Views: Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan

18 Feb

Have you ever wondered why things are the way they are in the Belconnen Town Centre? Tomorrow night, Tuesday 18 February, is the first opportunity the community has to influence the 2014 update to an important planning document: the Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan.

Belconnen Town Centre has had a Master Plan since 1968, since before the damming of Ginninderra Creek to form the lake, and around the time the first offices were being built.Β  The Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan is just that: a plan. A framework for development decisions. It’s meant to be flexible.

Since 1968, the Master Plan has been updated or revised a few times: in 1974/1975, 1986 and 2001. In 1998, the Lakeshore Master Plan was also released. Now, in 2014, the Master Plan is (finally) being updated again.

This is an incredibly important opportunity for all of us to get involved – I’ll use this opportunity to outline why from my perspective.

Everyone with some sort of interest in Belconnen should have their say

Belconnen can be classified as a town or district. The Town Centre services the town or district. Simple enough, right? But what it means is that the best possible Town Centre Master Plan will take into account the views of as many people as possible: the residents, the students, the workers in, the visitors to and the businesses of not just the Town Centre but also all of Belconnen.

The consultation on the 2001 Master Plan seems pretty good, according to the Plan. That’s until you head to the Appendix. Yes, questionnaires available in the Belco Library and Mall were filled out and sent back, and they represented a range of suburbs. But how many questionnaires were filled out and sent back? THIRTY-NINE. Thirty-nine! There are only 25 suburbs in Belconnen!

Two public workshops were held. One had 35 people including residents and community groups; the Appendix is silent on the attendance at the other public workshop. Of 100 community groups who were mailed a questionnaire, just three responded. Three!

I refuse to believe that the community wasn’t interested. Asking people to pick up surveys from just two locations, fill them out, and send them in isn’t targeted by any means. Mailing it to them is a little better, but not enough for a Plan which is intended to have a long lasting impact on development proposals.

The ACT Government is doing the right thing by starting consultation early. Reps met with the Belconnen Community Council committee last week, and the public meeting is tomorrow night. This is encouraging, but it must only be the beginning. Targeted, deliberate consultation needs to occur throughout the Town Centre, as well as with every single suburb in Belconnen. But this is a two-way street: there’s got to be a push factor from the Govt reps, and a pull factor with the demand from the community (no matter whether you just shop in Belco or live, work, shop and exercise in Belco) to be consulted. This feeds into all my other points.

What the Town Centre needs to be and have

It’s quite simple: we can’t craft the right solution if we don’t know what the question is.

If the Town Centre services the residents, students, visitors, businesses and workers, each of us needs to have a sense of what we want from it, and contribute to the planning stages (see above!). For me, of course the Town Centre should be the focus of Belconnen. If it is, there must be a clear plan of what services – recreational, commercial/business – we want and need, how they will be sourced, and how that affects Belconnen more broadly, particularly those with local shops. The 1968 and other Master Plans stress how important the lake is and the potential for hiring paddle boats and the like. I think that’s a great idea, but what do you think? Do we need that? Does Lake Ginninderra have untapped potential, or do we like it as a hidden gem?

I also agree that Town Centres like Belconnen should be dense; this is hardly a groundbreaking concept. Two points to note: a) the 2001 Master Plan highlights that a lack of a Town Centre residential population diminishes the livelihood of the Town Centre (page 15) b) even more interesting is that the 1974 Plan states that Belconnen should be a place of 24 hour activity, rather than a place with little activity outside trading hours. I completely agree with this 40 year old argument! The large amount of buildings being erected has paved the way for an increase in residential population. BUT. The problem at the moment is that there aren’t the right amenities to attract a residential population to fill these big towers, let alone engage the existing population. If we don’t have the right amenities for the residential population, we’re not going to get that desired dense residential population – the towers providing for densification will all be for nothing if we don’t carefully consider what amenities should be in the Town Centre for people who are here during the day, and at night.

