A Long Term Plan is Vital for Lake Burley Griffin and Civic

Tony Powell - August 18, 2016

The following comments on the proceedings of the Lake Burley Griffin Guardians public meeting were made by Tony Powell, former Director of the National Capital Development Commission

The references by Ian Wood-Bradley and Malcolm Snow about the intended layouts by Walter Burley Griffin for Civic, West Basin and Kings and Commonwealth avenues are pointless, simplistic and unhelpful.

According to Professor Paul Reid in his scholastic study “Canberra Following Griffin”, Griffin’s genius was most clearly expressed in his 1911 Federal Capital Competition entry. This plan shows West Basin as being parkland. It also shows that Civic was not intended to have a close connection with the lake foreshore parklands, including West Basin, in the manner that Ian Wood-Bradley contends. The Plan did have a curving main road close to the alignment of what is now Parkes Way.

The 1912 Plan had much the same provisions except that the central basin waterfront has a series of major buildings, backed by Public Gardens and further back an amorphous urban subdivision along the line of what is now Constitution Avenue.

The 1913 Griffin Plan that accompanied his ‘Report Explanatory’ confirmed the West Basin parklands but added buildings along the inside frontage of both Commonwealth and Kings avenues so as to make a built form connection to both Civic and the Market Centre areas respectively. Paul Reid comments that “The crisp geometry of the competition design has started to unravel..” The NCDC development of the Lake arranged for the two avenues to be shielded by tree plantings at the point where they crossed the shoreline, which ought to be respected.

The 1918 Plan makes no alteration to the situation of the West Basin parkland, however, while it does extend what is now Marcus Clarke Street to meet up with Barrine Drive, it does not extend the Civic road network in anything like the pattern that Wood-Bradley proposes.

However, none of the above information or opinion being offered by Malcolm Snow, representing the NCA, and Ian Wood-Bradley, representing the Land Development Agency, is to the point.

What is to the point, however, is that for the past 25 years the National Capital Plan provisions relating to West Basin have protected its status as Acton Park and specified a list of uses that were consistent with its role as public open space, parkland and for the range of recreation and tourist activities that Malcolm Snow alluded to in his presentation at the Meeting. Its open space status was further confirmed by the fact that it was zoned as “National Capital Open Space System”.

However, what Mr Snow failed to mention is that all of this protection has been swept away by the fact that the National Capital Plan has been changed by Variation T.9 to ‘Residential’ and in the supporting documentation, a gridiron street pattern has been imposed over the whole of Acton Park, not in accordance with any of Griffin’s schemes but in the manner that Ian Wood-Bradley has advocated in his presentation to establish the so-called ‘city-to-the lake’ connection. On the face of it the NCA seems to have made this change without offering any explanation or justification, nor any public consultation either, simply to respond to an initiative of the Land Development Agency.

Mr Snow referred to the experience of riverfront development at South Bank schemes in Melbourne and Brisbane, however, in both those schemes the predominant land uses are parkland, entertainment and tourist facilities, not wall-to-wall apartment development.

There are two critical planning strategies that need to be put in place to sort out this potentially disastrous mess. The NCA needs to formulate a master plan for the whole of the Lake Burley Griffin parklands extending from East Basin wetlands at one end to Scrivener Dam wall at the other, based on assessments of likely future recreation demand throughout the whole Lake BurleyGriffin system for a future population of about 700,000 in about 2140, which about 25 years hence. Accordingly the Authority has to cease its current ad hoc practice of random alienation of public open space scattered all over the place whenever the ACT Government or some other pressure group feels it would like to build the odd boat shed, or hospice, or block of flats or waterfront industry activity, or any other anti-public interest scheme that springs to mind. The needs of a population of 700,000 will be a lot different and a lot more demanding than anything that has arisen to date, which the NCA has a statutory obligation to start to know about.

The other equally compelling need is that the ACT Government, for its part, needs to formulate a Planning Scheme for Civic based on the Chief Minister’s stated aim to have a target population of 50,000 residents, which will be nothing more than a ‘pious hope’ until there is a combined land use/transportation strategy and public works program that lays down how that stated residential target and the economic prospects of the CBD generally, will be achieved.

As a built environment a significant proportion of the Central Busines District is in a dilapidated shape. The worst economic threat, however, is the fact that the Canberra Centre shopping mall is becoming a retail anachronism, as are the other three town centre malls, in the face of internet shopping growth that doesn’t have to require costly buildings and high rental costs in order to service shoppers. According to  ACT property industry figures in this regard, shop vacancies are running at around 13-17% and worsening throughout Canberra retail areas generally.

It is apparent that the obvious lack of adequate town planning resources in the case of both ACTPLA and the NCA means that there are no ongoing investigation and research programs looking into future community needs and, consequently, no preparation of town planning schemes that ensure the provision of infrastructure to meet socio-economic needs and adequate protection of both the natural and the built environment either.

It has now been revealed by the LDA that Variation T.9 is impractical, mainly because the cost of depressing or bridging Parkes Way, coupled with the provision of aquatic, cultural, convention centre and tourism facilities, far outweighs the value of the prospective financial benefits. The implied conclusion is that, apart from a 50 metre wide foreshore pathway, pretty much the whole of West Basin will be filled with a solid mass of 6-7 storey apartment buildings that, when viewed from the northern shore of the Lake, is bound to look awful.

Such development would certainly be of no benefit to the residents and businesses in Civic. Accordingly one has to ask the obvious question why would any tourists be attracted to visit Civic, much less want to stay there? Where will the prospective 50,000 residents find outdoor areas for active and passive recreation, given that are virtually none at the moment as Glebe Park is being eaten away by apartments and prospective Casino extensions and is not conveniently placed for existing residents anyway? Putting this in another way. If West Basin became the site for Canberra’s first international, waterfront hotel, in a parkland setting, would that not be a much more beneficial proposition for the CBD?

There are a series of critical town planning needs to be met in all of this. ACTPLA seems to have been sidelined by the LDA, while both ACTPLA and the NCA need to have better human resources if the future of Civic and the Lake Burley Griffin open space system, are both to be restored.

Tony Powell