28 August 2017

The mystery of the Constitution Ave upgrade

| Paul Costigan
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Back in 2013 plans were announced for the next stage of Canberra’s Constitution Avenue.

Unfortunately, the announcement raised the very ludicrous expectation that Constitution Avenue was to be Canberra’s Champs-Elysees. Wow! Now that would be something!

After a walk along the newly upgraded street and having observed the new layouts and street furniture, I would challenge anyone to favourably compare the Constitution Ave to the busy, noisy, chaotic, and beautiful Champs-Elysees.

What we have along our Constitution Avenue is a competent example of contemporary street design. During my walk for a closer look at the layout, the plants, the paving and the street furniture, I could see nothing special about the design outcomes.

I do admit that when compared to what was there previously, it is an improvement. Congratulations must go the NCA staff or whoever was responsible for the initiative to make the place a little more interesting.

However, there are significant mysteries associated with this upgrade.

One puzzle is that an architectural firm from interstate carried out the job. If the reason for this was to deliver a very different design solution, I missed something when I went for my walk.

Years ago on two different occasions, I talked about the importance of building up local expertise through a strategy of ensuring that local firms are given a priority for work of this nature.

Both the chiefs I spoke to agreed and were to look into this. Never happened! Am I surprised?

As was mentioned here on RiotACT a couple of weeks ago, such jobs could very easily be contracted out to local firms who, in this case, specialise in street and landscape design.

It is definitely time in the growth of this city to do the right thing by local designers and employ local firms whenever possible instead of bringing in interstate architectural consultants.

Such a strategy should not always exclude outside designers. For instance, projects could be opened up to outsiders when specialist expertise is not available locally. In such instances, the brief could require interstate firms to partner with locals.

But for the vast majority of landscape projects, as with this Constitution Ave project, the design jobs should stay local.

I suspect several of our well-experienced local firms could have easily done the job – and possibly have risen to the challenge to do something innovative.

The next issue is really puzzling. This upgrade was awarded the top award by the ACT Chapter of the Institute of Architects. I’ll say that again – a straightforward landscape design project got the top architect award.

So we are to believe that out of all the work undertaken by architects across Canberra in recent years, all those commercial buildings and all those residents, this street design work was the most outstanding success story in architecture for 2016-2017?

When I read that result, I had to read the article again to make sure what I was reading was correct. Then I researched as much as you can online to look at the other award winners.

Here’s that link to the winners as showcased by the Institute – see what you think. (Warning –there is another strange one listed)

I have asked around and still cannot find anyone who agrees with this level of architecture award for this landscape design outcome. It remains a mystery.

I just do not see what they saw and I do not buy the spin that has been written about the finished project. Maybe soon all will be revealed as to why this was an award winner – maybe “the truth is out there.”

To finish on the most important point:

Local procurement agencies that look after our landscape/ street / park design projects should focus local resources on building up local expertise. There are firms here in Canberra that are very capable of delivering on good design projects – large and small.

It would be great to challenge them with larger and more complex projects. And it would be logical to use our local resources to increase local expertise.

‘Jobs & Growth!’ (Where have I heard that before?)

Do you have any views on the upgrade of Constitution Avenue?

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It’s not realistic to expect the ACT government to give preference to local firms for a project of this nature. Firstly, although managed by the ACT government, the Constitution Ave upgrade was funded by the Commonwealth and is very much a national rather than local or territory project. More importantly, the ACT government, like other all other national, state and territory governments across Australia and New Zealand, is prohibited from giving preference to local suppliers under the ANZ government procurement agreement. For Canberra-based firms the downside of this is that they have to compete for local projects against firms from across the two countries, but the upside is that they can tap into a much bigger market.

Just because a B-grade spin hack made a ‘ludicrous’ comparison to the Champs-Elysees doesn’t devalue the project any more than the pathetic references by Melbourne boosters to the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street devalues the renaissance of that city. The value of the Constitution Avenue upgrade lies in the potential of the strip, not what was there before the project was funded. I like what’s happening at the Campbell end (despite the failure to carry the upgrade through to Blamey Crescent), and the prospects for a UNSW campus opposite the CIT is visionary on the part of that university and the ACT government.

It’s a real shame that the upgrade stops short of actually completing the base of Griffin’s national triangle to its full intended width. Right now this ‘grand boulevard’ awkwardly narrows to a single carriageway just before Creswell St, with the remaining stretch to the Russell corner being left as backwater access road. I find this diminishes the overall impact of the project.

The OP said:

“Local procurement agencies that look after our landscape/ street / park design projects should focus local resources on building up local expertise. There are firms here in Canberra that are very capable of delivering on good design projects – large and small.”

And I say – rubbish! Assuming we’re talking about government procurement, the local procurement agencies should focus on delivering value for money for the taxpayer. If that can be done though local companies, then all well and good. If not, then they miss out. Developing local talent may be one of the factors in assessing value for money, but it shouldn’t be the dominant one.

If we’re talking about private procurement, they can do whatever they like with their money.

One reason to do this project was to eliminate that quirky little carpark on Vernon Circle which was handy when one wanted to go to the Canberra Theatre without the hassle of entering the carparks off London Circuit. Can’t have our rate payers having practical choices, can we?

I also note that those great photos you have taken were done during peak hour.

Another Labor visionary “not-needed” project.

I presume key to this was the sell off of land along the avenue. I am still struggling to understand what real functional improvements were made for end users, apart from the extra exit up the top. I suspect it was part of the decommissioning plans of civic pool, possible sell off of the CIT campus to UNSW. I would have though that the work could have laid tracks for the tram there whilst they were doing the work, or at least made it easy to do so. I hate to see what will be done when they dig the new road up again to tram tracks.
Its a great improvement, and looks nice, however I suspect its alot of of money to spend to make something look nice, as opposed to adding functionality. Unless it was all about selling real estate along the corridor, of course.

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