The Gungahlin Town Centre - A Failed Planning System Case Study
It’s been an interesting year for Gungahlin:
· On 10 February 2021 the ACT Assembly passed a motion moved by Suzanne Orr MLA “calling on the Government to support the further development of the Gungahlin region and town centre and outline how this might be achieved”.
· On 27 April 2021 the Gungahlin Community Council (GCC) called for the sale of land in the Gungahlin Town Centre be halted to prevent the land being wasted on “mixed use” developments that were almost entirely residential and contributed little if anything to the commercial, retail, community, entertainment, or employment capacity of the town centre.
· On 2 June 2021 the ACT Assembly passed a motion moved by Andrew Braddock MLA (on 11 May) calling for the Government to “direct the Suburban Land Agency to develop land in the Gungahlin Town Centre in a way that generates high quality outcomes for the community”.
· On 3 August 2021 a petition with 714 signatures sponsored by Andrew Braddock MLA was lodged with the ACT Assembly calling for the ACT Government “to immediately suspend … the sale/auction of any … sites in the Gungahlin Town Centre”.
· On 1 October the ACT Assembly’s Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services published their report on the Committee’s Inquiry into Draft Variation (DV) 364 which proposed significant changes to the Gungahlin Town Centre Precinct Code. The committee wrote in their report that “the committee is of the opinion that the Draft Variation is not fully formed and that the technical documents don’t serve to realise the objectives of the town centre plans. The committee also questions how the DV will shape the town centre and interact with the indicative land releases to lead to the stated outcomes”.
Clearly the expectations of Gungahlin residents are not being met. This article outlines why, highlighting the failings of the ACT Planning System and the apparent absence of any processes within the ACT Government to ensure that Gungahlin is completed with all the services and facilities of a typical Canberra district.
Canberra is famously laid out as a collection of “satellite towns”. A primary goal of this distributed-district design was to minimise commuting for work and to provide most of the education, health, community, sporting, recreation, retail, and entertainment services and facilities for the district’s residents within the district. These services and facilities are concentrated in a district’s town centre.
The district of Gungahlin was established in the north of Canberra in the early 1990s. Residents moving to Gungahlin have expected that the Gungahlin Town Centre would develop like the other Canberra town centres, centred around an employment base provided by a large (Federal) government agency office. For a greenfield district like Gungahlin, that is home to thousands of young families, having a major centre for employment within the local town centre has significant social and health implications. If workers don’t have long commutes, they have more quality time to spend with families and to build, belong and contribute to neighbourhood communities.
The early land use planning for the town centre was consistent with this expectation with substantial space identified for commercial office zoned appropriately in the ACT Territory Plan. As recently as 2010, the Gungahlin Town Centre Planning Report 2010 reflected this thinking “by reserving enough land for up to 200,000m2 of office space sufficient to accommodate 10,000 office jobs“.
Although reserving space for commercial offices within the town centre was necessary to enable such an outcome, history has shown that it was far from sufficient to ensure the Gungahlin town centre developed with the appropriate combination of facilities and services noted above, particularly employment. A few significant events and (in)actions have stunted the development of the town centre:
· Prior to ACT self-government, the National Capital Development Commission (NCDC) restricted the total amount of office space that could be developed in central Canberra, facilitating the construction of large commercial offices to support Federal government agencies in the town centres of Belconnen, Tuggeranong, and Woden. With the introduction of self-government, the NCDC was abolished, and no regulatory mechanism was put in place to guide/enforce where commercial space was developed and government agencies (the major employer in the ACT) were free to build offices wherever they please. The Gungahlin Town Centre is the first town centre that has been developed under self-government.
· The sale of the Canberra Airport by the Federal government led to the development of a substantial employment hub in Canberra outside the town centres, significantly increasing options for employers and reducing demand for office space with the town centres.
These events have not been sufficiently mitigated by the ACT Government to foster the development of the Gungahlin Town Centre, and further:
· The enforcement of the ACT Territory Plan, of which the Gungahlin Town Centre Precinct Code is part, has been weak, with significant variations from the ACT Territory Plan permitted at the per-site Development Application level, and erosion of the overall town centre plan through a series of territory plan variations and proposed variations.
Gungahlin Town Centre Refresh
This “weak enforcement” led to the appearance of several high-rise residential developments in the Gungahlin Town Centre from 2015 onwards in the “precinct” of the Town Centre intended to be an Office Park. This led to widespread confusion, frustration, and concern within the Gungahlin community as this represented the loss of land that could support a future employment base, consistent with the Territory Plan and other Canberra town centres.
Gungahlin Town Centre Precincts (pre-DV364, August 2015). Precinct 2b (Office Park) is now almost entirely built out as high-rise residential mixed use.
