Long hot road of good intentions

THE path to farsighted urban planning is like that much talked about road to Satan’s home, which is said to be paved with good intentions.

This point is well demonstrated by the Court Government’s decision to build a huge $290 million Perth Convention and Exhibition Centre (PCEC) on the CBD’s Swan River foreshore, come hell or high water.

Some outcomes have been canvassed in the media, and more bitterly by Perth City councillors, with allegations of bribery, denials, and legal action threatened.

Most unfortunately, WA taxpayers must pay $135 million to a consortium headed by construction giant, Multiplex, and including the Cox Group, Ogden IFC, and KPMG.

That’s well over the $100 million incentive announced in 1998 from sale of the Dampier-to-Bunbury gas pipeline.

There’s also the government-owned prime CBD river frontage land – Perth City-operated No.2 Car Park – worth $75 million, perhaps more.

This $210 million subsidy means Multiplex won’t be taking huge risks and shows if you want something badly enough you’ll pay top dollar for it.

WA taxpayers are thus set to bankroll this huge venture to 58 per cent of total cost.

On top of that, Perth City’s ratepayers must find up to $45 million for parking bays, lifting the subsidy to nearly 70 per cent, meaning the consortium needs only find $110 million.

West Aussies are bankrolling the PCEC 70 cents in the dollar without even one representative on any board of directors – so taxation without representation with a vengeance.

The deal may yet include taxpayers giving another $10 million for a Wellington Street stadium — currently in doubt — with parking bays acquired by Perth City.

The Court Government and PCEC’s backers highlight benefits to WA and Perth, claiming “an economic impact of $2.2 billion over the first 10 years”. Good intentions.

Only time will tell if they’re realised. It’s worth recalling that financial advisers during the pre-Court WA Inc years weren’t crash-hot forecasters.

Equally significant are the hardly highlighted aesthetic and broader planning outcomes of the huge CBD river frontage aircraft hangar-like structure below Kings Park that roughly covers 20 quarter-acre blocks with a crayfish claw-shaped structure at one end. Interestingly, in 1999 former Planning Minister Graham Kierath convened a committee, the Vision for Perth in 2029 Group.

One member, Professor George Seddon, author of several books about the Swan River, gave a timely reminder on maximizing river access in one of the 2029 Group’s publications.

He said Perth was essentially a service city for WA’s mining and rural sectors and would continue prospering so long as the state can produce and export what the world needs, something an average Sandgroper has limited direct control over.

“So I suggest we get on with the things that do lie within our powers,” Professor Seddon wrote.

“One is the relations between the central city and the river.

“This is an asset that we still have not used to its full potential – and the attractiveness of a city has a bearing on its capacity to attract investment, as well, of course.”

He said that a decade ago Perth City Council and the Lawrence Government launched an international competition on how best to develop the CBD’s river foreshore.

“The winning entry from Carr Sandell of Boston addressed the major problems successfully except that although it won a fair degree of public support it also generated a fair degree of controversy,” he continued. “One principal feature was that traffic flow was reversed on Barrack and William Streets. Traffic flowing on Barrack could then enter the freeway network, and the entry ramp from William Street could be demolished.

“Whether or not this were ever to be implemented it was a brilliant insight into several problems: the ramp is highly obtrusive to river views, and when demolished Carr Sandell proposed subdividing and selling the [No.2] car park from Spring to William Streets for city buildings. This would immediately achieve two objectives: generate the funds that would pay for most of the other proposed work and literally bring people closer to the river.

“The old shoreline (the Esplanade) is in fact as much a psychological barrier as a physical one.”

A hangar-like PCEC means not ridding Perth of the “highly obtrusive” William Street ramp for another 40 or so years.

A hangar-like PCEC means access to the river at the CBD’s western end will be blocked for that long.

A hangar-like PCEC also means the $75 million No.2 car park site cannot become derivable income for taxpayers for that long: instead adding to a $210 million taxpayer subsidy to Multiplex’s consortium.

Let’s hope it’s not too late to remedy these extremely costly and visually obtrusive moves by relocating the planned hangar-like PCEC well away from the CBD’s foreshore.

Let’s hope Planning and Infrastructure Minister Alannah MacTiernan has the vision and courage to save Perth’s CBD from this aesthetically inappropriate structure, and taxpayers from a financially onerous deal.

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