Review of the 2001 Master Plan

One of the failings of the Master Plans is that they do not comprehensively review the previous Master Plans. The 2001 version comes close with a bit of a history of Belconnen’s development and why it is the way it is, but to properly understand the limitations of future plans and learn from the past mistakes, the 2014 Plan needs to be guided by a review of the 2001 Plan: what was planned for and went ahead, and why? What was planned and completely ignored, and why? What guiding assumptions changed? And that leads me to my next guiding question…

Regular updates to the Town Centre Master Plan

Some of the earlier Belconnen Town Centre Master Plans stress that development in the Town Centre should be staged. I couldn’t agree more. But, by its very nature, the Town Centre Master Plan is a ‘flexible guide’, meant to respond to changing circumstances. How much did have the rental and buying markets changed since 2001? A LOT. You can understand the reasons behind developers and others not taking the recommendations of a 2001 Plan too seriously, simply because the assumptions and evidence changed within a few years of its release. Yet, the first listed ‘impetus for change’ reason in the 2001 Plan is that it had been 15 years since the last planning review (page 12). So, it was clear in 2001 that a review was well overdue. As we head into 13 years since the 2001 Plan, it feels like history’s repeating itself.

The economy changes quickly. Circumstances change quickly. Think of Lonsdale Street – how different did it look in 2011? That’s just three years ago. In 13 years, the housing market throughout Canberra and the economy has hit major highs and lows. I don’t believe in reactive measures, but we need to be responsive where circumstances change. Master Plans need to be updated more regularly, or when there are clearly significant changes emerging which require a renewed Plan. Criteria could be set to determine when those situations arise to trigger action in updating the Master Plan.

Thirteen years is too long.

Clarity of steps

Reading through the 2001 Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan is an interesting exercise. A lot that’s proposed has been implemeting, including moving of the bus interchange. There are also plenty of recommendations which aren’t clear, and their associated ‘specific strategies‘ or steps to implement them provide no clarity – it’s no surprise that these didn’t go ahead. Some interesting recommendations include:

  • improving the viability of Margaret Timpson Park (the green area on Benjamin Way across from Westfield) with ‘appropriate recreational and cultural development’ and ‘increased pedestrian activity’ (the latter is supposed to come from moving the bus interchange). Margaret Timpson Park is still arguably underutilised (the 10 year time capsule planted in 2001 still hasn’t been opened – a decent indication!), but it probably comes as no surprise because what does that recommendation actually mean?!
  • in addition to a proposed ‘design review‘ for Margaret Timpson Park, there’s a good list of decent specific ideas for the Town Centre including paddle boat hire at the Lake, pitch and putt, and markets at Margaret Timpson Park (page 15). You know why these didn’t go ahead? No one took responsibility for implementing them.
  • a proposal to create a pedestrian overpass at the Margaret Timpson Park pedestrian crossing (which leads into the Mall) – another great idea with no ownership
  • Benjamin Way properly utilised as the ‘main centre of town’. This is another great idea – I’d love to see most of the Belconnen Town Centre operate as a kind of pedestrian mall, something between Lonsdale Street and Brisbane’s Queen Street Mall. But, the specifics re implementing this are odd, including ‘increasing awnings’, blaming Margaret Timpson Park and the mall for Belco not having a street down the middle (what?), and outlining the need to get pedestrians down to the ‘ground level’ (how?).

What’s in it for you?

Whether you interact with Belconnen because you like to or because you have to, the update of the Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan will matter to you. The quality of this 2014 Plan absolutely depends on community input, and depends on community demand for specific strategies, regular review, and that lessons of past Plans are first learned from.

What do you need to do?

Tuesday, 18 February is the first of hopefully many public meetings (not just two public workshops!) on the 2014 update to the Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan. It will be held at 7.30pm in the Community Room, up the stairs at the Belconnen Library. I’ll do my best to live tweet or live Facebook the event.

I am currently serving as the Deputy Chair of the Belconnen Community Council. Views contained in this post are my own and do not represent the views of the Belconnen Community Council.

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5 Responses to “Views: Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan”

  1. Gary Lum February 18, 2014 at 6:27 am #

    Add the occasional #MKR to your tweets so I can see what is happening at the meeting πŸ˜‰

  2. cbrfoodie February 18, 2014 at 11:53 am #

    Hi Tara, Nice post! What’s the best email to send you a private message? can you please email me on CBRFoodie@gmail.com Thanks.

  3. Ian Dudley March 9, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

    An interesting read. There are indeed many ways in which Belconnen could be improved. I just wish there wasn’t so much focus on Belconnen mall!

    • inthetaratory March 9, 2014 at 10:34 pm #

      It’s there whether we like it or not… but what we can do is work out how to make it integrate with its surroundings rather than the other way around!

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  1. Why the Belconnen Town Centre Master Plan matters to you* | In The Taratory - November 20, 2014

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