A Vibrant Darwin CBD – vision and reality

It seems like time to review progress on the Gunner government’s quest to create a vibrant Darwin CBD. They actually appointed an assistant Minister for that noble quest (Paul Kirby) on achieving government in 2016. In terms of on-the-ground progress you’d have to say it hasn’t worked. CBD streets remain sparsely populated with both tourists and local residents; shops are still closing while others look tired and run-down; and otherwise nothing has changed except for some very nice murals on the sides of some buildings and some missing trees blown down in Cyclone Marcus.

But things seem likely to be about to change, mostly for the better, in the near future. It looks like the Landbridge Hotel down at the Darwin Waterfront will soon start construction; federal funding has been committed for an imminent start to Barneson Boulevard linking Tiger Brennan Drive to the centre of the CBD (a mixed blessing); and the NTG has called for expressions of interest to build a major water theme park (a bit like the Bali Water Bom park) adjacent to Stokes Hill. The latter is a really excellent idea and I hope they receive strong expressions of interest from suitable developers. Some NTG funding has been made available for addressing the lack of shade and shelter in the CBD, and Darwin City Council has a current program to replace existing street lighting with brighter LED lights. I hope they’re MUCH brighter, because there are quite a few parts of the CBD where it’s very dark and quite scary to walk at night. Hardly an encouragement for tourists already disconcerted by the aggressive behaviour of many “long-grassers” and drunken thugs exiting Mitchell Street’s nightclub precinct.

In search of the Darwin City Deal

Meanwhile, the long-touted Darwin City Deal with the federal government still hasn’t materialised. As best I can understand, it was expected that the federal government would contribute substantially to the cost of a new art gallery/museum to complete State Square, a new Indigenous and multicultural museum at Myilly Point (now cancelled after ignorant community protests fuelled in part by the almost complete lack of information about the project from the NTG); and a new building to house CDU students and the law school adjacent to the GPO. I hope for self-interested reasons that they somehow find the funds to proceed with the new CDU building, because the law school’s student body are 80% online and we really can’t continue to function effectively at the Casuarina campus completely separate from all administrative and tech support staff.

The Government’s central concept plan/vision for the CBD (see video above) looks very exciting indeed. In fact I only have a couple of relatively minor quibbles with it. First, the images of streetside shade structures look very much like the current one extending from the end of Smith Street Mall down to the pedestrian overbridge to Darwin Waterfront. It is shady but provides no shelter at all; and so is almost completely useless in the build-up and wet season (i.e. six months of every year). Surely it isn’t beyond human wit and wisdom to build structures that provide both shade and shelter.

My second quibble is about the depicted “shallow, cooling reflection pools” adjacent to footpaths, presumably mostly along Smith Street. Sounds like a great concept until you actually contemplate stark reality. The combination of “long-grassers” and drunken thugs exiting Mitchell Street’s nightclub precinct at 4am will ensure that they rapidly become shallow, cooling urine ponds replete with floating Bondi Cigars, rather than the inviting vision conjured up by the NTG video. Maybe that could be controlled by copious administration of chlorine every morning and council workers going around with little nets to fish out the turds, but it certainly isn’t a job I would want to be doing.

Otherwise the concept plan looks great, except that it appears to lack a central rationale beyond the clearly expressed one of increasing levels of shade and effecting other heat mitigation strategies for the CBD. Presumably the overarching idea is to create a more pedestrian-friendly CBD to encourage people to walk around, shop and relax in the city centre leaving their cars behind. But if that is the central if implicit rationale then it is actively contradicted by both the construction of a new $15 million underground carpark adjacent to State Square and the construction of Barneson Boulevard to funnel cars directly into the centre of the CBD in Cavenagh Street. Both are positively inimical to creating a more vibrant, pedestrian-friendly CBD. Darwin’s CBD is contained within a quite small area on a relatively small peninsula in Darwin Harbour. There are only three roads in and out and no obvious way to create any more. Although our currently stagnating population may be disguising it, we can’t continue to cram more and more cars into the city centre without creating a nightmarish CBD that no-one will choose to visit voluntarily.

