Many people don’t realise that the entire city block bounded by Morrison, Argyle, Davey and Elizabeth Streets (where Mawson’s Huts and Lark Whisky are) is owned by the Council on behalf of everyone.
Known as ‘Civic Square’, this block is a valuable public asset with heritage buildings (some as old as Salamanca) located close to the waterfront. It has incredible potential for developing into a civic space that needs careful planning and investment to realise.
A few years ago, Council developed a Master Plan for the block, based on its “pivotal role in the evolution of the city” that preserves views of the city, water and mountain.
But since 2015, a series of decisions has seen Council head down the path of seeking expressions of interest from the private sector, rather than finding ways to develop or improve this important site ourselves.
I have voted against this strategy from the outset, but most of the discussions have been in closed meetings, which by law, elected members are not allowed to speak about publicly.
The process has not been as transparent as I would have liked. Civic Square has been considered at 15 different Council meetings since 2015, but only two of these were open to the public.
Now we have a proposal called ‘Spirit Place’ from a development company that took part in an Expression of Interest process run by the Council. This proposal has not been formally endorsed by the City of Hobart. It has been released to enable the community to have their say.
The developer’s ideas are outlined in conceptual plans for a five-storey hotel, shops, cafes and a new two-storey tourist information centre on the current site of Mawson’s Huts museum. Between these new buildings it is proposed to create ‘intimate laneways’ available for the general public.
If this was a private development on private land, it would simply be a matter of assessing whether the proposal fits within our planning laws.
But this is public land. As such, the block is special and needs to be considered differently. Near-waterfront city land in public ownership is a rare commodity.
The development of public land should be reserved for projects of significant civic use and appeal, or for projects not easily developed by the private sector.
My guiding principle is that public land should be used in the public interest. What concerns me is that this proposal may not meet that basic requirement. The main ‘public’ benefit we’re meant to gain from this development is a new home for our tourist information centre.
The Council’s tourist information centre is a professionally run service for visitors to Hobart, that Council took over from the State Government in 2008. But I’m not sure we should hand over the Civic Square block in exchange for a new visitor centre that Hobart ratepayers would then be locked into leasing back from the developer for perhaps decades.
Missing from the proposal is detail on many of the issues the community needs to be properly informed. Key questions remain unanswered in the consultation materials. For example, what length of lease does the developer want for this public land? 50 years? 100 years? Other questions include:
- What rent will the developer pay to Council for the lease, and what income will be earned from running hotels and shops for the life of the deal?
- Would the public get a fair return?
- Should the public get a ground rent or a profit-sharing rent?
- What rent will the Council pay to the developer for the new visitor centre?
- Where will the Mawson’s Huts attraction move to?
- Will the heritage-listed buildings be fully protected?
- Is there enough civic uses and public space in the proposal?
While many public-private partnerships are successful, there are also many poor examples around the world where the public interest comes out second-best.
There are grumbles that I should stay silent about my concerns and simply wait for community comments. However, the community expect their leaders to be transparent and ensure the public have all the information needed to make informed decisions about this prime public space.
It is my job to help provide a more complete story of Civic Square. The ‘Spirit Place’ proposal could certainly have a role in our city. But for this block, I’m not convinced it’s a development with public use at its heart that will stand the test of time.
I believe we should wait for a proposal with much more focus on public spaces that connect the city with the waterfront, and consider creative alternatives to make a truly Civic Square for the Hobart community.
Please have your say! Council will consider community feedback submitted before 21 July at yoursay.hobartcity.com.au or complete a feedback form at the Council Centre.