What can Melbourne teach Canberra about inner-city renewal? A great deal, according to the Property Council of Australia (ACT), which this week launched a discussion paper long and strong on advocacy of initiatives that are popularly credited with turning the southern capital into the "economically and socially vibrant" city it is today. Key to Melbourne's metamorphosis was "Postcode 3000", a project which promoted the redevelopment and upgrade of under-used and aged commercial buildings into accommodation and apartments for visitors and long-term residents alike. The Property Council believes that emulating Postcode 3000 here – in a city centre which has a large stock of secondary office buildings past their prime, under-used and ideal for redevelopment – could be similarly transformative.
The integrated master plans, city plans, redevelopment proposals, overarching strategies and other assorted utopian visions for central Canberra that have rolled off the printing presses have been so numerous over the years that most people have trouble recalling them in any detail. The Property Council's addition to this extensive collection, "Transforming Canberra's City Centre" is advocacy, pure and simple. Which is not to say it lacks merit or is unworthy of consideration.
A strong argument can be mounted to the effect that the city centre (excluding the Canberra Centre) is the red-headed stepchild of Canberra planners: neglected, mistreated (particularly in terms of any kind of devotion to Walter Burley Griffin's original vision for how Civic should be laid out and developed) and unloved by businesspeople and visitor alike. Bunda Street and the Canberra Centre may have been much fussed over by government and planners but are essentially undistinguished replicas of shopping malls and pedestrian walkways the world over. Garema Place, Petrie Plaza and other areas may be authentically Canberra, but they languish untended in a mockery of good stewardship and planning vision. Rejuvenation of the older parts of the city is frequently spasmodic and arbitrary in nature: the laneways and courtyards of the Melbourne building have been given over to cafes and restaurants – a very Melbourne touch. No such transformative wand has been waved over the fire-damaged Sydney Building, however. And if the redevelopment of the Allawah, Began and Currong public housing complexes is looming, the forecast upgrade of Constitution Avenue, a central plank of the Griffin Legacy plan, seems to have slipped off the radar.
If expanding the permanent resident population of a central business district attracts investment, boosts economic activity, and ensures a lively and interesting cityscape all day long rather than just during standard business hours (and the Melbourne experience suggests this to be the case), then the Property Council's ideas would seem to be deserving of serious contemplation The icing on the cake would, of course, be the stimulus to the (overdue) rejuvenation or redevelopment of older, second-grade office buildings and the reduction of commercial and retail vacancy rates, both of which are hovering around an uncomfortably high 15 per cent.
All this ought to be music to the ears of the Barr government, which is not only enthusiastically pro-development but a strong believer in the need for greater population density in inner-city areas. However, there is a catch. The Property Council believes that the government may need to surrender some the fees and charges associated with redevelopment – as well as reduce planning restrictions like height and setback rules – if business is to come on board with the necessary enthusiasm and financial backing. The pay-off, however, would be "a unified city with a focus, heart and soul". Indeed, the council's paper points to New Acton and the Kingston Foreshore as examples of what private-sector vision and thinking can achieve in Canberra.
While both these precincts have been lauded for enhancing the appeal of Canberra's inner-urban spaces, they were in many respects greenfield developments. Brownfield developments frequently involve lease variation charges and are generally of a different stripe altogether. And while this Labor government has shown a willingness to be allow developers a certain flexibility, it is also desperate for as much property revenue as it can grab. The Property Council's contribution to the debate about Civic's rejuvenation is a thoughtful one, if one with strings attached.