I don’t have a problem per se with the proposed new underground carpark. As the video asserts, it will reduce urban heat island effects of the existing bitumen carparks it will replace, as well as providing a much-needed $15 million economic stimulus to keep the economy afloat. However Barneson Boulevard, at least in its present form, is an especially idiotic idea. It will decimate Frog Hollow which is the only existing parkland on the CBD’s eastern side, and will exacerbate CBD traffic congestion rather than relieving it. Both those problems would be avoided, and considerable money saved, if Barneson Boulevard is terminated at McMinn Street rather than running right through to Cavenagh Street.  Surely it isn’t too late for a last-minute retreat to commonsense.

Central elements for a Vibrant Darwin CBD

Terminating Barneson Boulevard at McMinn Street leads me to what I think SHOULD be the central rationale/s of any CBD redevelopment plan:

  1. All new carparking should be concentrated on the edge of the CBD, mostly in and below McMinn Street and to a lesser extent at Myilly Point/old hospital site. I don’t suggest that CBD carparking should be abolished or existing carparks closed, but no more should be built and some current roadside parking should be sacrificed for planting of large street trees. The fact that some might eventually blow down in large cyclones is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of living in the monsoonal tropics.
  2. All suburban buses should arrive and depart from a new major bus terminus that would also be in McMinn Street, stretching from the bottom of Knuckey Street to just before the NT News building. None should enter the CBD itself.
  3. The old railway reserve from adjacent to the Bagot Flyover right into the city should be resuscitated and turned into a dedicated busway. The reserve remains largely intact and terminates just after it goes under the Daly Street bridge adjacent to the beginning of McMinn Street. Thus the “bones” of an effective rapid transit system already exist. A dedicated busway would allow suburban buses to get to the city quickly even in peak hours as traffic densities increase over the years with growing population. There is no reason why it can’t be constructed over the next few years without budgetary strain. Darwin will not be big enough to sustain either a light or heavy rail system in the foreseeable future, but nor is this necessary. Developments in electric bus technology utilising opportunity charging (see linked Volvo website) make that unnecessary. They may eventually be driverless, but not I suspect in the near future.
  4. There should be a large fleet of FREE electric shuttle buses from the McMinn Street parking stations and bus terminus, they would travel on endless loops around the whole CBD with a frequency of 5 minutes or less. There would need to be a high density of transit inspectors with appropriate powers to prevent the sort of disgusting behaviour highlighted in this article. This proposal is a local adaptation of the Melbourne Free Tram Zone scheme which has been phenomenally successful in creating a vibrant Melbourne CBD, but neither locals nor tourists will travel on the service unless gross anti-social behaviour is radically restrained. As long as that problem is addressed, Darwinians will soon abandon their current firm belief in the absolute necessity of being able to park right outside the shop they want to visit. It won’t be possible as the population grows, and free shuttle buses circulating with extreme frequency will make it completely unnecessary anyway. No-one in Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane has such delusions. Darwin is nowhere near as big, but our CBD is much more irretrievably confined and future growth can only come through more high rise development and CBD “densification”.
  5. Finally, smaller car parking stations should be constructed at key points along main suburban bus routes, with low cost all day parking prices, so that commuters can drive from their homes to the local bus stop and leave their cars there so they can commute rapidly to and from work each day. Again that shouldn’t be expensive and can be completed progressively.

In my view those principles form the essential core of any Darwin development plan. A Vibrant Darwin CBD is a worthwhile and even necessary objective, but the necessary elements can’t sensibly be considered in isolation from the wider questions about our future roads and public transport networks.

I also have my own more extensive vision/concept plan for a Vibrant Darwin CBD. But that’s a topic for a further article.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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