National Capital Plan Changes Are a Travesty

Lake Burley Griffin Guardians - August 5, 2015

This article was first published in the Canberra Times, August the 5th, 2015.

The National Capital Authority’s proposed changes to the National Capital Plan as it pertains to City Hill and West Basin is a travesty being forced on Canberra. While there are some sound approaches in the NCA draft, good judgment does not extend to City Hill and West Basin.

With regard to City Hill, the draft identifies as a major national objective, the aim “to respect the geometry and intent of the Griffins’ formally adopted plan for Canberra”. However, the City Hill Precinct Code cunningly states that

“sites within City Hill Precinct are to be developed in accordance with their national importance, at the apex of the National Triangle”.

Those sites are not detailed but grandiose development is proposed with buildings at a height of 25 metres (six to eight storeys) between Vernon Circle and London Circuit and confronting towers (around 75m high) at each precinct entry. The towers are the “concrete candles” on the City Hill “concrete cake” and at 18 storeys they will match the height of the Capital Tower Apartments. The national significance of the towers is not explained.

The towers are shown in the draft as bird’s eye illustrations in Figures 47 and 48 but the perspective diminishes the impression of the actual scale while the section, Figure 43, does not delineate the towers at all. At heights of 75m the towers will dominate vistas to City Hill. The landmark of City Hill Park will be but a spot of green glimpsed between two towers from the major avenues. City Hill flagpole will become a five-storey high caricature against the 18-storey towers. The dignified and tranquil majesty of City Hill will remain but its importance as a significant landmark will be lost.

Many greatly loved and still thriving cities in the world depend on carefully managed mid-rise development such as Central Paris with a height limit of seven storeys, Washington with downtown heights of 10 storeys, while central Barcelona and Prague have five to 10 storey limits.

An objective in the draft for the City Hill Precinct is to create a ‘vibrant, interesting and lively centre’. Can this objective be achieved by the proposed development heights that will smother the landscape ambience and block vistas to and from City Hill? The objective of national significance would be far better expressed by omitting the towers and having areas of sweeping open space from London Circuit to City Hill, particularly at the junctions of Commonwealth and Northbourne​ Avenues.

For West Basin, the packing-in of buildings shown in the draft represents the destruction of valued urban lakeshore landscape. This development is not a new proposal. It appears in the Griffin Legacy Plan 2004 and was strongly criticised at that time for being too excessive. Yet the proposal was amended into the planning instrument and continues to exert an unwelcome authority that has little environmental merit. The development will unbalance the landscape setting of Commonwealth Bridge that has open landscape on both its northern and southern approaches. The open vistas westwards to the Brindabella and Bullen Ranges, from the northern end of Commonwealth Avenue, will be blocked.

There is adequate room elsewhere in the city and nearby suburbs for residential infill without the need to hijack much-loved lakeshore open space. The Lake Burley Griffin Guardians believe lakeshore open-space parklands should be sacrosanct and not utilised as real estate for the territory’s economy.

Who is directing Canberra’s planning? The politicians, advisory boards appointed by politicians, the Land Development Authority, ambitious developers or professional planners? Planning Minister Mick Gentleman in his recent radio interview with Alex Sloan stated that ACT Planning represents community views. Are there any community groups other than property developers who wish this development for City Hill and West Basin?

Canberra desperately needs politicians and experts who genuinely want to resolve planning issues and help Canberra retain its widely acclaimed beauty, which is now under threat.