The next phase of the city’s cultural precinct transformation, including a new Canberra Theatre, appears imminent, although construction is not expected to start until mid-decade and completion may not be until 2028.
The ACT Government has reaffirmed that the theatre and cultural precinct remains the priority project over a city stadium and a new convention centre but is unable to provide a precise timeline for its development.
A government spokesperson said detailed design work on the new theatre and the broader precinct would take place over the next few years, building on previous work.
“Construction of the theatre and some of the precinct is likely over the middle of the decade. Depending on the design and complexity of construction, it could be a two to three-year build,” the spokesperson said.
“More precise dates on construction commencement and conclusion will be available once the procurement process is complete.”
Chief Minister Andrew Barr had earlier said the first sod would be turned in 2024 but indicated last October when he delivered the ACT Budget that would not be possible due to the demands the pandemic had made on government spending.
“Unless we can find an alternative revenue source to fund it, and a lot can change in a few years, it’s sitting mid-decade in the infrastructure list,” he said at the time.
Major Projects Canberra chief Duncan Edgehill confirmed this before Estimates last year, saying the Budget had allocated $2 million for reference design and business case development, including technical analysis, utilities planning and preliminary procurement work.
The new design work is expected to take at least two years.
The government spokesperson refuted any suggestion that the project was languishing or that the process had been recently kickstarted after concerns about delays.
“The process has continued along the planning pathway, noting the COVID response has impacted on, and continues to impact, government resources and budgets,” the spokesperson said.
“The project is not off track. The 2021-2022 Territory budget provided $4.4 million for the development of the business case for the theatre, works to the theatre and CMAG. The government will continue to progress the project and further funding announcements will be made in due course.”
Funding for the project is expected to be a mix of capital works allocations and contributions for future land sales in the city, and it is expected to include a number of commercial components such as retail, residential and hotels.
This will mean participation from the private sector but a decision has not been made on the final delivery model, although the government said it was unlikely to be a “Light Rail or Courts Precinct” style public-private partnership.
The most obvious land sale would be the adjacent car park opposite the Sydney Building, but the car park next to the Law Courts is already on the market, and Section 63 opposite the QT Hotel on the proposed light rail line is listed in the ACT Government’s Indicative Land Release Program for 2022-23.
It appears the theatre itself will not have dedicated underground parking. The government spokesperson said adjacent land sales sites would need to provide parking and this was likely to include basement and/or structured car parking.
The spokesperson also rejected any notion that previous design and planning work had come to nought.
“Previous scoping and design work is an integral part of the next steps of the detailed design of the theatre project,” the spokesperson said.
“Equally, the early work on the broader precinct and its principles for programming, curation, development and implementation will be built upon in the next stage.”
Mr Edgehill told Estimates that the project would not be working off a blank sheet but “working off the back of activities that we have already undertaken”.
That included a design and technical analysis for the theatre valued at $544,500, and a business case in collaboration with the City Renewal Authority.
Last year’s Budget also gave funding to the City Renewal Authority for the preparation of the Canberra Civic and Culture District Concept.
The government spokesperson confirmed that Canberra Museum and Gallery and the library would be included in the district, and other cultural bodies could join them.
Although the mix for the district or addition of any other bodies and venues has not been determined, the government remains open to commercial discussions with appropriate cultural partners.
” The intent of the project will be to provide opportunity for the area to be recognised for the diversity of its events and programs,” the spokesperson said.
At this stage, the theatre project will include a new 2000 seat theatre that will have a bigger stage to cater for all touring productions, the existing theatre repurposed with a flexible flat floor suitable for live music and other events, and a possible 300-seat studio to replace the small Courtyard Theatre.
The popular Playhouse looks likely to remain as it is.
The Civic Square precinct, including the theatre, is heritage-listed, and a conservation management plan is being prepared for the ACT Heritage Council.
The project sits on designated land, so final approval rests with the National Capital Authority.