It's been a busy and, one suspects, highly satisfying week for Andrew Barr. On Monday, just days after declaring he wanted a six-fold increase in the permanent population of the city centre, the Chief Minister attended the topping-out ceremony of a new apartment building on the former site of Canberra House, one which will add another 191 apartments to the central business district's housing stock.
Then on Wednesday he was in Dickson to preside over the start of demolition work on the Northbourne Avenue public housing precinct. Efforts last year by various parties to preserve the Bauhaus-inspired flats, pair houses and maisonettes proved unexpectedly willing, forcing the government to alter the scope and scale of its Northbourne Avenue renewal plans. It must, therefore, have given the Chief Minister some small pleasure to see an obstacle to his plans reduced to rubble.
Afterwards, Mr Barr was moved to comment that "a number of people have been very keen to see this development project commence and to see some real signs that Northbourne Avenue is about to begin a transformation". When asked about his previous strong opposition to retaining any of the precinct, Mr Barr responded that "life goes on", adding that "sometimes it takes a chief minister to push a little harder in order to get a little more done, more quickly in this city. I'm prepared to do that in relation to this corridor".
Mr Barr's strong support for development proposals modest and grand, public and private, has been one of the defining traits of his chief ministership. And to the extent that these projects create jobs, drive economic activity and deliver profits, attitudes to his various initiatives have been generally positive – most especially in the private property and construction sectors, of course. However, enthusiasm is by no means across-the-board, in part, this is because initiatives like the Northbourne Avenue renewal, the city to the lake plan, and the recently announced Manuka Oval redevelopment proposal will fundamentally alter Canberra's appearance and feel. And people rarely embrace change wholeheartedly, especially if they feel their existing lifestyle may be compromised or threatened.
Cities are constantly evolving, however, and it's desirable that governments seek to guide and shape this process according to sound planning and social. Whatever one might think about the merits of suburban infill, new public transport systems, and the greater utilisation of public assets like sports arenas, the economic and environmental arguments for them are reasonably compelling. But people want, or at least hope, that the politicians and planners shilling new developments are respectful of history and heritage, and receptive to alternative ideas and proposals. And they expect that the proposals will be in keeping with the city beautiful principles that Walter Burley Griffin incorporated in his original design for Canberra. It's not particularly clear Mr Barr appreciates this.
It's arguable his government has been reasonably adept at heeding public complaints and dialling back developments like that proposed for the old Yarralumla brickworks. But it's also possible to detect something of the ambit claim in these proposals. That is, they're made deliberately unpalatable in expectation of an eventual concessionary counter-offer – one that's not open to further negotiation.
Cynicism is evident elsewhere, too. It's arguable, for example, that the government has embraced the light rail concept not because it believes it to be the best public transport option for Canberra but because it thinks this will help justify and enable its Northbourne Avenue plans.
What Mr Barr has sold as an overdue renewal of a tired and run-down gateway now looks increasingly like a plan whose overriding aim is to maximise returns from land sales and development deals. Certainly, there's been little discussion of the aesthetics of the new gateway, and whether it will incorporate any architecturally significant structures, Other than a tramline, no one really knows what Northbourne will look like – though fears are growing that it will resemble a nondescript canyon lined with cookie-cutter apartment and office blocks. Mr Barr would help dispel such fears, and achieve greater public acceptance of his government's plans, if he were to be seen rubbing shoulders more often with architects and town planners rather than hobnobbing with private developers.