Lake-city revamp a bridge too far

It’s hard to know what to make of Chief Minister Katy Gallagher’s recently announced City to the Lake project. Stripped of its more fanciful components, it seems to be a repackaged version of some familiar ideas.In fact, key parts of the project – to integrate City Hill with Civic and to develop the West Basin of the lake – originated in the National Capital Authority’s widely critiqued Griffin Legacy plan of 2006. The National Capital Plan has already been amended to accommodate these changes, so the forthcoming ”consultation” period is clearly about endorsement rather than debate.

We are supposed to be excited by the visionary elements depicted in the ”fly-through” video (citytolake.com.au). But I remain unconvinced. Connecting the city to the lake sounds like an excellent idea, except that, as currently presented, it means doing away with large chunks of Acton Park – that is, the public open space, car parks and parkland that runs from just north of Commonwealth Avenue Bridge, right the way around almost to the National Museum of Australia.

These foreshore areas are heavily used by Canberrans and by visitors. You can park the car, go for a bike ride or for a walk by the lake, walk the dog, buy an ice-cream or hire a pedal-boat. Admittedly, the National Capital Authority has done very little to maintain, let alone enhance, this area over the years and the western sections of it are looking very scruffy indeed. But some imaginative landscaping, coupled with some sensitive redevelopment, would cost the public purse very little and would preserve a precious community asset.

As Canberrans showed in their successful fight some years back to save the land surrounding the Albert Hall, we care about preserving the values embodied in the building and planning of our city, particularly around Lake Burley Griffin. The ACT government and the NCA clearly think those values are incompatible with substantial population growth. They envisage another 15,000-20,000 people becoming residents of the Canberra City area over the next two decades. Some additional population will certainly need to be housed, but are the grandiose, expensive schemes outlined in City to the Lake really the way to achieve this?

It is true that what used to be called Civic has not been well served by development over the past two decades. The advent of the Canberra Centre hollowed out retail activity in Garema Place and in the Sydney and Melbourne buildings. It would be nice if City Hill (the one flying the ACT flag) were to be more accessible to citizens, although ringing it with buildings, which the NCA wants to do, does not really answer this purpose. It is true that removing through traffic takes the pressure off Vernon Circle. The problem, of course, is, where will all these cars actually go? The current project suggests diversion to London Circuit, and further afield, to the new Majura Parkway, and perhaps to Gungahlin Drive. Does this really make sense?

I thought sustainability was about repairing, reusing and recycling? According to City to the Lake, it is too difficult to do this to significant Canberra facilities. We are told that it will be too expensive to refurbish Bruce Stadium and we should consider building another stadium on the site of the current Civic pool. How will people get to the new stadium? By light rail? Similarly, the National Convention Centre cannot be refurbished. A new site must be found for it, too.

But it is the wishful thinking about residential building that has me most worried. As many people have pointed out, the planning of Canberra is distorted by the city’s financial situation. Raising cash from land development is clearly not sustainable, but it drives a good deal of the penchant for more and higher densities wherever they can be accommodated. There is money to be made from selling sites with views.

The reality is that the area between City Hill and the Lake can be developed only with a good deal of difficulty and (public) infrastructural expense. The NCA’s architects have suggested that Parkes Way should be split, so that, if the plan goes ahead, apartments can be accessed by a network of roads running on bridges above the through road. Even so, there is not a lot of room for development, particularly in the most desirable area, closest to the lake.

This is where the ”extras” of City to the Lake – the urban beach, the water gardens and boardwalks – come in. City to the Lake tells us that this is how the public connection with the lake will be maintained in the future. At the same time, by shifting public activity into the lake itself, more land is freed up for development.

Many people (both young and old) like West Basin as it is – or as it could be, if it were properly looked after. But even if you ”buy” the idea of the urban beach and the public walkways, I very much doubt that you will get them. What will, in fact, happen is that when it comes to the point, no money will be available for these public amenities.

There must also be questions about the impact of the new buildings on the lake itself. The NCA does not have the funds to maintain the ecological health of the lake as it is. It seems unlikely that money for adequate stormwater management, let alone for the purification-type water gardens envisaged in City to the Lake, will be available in the future.

Then there is the phantasm of light rail. It crops up in the City to the Lake ”fly-through” video, in the form of an elegant and peaceful tram gliding through futuristic streets. What is it about light rail (aka trams) that holds such sway over many otherwise sensible people? I know the Greens hold the balance of power, but in the case of light rail, Labor may have conceded too much in return for government.

At the last election, most Canberrans did not vote for the Greens. They voted for either the ALP or the Liberal Party. Neither party was in favour of proceeding immediately (if at all) with light rail, for the very good reason that it will cost a great deal of money, and in the short to medium term, improving the bus service is a much more cost-effective option.

Even the proponents of light rail must be dismayed at some of the claims made for it. We know that public transport is a hard sell in Canberra. Yet the marketing for City to the Lake implies that Capital Metro (the light-rail network and the buses) will not only cater for the transport needs of the 15,000-20,000 people who will ultimately live in the new apartments, but for visitors to the new convention centre and stadium. This does seem rather far-fetched. Canberrans of the future (as well as visitors to the city) will want to use cars to get around, and will demand space to park them, just as much as they do now.

Visions are fine. But what Canberra needs is common sense, a sense of proportion and a bit more confidence in proclaiming and developing its traditional values. Unfortunately, I have an uneasy feeling that between them, the ACT government, the National Capital Authority and the developers, are in danger of making a mess of our city.

In launching her plan, the Chief Minister managed to use the words ”vibrant”, ”dynamic” and ”sustainable” all in the one sentence, which is pretty good going. But what Canberra City really needs in its 100th year is good, competent planning that is fiscally realistic and respects the open spaces and parklands around the lake. It would be a terrible irony if, in connecting the city to the lake, an important part of the lake itself were to be put out of reach of many Canberra residents.

First appeared in the Canberra Times 6 April 2013

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