Precinct 1a – Retail Core Precinct 1b – Retail Core Mixed Use Precinct 2a – Office Core Precinct 2b – Office Park Precinct 3a – Services and Trades Precinct 3b – Major Community and Recreation Facilities Precinct 4a – Southern Transition Precinct 4b – Northern Transition
Residents have consistently indicated a strong desire for employment and services with the town centre rejecting increased residential development. The Gungahlin Community Survey in 2019 showed 85% of the 1,481 respondents wanted no more than 25% of the town centre space used for residential. This is hardly surprising given the very poor takeup of commercial/retail leases in the so-called mixed-use developments.
Gungahlin Community Survey 2019 - Q5 (1,481 responses) How much of the remaining Open Space in the Town Centre should be Residential? (vs. Business and Community Use)
Consequently, in November 2016 the Gungahlin Community Council (GCC) approached the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate (EPSDD):
“… regarding the transformation of the Office Park precinct into a very high density collection of mixed-use residential towers. It highlights the lack of cohesion there appears to be in how these developments are approved, particularly in the context of the overall town centre plan, and the community’s understanding of what is permitted.”
EPSDD agreed to undertake “a place-making review of the Gungahlin precinct plan” to examine:
· Building height and character
· Upgrading and enhancing public spaces
· Walking, cycling and road transport
The consultation undertaken by The Gungahlin Town Centre Planning Refresh (the Refresh) throughout 2017 included many different forms of engagement including a substantive evening workshop. The resultant Community Engagement Report published in May 2018 reflected much of this feedback fairly but also included the following comment in the key messages summary:
“mixed views about the potential for increasing building heights in the town centre. Concerns about increases in building height related to traffic congestion, bulk and scale, overshadowing, privacy and the interface with existing development. Support for increases in building height noted the changing character of the town centre, the need for marker buildings and the strong demand for residential development,”
All other references in the Community Engagement Report indicated strong opposition for increased residential development in the town centre consistent with the views expressed by most participants in the workshop, and residents through multiple channels. The portion of the observation underlined above therefore seemed out of place and appeared to reflect a minority position expressed by a property developer (or developers).
There was no further progress on the Refresh until the release of a document called the Gungahlin Town Centre Planning Refresh – Snapshot in November 2018. The GCC and the Gungahlin community were shocked to discover that the Snapshot recommended significant changes to the Gungahlin Precinct Code (Territory Plan) that had not been tabled and discussed during the Refresh. This included substantial changes to the amount of land zoned for commercial development (down to 65,000m2), significant increases in the amount of land zoned for mixed-use development and an alternative approach for providing for community facilities.
The publication of the Snapshot signalled the end of the Refresh project prompting the GCC to write to EPSDD to express our concerns:
… the Refresh moves Gungahlin away from the ACT stated goal of sustainability. Sustainability requires localisation of economic activity. The GCC Town Refresh continues the trend of centralisation of economic activity to Civic and the Northbourne Avenue corridor. It does this by halving the amount of space available for employment in the GCC Town Centre.
This is unacceptable as it is planned that only 14% of paid employment for Gungahlin residents is within the Gungahlin district and that includes home-based businesses and the industrial area of Mitchell.
The Refresh experience further undermined the already low level of trust that Gungahlin residents have with the planning system and processes. The Refresh took too long, the feedback from the community was selectively picked at, feedback was ignored, and the final conclusions and proposed actions were at odds with what the community had expressed. Moreover, the introduction of new proposals (reducing the amount commercial space, increases in mixed-use developments, new mechanisms for handling community space, etc.) which were not exposed to the community for discussion, came as a complete shock.
Draft Variation 364
Almost a year after the Snapshot document was released, Draft Variation 364 to the ACT Territory Planning September 2019 was published for comment. DV364 is a revision to the Gungahlin Town Centre Precinct based on the Refresh Snapshot. The GCC’s submission highlighted the core issues yet again:
· Reduction of the Total Space Reserved for Commercial Development The GCC strongly recommends that the existing reservation of 100,000m2 for commercial space be retained and the ACT government explore mechanisms to develop/attract more commercial interest in Gungahlin
· Repurposing of precinct 2a from “Office Core” to “Mixed Use East” The GCC recommends that the further residential (mixed-use) development be minimised (not maximised) as part of DV364 in precinct 2a.
The Variation had interim effect for 12 months which lapsed in August 2020, meaning that the previous Gungahlin Town Centre Precinct Code (dated 2015) became effective. This was followed by a period of silence until March 2021 when an update to the Draft Variation was suddenly published in response to the consultation (again, with interim effect, but only for a portion of the Town Centre).
None of the GCC’s recommendations were actioned in the update.
As a result of the strong advocacy from the GCC (eg. the Call to Suspend Land Sales mentioned at the beginning of this article), and from Yerrabi MLAs (eg. Suzanne Orr’s motion in the ACT Assembly), the Minister for Planning referred DV364 to the Assembly’s Standing Committee on Planning Transport and City Service (PTCS).
It was becoming increasingly obvious to the GCC that relying on just the ACT Planning System to deliver the outcomes expected by Gungahlin residents was hopeless. Not only is the Planning System acknowledged by the Chief Planner and Minister for Planning to be failing, other economic development incentives, investments or other mechanisms need to put in place to attract employment (or employment alternatives) to the town centre.
