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Oval bid has the feel of a done deal

If GWS-Grocon executives are disappointed at having to shrink their $800 million Manuka Oval redevelopment proposal by about a third to assuage community concerns, they were hiding it well on Wednesday. Giants chief operating officer Richard Griffiths maintained that although only 650 apartments (rather than 1000) would be built – and the number of underground car parks provided would go up 20 per cent to 1620 spaces – the consortium still hoped to spend the original $80 million to $100 million budgeted on stadium refurbishments.

Grocon's national design manager, David Waldren, was equally sanguine, saying that while the privately owned Melbourne property developer was "very happy" with the original proposal, the new proposal still met its approval. And in a rare moment of magnanimity towards the proposal's critics, Mr Waldren said "I don't think we have attempted to land an ocean liner in Manuka. We've always said the project will be open to design competitions and that we'd have multiple hands delivering different parts. Those things are subsequent stages, they're not available for the community to see at the moment, and that, I suspect is part of the issue that we've had."

His observation was both perceptive and revealing. The announcement that GWS/Grocon planned to build a large-scale hotel/apartment/retail and commercial complex on roughly two hectares of public land surrounding the heritage-listed Manuka pool (in return for improvements to the oval proper and its surrounds) was always destined to be controversial. The inexact nature of the proposal, and the revelation that the proponents wanted to resume part of the pool grounds, made it highly controversial.

Ambiguity was a deliberate strategy employed by GWS/Grocon to allow it to deflect, downplay or disparage criticism of the proposal. And they were enabled in that strategy by the ACT government's unsolicited proposals process, which panders to the more paranoid notions of commercial confidentiality while carefully granting negotiating exclusivity and the protection of the petitioner's intellectual property and moral rights. Just what's innovative about proposing to build a hotel and apartments on prime public land in return for some cosmetic improvements at a sports stadium may be debated by some, but it's unlikely the Australian Patent Office would agree to moderate the discussion.

Where the GWS/Grocon proposal stands out is its close fit with the Barr government's long-held vision of turning Manuka oval into a "international-standard" sports facility surrounded by a "world-class mixed-used precinct" – without having to bother already overburdened ratepayers about the cost.

The government has said little about the bid publicly. All the indications are, however, that it's amenable. A minister's husband was allowed into the Assembly's ministerial wing to do the consortium's bidding before someone mentioned propriety. The progress of the bid through the three-stage proposal process has been swift (quicker indeed than Aquis Entertainment's unsolicited casino redevelopment proposal which was lodged ahead of it). Only two hurdles (one being a community consultation report) remain before it enters the final phase. Small wonder Mr Waldren speaks as if he considers approval to be a foregone conclusion.