It’s a tight squeeze on Allara Street but residents of the new Park Avenue apartments didn’t realise how up close and personal their new neighbour, Canberra’s first Meriton hotel, would be.
There is but 10 centimetres between Park Avenue and the Meriton now under construction. Balconies almost touch and bedrooms are only metres away from Meriton rooms.
Then there is the communal kitchen that is now enclosed on three sides and where a balcony view is a wall of concrete.
Apartment owner Paul Robards, who lives on Level 15, believes something has gone wrong in the development approval process for this to happen, and the residents’ complaints have fallen on deaf ears.
He and his fellow directly affected residents, about 26 all up, aren’t anti-development and knew the risks of buying into a city apartment block.
They expected other buildings to rise around them but also that residents’ privacy would be protected.
“Something new that goes in should not be designed in a manner that intrudes on the privacy of existing residents. It needs to consider that properly,” Mr Robards says.
The problem was that when the Meriton DA was lodged in March last year, the Park Avenue owners were yet to move in and were not notified so they could comment.
Mr Robards believes the Park Avenue developer, Morris Property Group, and the planning authority, should have notified buyers even if they had not moved in.
It was a real failing and deeply flawed consultation process, he says.
“You’d have to be tracking the media or driving past and see something on a billboard,” he says.
The directly affected residents are on levels 4 to 17, but about 180 people live in the Park Avenue development.
Mr Robards says they have chosen to settle in the city and be part of its transformation from a dreary place that people mainly came to for work to a vibrant city centre that is now home to large numbers of people.
The Meriton will be 16-level building housing a hotel and short-term rental suites.
“We are horrified to find out that the approval allows for gross infringement of our security and privacy,” Mr Robards says.
“Over the last few months, through various submissions, we have clearly demonstrated the impacts and sought to have the design amended, not to stop the development but to protect our security and privacy. These attempts have all been unsuccessful.”
Mr Robards says the issue is not with Meriton, which has largely followed the processes put in place by the ACT Government.
Residents met with Chief Minister Andrew Barr last November and have made representations to Planning Minister Mick Gentleman, but their response is that it’s a matter for the planning authority.
But Mr Robards says planning officials, apart from being surprised at the situation, have yet to respond.
At the very minimum, residents want Meriton to install privacy screens on their balconies so guests don’t look into the Park Avenue apartments.
Mr Robards says the Park Avenue experience shows that the government needs to get planning right in the city if it wants people to live there.
“If the ACT government wants to achieve vibrancy in the city and build a sense of community, then it must ensure that legislation enables this vision,” he says.
“It must also set a higher bar for how large developers operate and behave.
“I am keen for development in the city … but you’ve got to do it so it’s sympathetic to those living there.”
President of the ACT Chapter of the Australian Institute of Architects Jane Cassidy would not comment on the individual case but said the ACT needed an apartment design guide and for the role of the National Capital Design Review Panel to be beefed up.
“To get a good quality compact city, we do need the planning reforms being undertaken,” Ms Cassidy said.
“We do need to empower the panel within the new planning system so their recommendations are able to take effect to ensure we get really good design outcomes that consider the current occupants as well as the future residents.”
Ms Cassidy said other states such as NSW and Victoria had apartment design guides which helped to “frame the qualities that we all expect when we’re purchasing an apartment off the plan and what we expect for the life of that building”.
She said a good guide usually referred to quality outdoor space on balconies, natural light and ventilation in living areas and bedrooms, and privacy.
“We would like to see a guide as part of the suite of documents coming through from the ACT Government’s planning reforms,” Ms Cassidy said.
An ACT Planning and Land Authority spokesperson said the assessment for the Meriton proposal did not identify the need for additional privacy, but if the lessees agree to further privacy screens, this could be considered as an amendment to the DA.
The spokesperson said potential impacts on neighbours and adjoining developments were considered in the assessment and through representations received.
All known neighbouring lessees of a development application are notified, and notifications are issued on the planning website, the DA finder app and with signage on the site.
The Meriton development required a planning study to be lodged to address the design matters, as well as being referred to the Design Review Panel for advice.
The spokesperson said the new planning system, which would include a new Territory Plan and introduce District Strategies, would ensure that the impact of growth and change on social and physical infrastructure could be managed in a way that made Canberra more liveable.
“The new planning system will also allow development assessment to consider cumulative impacts, which is not currently a tool available to development assessors,” the spokesperson said.