rate charged elsewhere in the ACT.
“The lessee should be advised of both the current willingness of community organisations to rent the CAC at the community rental rate and of the option to Strata Title the property and sell it separately,” the SLA said.
The SLA said the block was sold with the requirement for a CAC and the accompanying pre-auction valuation reflected the expected lower rental returns.
“Moreover, a Community Needs Assessment undertaken by the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate in 2019 identified gaps in service provision that would largely be catered for if the Coombs Community Activity Centre was functional,” it said.
As well as the potential loss of the child care centre, the community was concerned that the change would also mean losing the community space, creating enough ambiguity to widen the interpretation of use, including commercial activity.