Repurposing old offices for a 'cooler' city?
Alistair MacCallum is a founding director or AMC Architecture.
TT: Why is that every time we catch up you mention your passion for adaptive reuse?
AM: Canberra has one of the highest office market vacancy rates in Australia – more than 15 per cent and significant parts of Civic and some town centres are in danger of becoming holes in the urban fabric. At the same time many of these buildings lend themselves to being repurposed for a range of new uses such as apartments, student housing and affordable micro-units near employment and education opportunities, retirement living within walking distance of services and recreation activities and start-up or small businesses. Adaptive reuse could be transformational for our city – a catalyst for community reinvigoration and renewed economic activity. I believe it is the right time to get serious about urban intensification in the right areas which must surely be our city and town centres.
TT: Why won't developers take the plunge and simply repurpose all of these underutilised buildings?
AM: This is complex. Adaptive reuse projects are not easy to pull off as evidenced by the relatively limited number that have transpired over the years – projects such as The Globe and The Novotel in Civic, Weedon Lodge in the old Cameron Offices in Belconnen and the Abode Hotel in Juliana House Woden are rare examples. Refurbishment / repurposing old buildings is often a similar order of cost to building from scratch and so to be viable in the current planning framework, a developer needs to buy such buildings at a fire-sale price of which, despite the high vacancy rates, there are very few.
TT: What are the benefits of adaptive reuse?
AM: At a personal level I have always found the juxtaposition of old and new really interesting and in a city as young as Canberra, we need to build on the existing urban fabric to create new layers of interest – a finer grain and in doing so a more interesting, maybe even "cooler" city in which to live and to visit. People universally feel good about buildings and spaces that are old and purposeless being transformed into something new and exciting – it just makes sense. It is also environmentally responsible with the reuse of an old building potentially saving an astounding 95 per cent embodied energy relative to constructing a new building. More people living in civic centres will support existing and new businesses and recreational, retail, eating and social activities making our civic spaces places that enrich our lives and that we can be proud of.
TT: How do we release the shackles?
AM: Like Postcode 3000 for the Melbourne CBD in the 1990s, an acknowledgement of the magnitude of the problem by both building owners and the ACT government is finally occurring with the recent Transforming Canberra's City Centre discussion paper conceived by the PCA and Canberra CBD Limited. But real action is required; genuine incentives and I don't just mean tax relief although this cannot be understated. Increased development rights to achieve additional building height, air rights to allow structures such as balconies to be constructed beyond the building line, a new planning framework to specifically support adaptive reuse, allowing greater use of the extensive verges for more ground-level activity including additional street parking are just some of the ideas that may help release the shackles. Property owners should also be rewarded for working collaboratively, on a precinct basis, to solve their collective problems to mutual benefit. Adaptive reuse is a genuine and important opportunity for our city as it comes of age.