The response from the CEO of the Suburban Land Agency (John Dietz), with the support of the Minister for Urban Development (Yvette Berry), was therefore welcomed as it not only acknowledged the issues raised by the GCC and the Gungahlin community, but also offered
… to work with the GCC on the place making of future land releases in the GTC [Gungahlin Town Centre]. This would include engagement on how the sale of these blocks are brought to the market, the provision of open space and interface with the linear park and future public realm.
Inquiry into Draft Variation 364
The Inquiry into Draft Variation 364 was very broad and examined not only the sequence of events and specifics of the Variation itself, but also the overall development of the Gungahlin Town Centre.
The GCC submission to the Inquiry and appearance before the PTCS Committee addressed much of what is included in this article, as well as several specific observations on the Variation itself. The Inquiry also provided an opportunity for industry representatives to share their perspective on the Planning System and how that system contributed to the development outcomes in Gungahlin, particularly in relation to mixed-use developments. The GCC members found the industry feedback more in line with their own advocacy experiences compared to the feedback and responses provide by EPSDD and the Planning Minister.
When the Inquiry report was published on 1 October, 2021, it was welcomed by the GCC. Most importantly, the report acknowledges the GCC’s concerns outlined in this article. Moreover, the report’s recommendations are broadly consistent with the actions proposed in our petition, our requests to the Minister for Planning, and the motions moved by Suzanne Orr and Andrew Braddock passed by the ACT Assembly.
The GCC particularly noted the following comments of the Committee (our emphasis) from the report:
… The committee is of the opinion that the Draft Variation is not fully formed and that the technical documents don’t serve to realise the objectives of the town centre plans. The committee also questions how the DV will shape the town centre and interact with the indicative land releases to lead to the stated outcomes.
… The Committee is concerned by the methodology used to determine the demand for commercial land within the town centre and the subsequent decrease in land reserved for commercial use. Most concerning is that a commercial needs assessment was not undertaken to inform the decision that demand had in fact decreased. …
… It was clear from all evidence before the Committee that mixed use development and the planning settings are very broad and not necessarily achieving the outcomes the Government, community or developers are wanting. The testimony highlighted the obstacles to achieving a mixed use precinct when developers only have responsibility for one single block and how a precinct scale development has more potential to achieve the outcomes sought.
The GCC strongly recommends the ACT Government adopt all 8 of the Inquiry report’s recommendations, paying careful attention to the following two:
To inform the Territory Plan planning regulations a thorough investigation be completed by the ACT Government that:
· identifies retail, community and commercial activity that can prosper in the town centre including activities that can anchor further growth;
· identifies options for the ACT Government to support potential commercial activity through appropriate land provision and complementary policy settings; and
· the findings of the investigation be used to inform the sale and development requirements of future land releases in the town centre.
In order to realise the objectives of the planning provisions, the ACT Government amend the indicative land release program so that the unsold blocks in Gungahlin East precinct:
· be sold as a precinct rather than as individual blocks;
· have contractual and lease requirements applied to the sale to deliver a precinct that includes retail, business, and community facility developments;
· apply a maximum number of residential dwellings allowable so that residential dwellings are not the primary or majority use;
· apply a minimum square metre requirement for commercial development; and
· be designed in consultation with the community.
It’s widely acknowledged that the residents of Gungahlin have got the Government’s attention! The Indicative Land Release Program (ILRP) 2021-22 – 2025-26 released with the ACT budget on 6 October 2021 states:
It is noted that Gungahlin town centre is currently subject to a planning review through Draft Variation to the Territory Plan No. 364 (Gungahlin town centre), an inquiry by the ACT Legislative Assembly’s Standing Committee on Planning, Transport and City Services and two resolutions of the ACT Legislative Assembly. The outcomes of these, will be considered further and responded to in the next ILRP.
(as well as the petition calling for land sales in the Town Centre to be suspended).
It may be that the Minister for Planning has given up on Gungahlin, but the ACT Government needs to formally acknowledge there are serious issues with the development of the Gungahlin Town Centre and take immediate and specific action to address the shortfall in employment, retail, community, and entertainment services.
The GCC is aware of the ACT Planning Systems Reform Project but has serious concerns about its relevance given that its implementation will take many months (years?), notwithstanding that the details of the new Planning System are yet to be revealed to the community. There is a time imperative in Gungahlin with the few remaining blocks of land zoned for “mixed-use” continuing to be brought to market.
The Planning System needs to be supported by substantive and concrete incentives, investments, or other mechanisms to attract employment (or employment alternatives) to the town centre, and to ensure the development of the remaining sites contributes substantially to the viability of the Town Centre. The community, industry and government must be brought together to do better than we are doing now.
Progressing Draft Variation 364 in its current form and continued dismissal of these issues will confirm the ACT government is committed to nothing but further residential development and the completion of Gungahlin as a dormitory district.
By Peter Elford, President Gungahlin Community Council Inc.
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