Westfield mall has helped anchor Belconnen's town centre.

Westfield mall has helped anchor Belconnen’s town centre. Photo: Melissa Adams

​Not all Canberra’s town centres were born equal, nor were they given the same resources to succeed. With widely varying population bases, they have grown at different rates. The result is a wide disparity between the viability and appearance of the centres.

Tuggeranong and Woden have been mugged by public service cuts, while Civic has witnessed the shift of its centre of gravity from Garema Place to the Canberra Centre. Gungahlin is still evolving, while Belconnen is older and more established, and has good growth prospects.

 

However, a dark cloud hangs over the Belconnen town centre. Will the Abbott government shift one-third of the workforce to the airport?

Lake Ginninderra is a big drawcard for people living in high-density units.

Lake Ginninderra is a big drawcard for people living in high-density units. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

The doubt arises because about 4000 Department of Immigration and Border Protection staff could be shifted out of Belconnen, in a move that would be economically disastrous for the town centre.

The large department wants 80,000 square metres of building space in one precinct within a 10-kilometre radius of Capital Hill, so it can consolidate its 5500 staff throughout the territory. All new building space for the move would be needed by the end of 2017.

At present in Belconnen, 4000 Immigration staff are in half a dozen buildings, while about another 1500 Customs and Border Protection employees work in five buildings in Civic. The department does not want more than 400 metres between the entries of any two buildings in the new precinct it plans to inhabit.

Belconnen Community Council chair Tara Cheyne would like to turn Emu Bank from an area of fast-food chains into a premier dining destination.

Belconnen Community Council chair Tara Cheyne would like to turn Emu Bank from an area of fast-food chains into a premier dining destination. Photo: Matt Bedford

However, a big change has occurred, with the tender process effectively abandoned, the Department of Finance taking over the process and, after furious lobbying by federal politicians, a promise to consider local factors.

The politicians have given strong, bipartisan support to try to stop the move, while Canberra International Airport wants to bring the newly merged operation under one roof at Brindabella Business Park, next to the airport.

The pressure for a decision is intensifying, with an estimated $55 million in annual retail spending by the Department of Immigration’s public servants at stake, from an estimated $2.6 billion spent in and around Belconnen each year.

Belconnen town centre

Belconnen town centre Photo: Gary Schafer

The vacant office space means it should be easier to relocate the 1500 staff from Civic to Belconnen, says Damien Haas, of the Belconnen Community Council.

“If you take probably one-third of the full-time workforce out of the Belconnen town centre, you seriously impact the viability of many of the small businesses there.

“Moving them out to the airport doesn’t really make a lot of sense. There’s very poor public transport access out there and parking is paid, but in Belconnen, you have two large bus interchanges.”

However, a prominent ACT business identity disputes this scenario and suggests that, even if Immigration departs, the move will not have as great an effect as some people predict.

“The town centre is in a strong economic position, with strong population growth and employment growth,” the person says.

However, no one seems to have mentioned the uncertainty for the developers who are spending millions of dollars on high-rise residential blocks. They are bidding strongly, with the result that recent sales of land for development produced stunning results.

What are the factors driving Belco?

Obviously, the town centre is older and better established than most of the others. Its residents are less likely to be cash-strapped younger families (they’re in nearby Gungahlin), and many of the new residents are younger people, moving into the multitude of high-rise units, being built seemingly endlessly, with more on the way.

Their disposable income and the higher population density have sparked renewed vitality in the centre, with new businesses opening.

Perhaps the new places are not as noticed as the high-profile hipster venues in Braddon, but they are appreciated by the locals – for instance, Heathers House of Cake, bespoke cocktail bar 54 Benjamin and cafe Chatterbox, while old favourites Pot Belly and the Basement have been revitalised.

The influx of extra residents has generated a new sense of vitality, says Belconnen community council chairwoman Tara Cheyne.

“Previously, if you walked around here on an evening or a weekend, it would be quiet, but now it’s busy. People are around. That starts to change the vibe.”

Another factor in Belconnen town centre’s brighter prospects is the program of renewal. The Department of Immigration gained new buildings and the Benjamin and Cameron blocks were redeveloped. By contrast, the vacant office space in Woden is 100 per cent C and D class, according to an industry source, who says there is no A and B class office space available there.

Older and more established residents in Woden who have been hostile to high-rise development will one day ask why Belconnen has grown and their suburb has not, says architect Rodney Moss. In Woden, community groups appeared more hostile to change than in Belconnen.

“What’s happening in Belconnen is there are lots of buildings being built, because there isn’t as much kickback,” he told a forum late last year.

“I suspect in a few years’ time the good burghers of Woden will say, `Why is so much going on in Belconnen? Why are there so many theatres and restaurants and various things?’ It is because there is development.”

This week, Moss said Belconnen residents seemed to be more supportive of higher-density residential development than Woden residents.

“You can see results already, and it is not about the lake,” he said. “The older generation feels threatened by the new, denser urban form. They feel the suburban bush city is under threat.

