Canberra Tales: Planners bend their own rules

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Canberra is a city where residents are continually at odds with the ACT’s planning and development agencies.

It is also accepted amongst the residents that the planning bureaucrats are very skilled at bending the rules to suit themselves and other players.

It seems that it has always been so as the very building they occupy today in Dickson is a testament to their aptitude to get around their own planning rules when it suits.

Back in the early 1990s the ACT Government agreed to build a special office block for their planning bureaucracy. The building was to be located in Gungahlin to provide an initial boost to employment in this very new town centre.

Alas it was not to be so!

As so often happens, what the politicians decide is not necessarily what the bureaucracy delivers. After all, in the early 1990s, what planning bureaucrat wanted to live and work way out there in Gungahlin when an inner suburban office was so much more desirable?

And so it came to be, that despite all best wishes and decisions by the elected politicians, the building ended up being constructed on Challis Street in Dickson.

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But there was another problem — this time of their own making.

These same planners had put in place a set of planning rules that limited any building in this section of Dickson to 4,000 square metres. The new building had to be large enough for up to 300 loyal bureaucrats and therefore would need to be twice the size allowed under their own legislation.

The solution? They simply tendered for two buildings of 4,000 square metres and put a linking upper level bridge between them. After all, what are rules for but to be bent!

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Another incredulous part of this tale is that the building was proudly described as reflecting the multi-cultural colours of the Dickson Chinatown precinct. I walk past this building several times a week, and I have yet to recognise its Chinatown connections.

But yet again, the planning bureaucrats were able to put their special spin to work and to make out that this was an attractive modern government building.

Finally there is the name of the building —Dame Pattie Menzies House. The wife of Prime Minister Bob Menzies was apparently a very kind and gracious person. She was a significant person in this country’s history.

I have to wonder just what was the thinking behind naming such a horrible glass and steel structure after this nationally significant woman.

And now the Chief Minister is to flog it off along with other infrastructure assets. What will happen to the naming rights? This story has another chapter yet to be written.

So next time you wander by this infamous building, think of all those battles over planning that have their genesis somewhere deep within these two boxes, how the planning bureaucrats play with their own rules whenever it suits, and how such an unpleasant structure could possible represent the life of a nationally significant woman.

It is indeed a sad tale about what some people are capable of.

This is part of an occasional series, Canberra Tales, offering short stories, mostly true but including many urban myths, about intriguing aspects of Canberra. As with any story telling, we welcome other variations, accurate or otherwise, to these tales.

also published on RiotACT

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Paul Costigan

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