The future of Woden's town centre: will it be heaven or hell?
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The future of Woden's town centre: will it be heaven or hell?

Woden town centre is a land of contrasts.

In one section you find a sparkly, glass-sided building and stunning, national broadband network-connected apartments, part of the rapidly growing medium density development that is adding population density, and hence intensity, to the place.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

But nearby you stumble over abandoned buildings or walk through a windswept square that has all the charm of a milk crate.

Overall, however, you might calculate that Woden is relatively well off – it may not be the flavour of the moment, like Gungahlin where the money is flooding in, but neither is it as sad as neglected Tuggeranong, where many shops and offices are vacant.

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Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

You could say Woden approximates the geographical centre of Canberra and on that basis, its future is assured. It's easily assessable by car, public transport and bike and has plenty of high quality space surrounding it.

It has some of the strongest retail, club and leisure facilities in Canberra. The proximity of the Canberra Hospital is an important factor and the town centre includes a very strong services and trades area.

However, in the short term, the town will be hit hard by the significant losses of public sector jobs, including the transfers of whole departments out of the centre.

Despite – or perhaps to contradict – that blow, Woden is undergoing a reboot, with (another) master plan on show.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

It promises even more residential units will be built, the expansion of the mall, a new bus interchange and possibly a community centre.

As part of the refresh, it was hoped the Alexander and Albemarle buildings, which have stood vacant and forlorn for years, would be demolished. However the proposal by the Doma Group for a $118 million rebuild on the site has apparently been put on ice, due to uncertainty about the public service cuts.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

The Woden bus interchange is long overdue for modernisation after decades of use. Chief Minister Katy Gallagher has spoken of spending time in her youth in that concrete desert.

The new bus interchange is a key ingredient in freshening up the town centre. Buses will flow through rather than grind their way around a tight radius turn. And passengers will be protected from the elements, with the set-up expected to be similar to the new interchange on the edge of the Belconnen town centre.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

The Woden Green residential development is going ahead on the south-east corner, with 1500 dwellings to be built eventually in the "residential lifestyle estate", which will have a new pedestrian bridge to the town centre over Yarralumla Creek.

However, the Woden Valley Community Council is concerned at the lack of recreational facilities, following the closure of the pitch-n-putt centre and the bowling green.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

The council is keen to see the town centre improved but successfully opposed the so-called Woden 9 project for three high-rise buildings in an area of car parks between the Tradies Club and the Woden Library.

The Land Development Agency proposed 28, 20 and 15-storey buildings to accommodate up to 670 residential units, with retail and commercial space on the lower floors, to be built along Melrose Drive and Furzer Street.

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

The Woden Valley Community Council described the buildings as a future ghetto.

If the site of the Alexander and Albemarle buildings is developed, wouldn't it be good to see a community centre and landscaped parks built in the adjacent car park?

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,

Chair of the Woden Valley Community Council, Dr. Jenny Stewart,Credit:Graham Tidy

Meanwhile, work on the multi-storey car park with a minimum of 850 spaces near the Tradies Club has been expedited.

Council president Jenny Stewart says the group has been agitating for several years for a community centre.

"A number of sites where it might go were actually pointed out on the 2004 master plan but nothing much has happened," she says.

"It remains to be seen whether the current master planning exercise will take us anywhere. So far, it has been very low-key.

"We hope to hear more about the Alexander and Albemarle redevelopment when a Doma Group representative addresses our next council meeting on September 3."

The town centre is not going backwards, Stewart says, citing the popularity of the cinema complex, the crowds of shoppers in the Westfield Mall, the Abode Hotel and the Sirius building.

"But we have never been able to get the government to really focus on Woden town centre," she says.

"In our view that has been partly caused by the division of the Woden Valley suburbs between two electorates.

"In one sense we have 12 MLAs if you count the seven Molonglo ones and the five Ginninderra ones. But in another sense we don't have any, because it's difficult to get them to focus on the needs of the town centre.

"Most people would agree the government has been really intent on centralising Canberra around what's called Canberra City, so they've put a lot of energy and effort into that, including the City to the Lake project, the Constitution Avenue area, and of course the dreaded light rail.

"I know the community councils have been concerned that the town centres have been neglected in all of this.

"Gungahlin has had a bit more attention, which obviously we don't begrudge, but there been problems with the way Belconnen has advanced. And as for Tuggeranong, it remains to be seen whether the life can really be brought back into that area around the Hyperdome.