“If one supports the development of town centres and transport corridors, we will be able to retain the suburban bush capital everywhere else.”

Significant land sales have occurred at Belconnen recently, which will underpin further growth. Westfield put two blocks at Emu Bank on sale earlier this year. The area was already zoned for 340 apartments. The land sold for $13.5 million, a strong bid, but even more good news was just around the corner.

A few weeks ago, the Land Development Authority held an auction for a large parcel of land, the car park behind the Belconnen Labor Club, where a high-rise with 745 apartments will be built. A principal of one of the firms bidding at the auction recalls it was a spirited affair. Geocon ended up paying $22.1 million for the site.

The successful bidder, whose motto is “building Canberra”, is also constructing the huge Wayfarer tower, across from the Belconnen pool. It will be Belconnen’s tallest building and Canberra’s tallest residential tower, dominating the town centre’s skyline well before its scheduled completion date of Christmas 2016.

As well, the development of West Belconnen, with 11,500 homes in a continuous community straddling the ACT-NSW border, will give further impetus to the Belconnen town centre.

Belconnen has traditionally been the strongest of the town centres in Canberra for the past 20 to 30 years because of the strong household disposable income and employment in the area, says Colliers International ACT general manager of residential land Shane Radnell.

“Belconnen town centre has also been anchored by the Westfield mall, which most people would say is probably the biggest and the best in Canberra outside the Canberra Centre in the CBD.

“Westfield has invested more and more funds in there, because it actually delivers a much better retail return than probably Woden,” he says.

“The families in Belconnen have been living there for a long time now, so they’re not the newer, younger families we’re now seeing in Gungahlin and that we saw in Tuggeranong in the `80s as it was being developed.”

Developers of residential towers know that Lake Ginninderra is a big drawcard for potential buyers. “The lake provides a lovely backyard for people living in high-density units, and we see that as an advantage over the Woden town centre,” Radnell says.

“When developers are looking at sites, they know they can trade off the fact that their unit buyers can wander down out of the building and have lovely parklands and a waterfront to enjoy.

“Geocon is building a very tall tower at Wayfarer that is backed by the strength of the marketing in Belconnen and developers’ confidence in the market.”

The Westfield mall is a beacon, not only to surrounding residents, but also for the thousands now living in nearby Gungahlin.

“Most people will gravitate to a town centre that’s closest to them, but, of course, the Westfield shopping mall has a higher level of retailers than the Gungahlin town centre,” Radnell says.

The last iteration of the Belconnen town centre master plan sparked major changes, including the extension of Cohen Street and the demolition of the ugly bus interchange. This was followed by the expansion of the shopping mall.

The Belconnen Community Council hopes the updated master plan will give a boost to Emu Bank, now dotted with fast-food restaurants.

“The council would love to see it as a premier dining destination,” Cheyne says.

“That’s not to say fast food doesn’t fit in with that, but I think a lot of people recognise at the moment there are some fast-food businesses that have quite large parcels of land, including for surface parking.”

Cheyne attended her first Belconnen Community Council meeting soon after buying a unit in the town centre.  “I was interested in development in the area and wanted to be kept informed.

“I think it is vital that town centres become more dense. The way to do that is in a measured way that is consistent with the surrounds and complements the natural and built environment.”

New businesses opening in the last two years are a sign of confidence in the area. “The BCC’s vision for the future of the town centre is a denser town centre and, with that, it should bring more commercial development,” she says.

“It is extremely important to make sure we’re a really connected town centre, because it is really quite a big town centre and we have distinct areas.

“I’d love to have a central multi-storey parking area and then make it easier for people to walk around or get around by other means. It might be something like a shuttle bus for elderly people.

“The number-one thing is to make sure our pathways and cycleways are better connected and wide.”

Minister for Planning Mick Gentleman also sees a healthy future for Belconnen. “It’s going reasonably well compared with some changes we’ve seen in other town centres,” he says.

“I think that confidence has come about through real evidence in sales in some of those apartment complexes. They’re quite striking and they add some amenity to the area. It’s a very good vista over the lake from there, so a good sales opportunity.

“The discussion about the Department of Immigration is one that causes concern among the community, so we have some nervousness around that. We really want to ensure that the Belconnen town centre has the best possible opportunity for future growth, and that is why we’ve reactivated the masterplan process.”

The previous updated masterplan led to sweeping changes. “It led to a significant level of new development in the town centre, including the expansion of Westfield,” he says.

“There are opportunities through the masterplan process to really engage and incentivise business and for the community to become active in the area.”

This week developers and planners said allowing the University of Canberra to develop non-student housing, offices and shops would undermine Belconnen town centre. However, Gentleman says the change will create jobs.

“It will boost the university, allowing it to create an internationally renowned facility too, so quite an opportunity for jobs growth in that sector … if Immigration leaves. We’re confident it will attract a lot of additional investment. It’ll create an education and innovation hub.”

Gentleman believes the development of West Belconnen will stimulate more growth for the Belconnen town centre. “We look forward to the growth of the town centre and better job opportunities for Canberra.”