Heritage and community groups have expressed relief that the ACT Government has cancelled its contract with property giant Geocon to develop the Kingston Arts Precinct and the Suburban Land Agency is taking charge of the project.
National Trust ACT president Gary Kent said the organisation was delighted with the decision, while Kingston Barton Residents Group president Richard Johnston, who sat on the Community Panel for the project, said there was “general relief that the group no longer had to deal with Geocon”.
Comment was sought from Geocon, for which this project would have been a signature and prestigious development, but it is leaving all the talking to the government.
The two parties are now involved in commercial negotiations towards a “mutually acceptable outcome”.
Mr Kent said the Trust knew things were going badly and had been worried about the dearth of information about the project in recent times.
“The Community Panel had not met for 12 months, so clearly, there was a lot of internal discussion about how to proceed,” he said.
“We’re really pleased from a heritage point of view that one of the main reasons for the change in plans is to ensure that the heritage aspects of the site are maintained and respected.”
Mr Kent said that some minor changes went part of the way to addressing the Trust’s concerns, but the preponderance of commercial development at the site remained a worry.
Other issues included the tall buildings on Wentworth Avenue obscuring the views of the important heritage buildings, whether it would be fit for purpose for the arts groups, the potential impact on the Old Bus Depot Markets and the four-storey car park.
“I think the government has come to the view that it was simply not tenable any longer to deal with Geocon on the heritage aspects,” he said.
Mr Johnston said Geocon and its architects Fender Katsaladis would not budge on the scheme put to the community in July 2019 which ignored the 2014 Master Plan and offered a concept based on medieval Siena in Italy.
He said the Master Plan allowed for more open space, maintained the vistas and did not propose development along Wentworth Avenue.
The car park to replace the current parking spaces that would be lost was a major sore point as it intersected the view lines and dominated the middle of the site.
“They refused to sink it into the ground a bit to make it less conspicuous and refused to consider any alternatives to putting all the car parking in this massive structure in the middle of the site,” he said.
Mr Johnston said the community was looking forward to a much better, more responsive community consultation process, referring back to the principles and layout of the community agreed and government endorsed Master Plan.
“That’s the starting point,” he said.
Both he and Mr Kent lamented how arts groups had been muzzled throughout the process and hoped they would now be able to talk openly about their needs and views on the project.
“There was a view that some of the arts organisations didn’t feel they were being looked after,” Mr Kent said.
He said the complexity of the site and the community demands may have made it difficult for Geocon to see a way through for the project to stack up financially.
“But the government’s responsibility overall is to make sure that the precinct is protected and used to community benefit, not to the return to developers,” he said.
Both he and Mr Johnston said the public-private partnership model had worked with the Canberra Brickworks development in Yarralumla, but in hindsight, it was not appropriate for the Kingston Arts Precinct.
Mr Johnston was glad that the government was now taking the lead.
“We are hoping that the government will now be much more hands-on in managing the process and much more receptive to the community and heritage concerns,” he said.
The government says re-engagement activities will commence as early as December.