"I think it is true to say Woden town centre has probably received even less attention than any of the other town centres but there's a lot of potential. So with a bit of imagination it could have been, and perhaps could still be, so much better.

"However, now we find the employment is moving out, the federal public service in particular is downsizing and that's affecting the office buildings around there."

The 26-storey Lovett Tower, the tallest commercial building in Canberra, is losing hundreds of public servants from the Veterans Affairs, Environment, and Prime Minister and Cabinet departments.

Jure Domazet, director of the Doma Group, says the loss of public service jobs will hit the town centre hard.

"A positive spin would be that there is not too much uncertainty about the public service in Woden," he says.

"The truth is that Woden has been king-hit with the certainty that there are both job losses and wholesale transfers of Commonwealth departments and agencies out of the town centre. It has borne the brunt of the public service cutbacks but this has escaped the attention of our elected representatives.

"It has lost whole departments to Tuggeranong and Civic, and the Department of Health, the largest single tenant, is significantly contracting in size. This reduces demand for everything in the area, be it office space, apartments, public transport or the purchase of goods and services."

Earlier this year, the Doma Group was planning to redevelop the site of the Alexander and Albermarle Buildings.

"Due to the changed market conditions, we are actively investigating our options with these buildings in the light of what is expected to be a protracted soft office market in Canberra," Domazet says.

However Planning Minister Mick Gentleman sees opportunities for buildings vacated by federal government agencies to be redeveloped for residential use.

He cites the recycling of the former Cameron Offices in Belconnen, built in the 1970s in the Brutalist structuralism style of architecture, and used by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. The building has been partially demolished and two wings converted into student accommodation.

"They refurbished all of those and made them residential accommodation, which sold really well," he says.

The interest shown in apartment complexes around Woden suggests the same transformation of former government-tenanted buildings could be as successful, he says.

Gentleman believes the Woden town centre will become a more attractive drawcard for residents as its transformation takes place.

"I think it will become more of an exciting hub with residential and services for people who live around the area and are going through, so you might see a modernisation in the way the shops operate," he says.

"In Braddon, where previously you had an industrial or commercial area, there is still a little bit of that history there that now it is much more hipster.

"People really want to live there and that is quite exciting. And if we can tap into that for Woden, we have a modern winner on the way."

The projects under way will provide multi-storey residential towers, some with restaurants and cafes at street level.

"The density brings the population, the younger people seem to like it," Gentleman says.

He cites the redevelopment of Burnie Court, the former notorious public housing estate, into the Sorell Apartments and the 123-dwelling Bellerive retirement village.

"One of the exciting things is you have that proximity to Woden but also modern things within the apartments," he says.

"The younger people want to be more connected and they had NBN connected to the apartments, so that was a fantastic selling point."

A new community centre, childcare centre and youth centre could be located together.

"We are also looking at conversations with the senior citizens club to see whether they want to remain where they are or possibly relocate to a community hub area as well," the Minister says.

As apartment complexes pop up, increasing the population density around the town centre, architect and town planner Lydia Frommer is concerned tall buildings may be too close to each other.

"High-rises by themselves are not really a bad thing, they are put there by the need to increase density," she says. "However, the relationship of the high-rise to the development adjacent to it is very important.

"I call that the negative space, because that's the space between the buildings that actually gives privacy and acoustic separation. That space between the buildings is very important."

The Lyons resident says the territory plan is not geared to handle high-rises.

"Not a lot of thought has been given to buildings that are very tall. They have to have quite a bit more negative space," she says.

"When you look at the territory plan, they treat buildings between five and eight stories the same as nine stories or more, and that nine stories can go to 30."

Frommer says the mandatory set back is six metres to the side or rear boundary, regardless of the height of the building.

She is also concerned by an ad hoc approach to planning for projects where little regard is given to adjacent sites.

"Instead of a comprehensive plan for the town centre, we're dealing with site-by-site development led by the Land Development Agency to increase densities and increase profits, which is obviously something the ACT government needs, but that comes at a price," she says.

"Each site is taken separately, not only in terms of planning for the building itself but also planning for car parking.

"Every time a development like that, high-rise or high density, is released, there is a traffic report that comes with it but the traffic report only relates to that site in isolation to other sites.

"So I believe that in the long-term the traffic issue is going to be a nightmare."

Frommer says the community does not know about a lot of development in the pipeline.

"The whole of Melrose Drive is LDA land and they are going to develop high-rises along the whole of Melrose Drive. This is not very well known," she says.

She says she made this discovery from the cover sheet of a waste management plan. "Possibly that was not a page that was supposed to be released," she says.