Author Archive

Where is the mental traveller?

January 31, 2014

Just checking.


Now it’s up to Gerry

December 10, 2009

Artist's impression of the proposed development

As no other media were present at this meeting I have put on my reporter’s hat and endeavoured to present a balanced account of the meeting. I  welcome contributions from anyone who was at the meeting – or wasn’t.

Developers proposing to to build five-storey units in Todd Street have amended their plans in the wake of 70 objections to the proposal – but the height remains the same.

At a public hearing the Development Consent Authority chairman Peter McQueen said the authority received a total of 93 submissions about the proposal.

The project contravenes current planning regulations and requires personal approval from the new Lands and Planning minister Gerry McCarthy to proceed.

The amendments included: dropping plans for a tavern, changing the placing of buildings to make sure trees on the site are not damaged, and changing proposed traffic flow to two-way from Stuart Terrace in the laneway behind the buildings to address traffic concerns.

But the height of the buildings would remain the same: five storeys or 18.5 metres, 4.5m above the present height limit.

A consultant commissioned by developer CJHA told the meeting Alice Springs had a projected growth of 18 percent over the next 20 years, and had a choice of either growing upwards or outwards.

He said the complex had to be 18.5m in order to offset the high proportion of open space on the site (40 percent). For the buildings to achieve the yield required to be “feasible” within the height limit, the developers would have to cover the whole site, boundary to boundary. As it was, only sixteen percent of the development was five storeys high.

The consultant said the proposal would be a “catalyst” for further development but rejected suggestions it would create a precedent for more such applications – cited by Mr McQueen as one of the most common concerns expressed in objections received.

“Alice Springs does have a rich character and sense of place, “ he conceded, identifying “natural elements” such as the sky, and views of the ranges and the rivers.  But little character came from its built environment, he said.

To prove his point he showed a series of photos of some of the town’s most ordinary-looking buildings. This display prompted one objector Rod Cramer to reply that the reason Alice had so few buildings of architectural merit was that “developers had knocked them all down.”

Nevertheless, much of the discussion centred on buildings of merit – specifically those that comprise the neighbouring Hartley Street precinct – and the effect the development would have on the area.

Speaking as NT president of  of the National Trust, Lorraine Braham said the Trust was particularly concerned at the impact on the precinct of the proposed carpark for the complex, which would be situated in Hartley Street.

She pointed out the Heritage Conservation Act required developers to discuss their proposal with the Heritage Advisory Board and specifically mentioned car parks as being inappropriate developments in a heritage precinct.

She said the Trust was concerned that the development would be “completely out of place”.

“Once heritage values are ignored, it’s very hard to get them back,” Mrs Braham said.

Heritage Architect Domenico Pecorari said the Heritage Precinct was the “jewel in the crown” of Alice’s heritage and the development would dwarf the houses in the precinct.

Mr Pecorari showed photos to illustrate examples of insensitive developments. One showed the Old Court house, with the Alice Plaza and its three-storey carpark jammed up against it on two sides. Another showed the old gaol in Parson’s Street, completely overshadowed by the Courts Building.

He said the Melanka site proposal showed that “we have learned nothing from our mistakes”  – and stressed that the Minister was required to consider the impact of the proposal on the heritage precinct.

Ross Peterkin said approval of the proposal would “effectively gag” any debate about building heights within the community – debate which he said should should precede any applications which contravened the regulations.

Phil Walcott, who intends to stand as an independent in the next Territory election, spoke in favour of the development, comparing its height with the 47 metre-high lights at the Traeger park complex on Gap Road.

Mr Walcott spoke of the need for accomodation. He cited an example of  teachers recruited by the Education department not being able to come to town because there was nowhere for them to live.

Real Estate Agent Doug Fraser was the only other supporter of the proposal to speak.

He said the Alice Springs community was “at the crossroads,” with “massive problems in relation to anti-social behaviour”.  Bringing a lot of people into the CBD with the development would have a positive effect on the town centre, he said.

Mr Fraser said it was “depressing” to see the number of people who came into his workplace every day looking for rental accomodation.

Mr Fraser said the proposed AZRI development south of the town would provide relief, but forty percent of the sales in town were of units and the AZRI development would not satisfy that market.

He said the height regulations were from the 1970s and the town was “more than ready to move into the 21st century.”

He scoffed the notion the building was high-rise. High-rise, he said was “twenty, thirty or forty storeys”.

Mr Pecorari responded to Mr Fraser’s arguments by reminding the meeting the complex was a “gated community” which would exclude other people from enjoying its facilities, and was out of character with the kind of town Alice Springs aspired to be.

The meeting concluded wth a surprise announcement that Alderman Sandy Taylor had excluded herself from the authority’s deliberations after sending an email out which encourage people to send submissions about the proposal to the authority .

Battles For Hearts And Mines

December 5, 2009

For people against uranium mining at the Angela Pamela site near Alice Springs, Friday December 4 was  a good night .

The Super Raelene Brothers, a popular local band, teamed up with a group of Arrente-western Luritja musicians to sing a catchy little ditty that says no (“wiya”) to Angela Pamela in Luritja and Western Arrente – and has already been downloaded on to dozens of mobile phones around the town. There was some fire in the speeches, but mostly it was the sausages that sizzled, as a couple of hundred people enjoyed the balmy summer evening, the rich cool grass of the Town Council lawns and the cameraderie of being united against a common foe.

To top it off, outspoken and articulate independent MLA Alison Anderson got up and spoke against the mine in public for the first time.

In the struggle for Angela Pamela it looked like a clear victory for the Nos.

But today and next week the war will go on, and anti-mine campaigners will have to consider what the best tactics might be for future battles. If they are to win, they may have to pay more more heed to what is happening in the minds of not only Governments and opposition parties, but also those who have little or no commitment to their agenda.

Cameco will soon publish a new “information bulletin” in the local media. It will include what Cameco considers hard facts, some of which already are seeping into the public domain. In last Friday’s Centralian Advocate, for example, one of the most vocal and articulate opponents of the project bravely acknowledged that he had got one of his facts wrong, and the distance between the bottom of the uranium ore at Angela Pamela and the water table was in fact 700 metres. The latest studies suggest that it may be even more. That’s at least seven hundred metres of ‘impermeable’ rock. With that kind of evidence it will become harder to raise a sense of outrage by repeated claims that a mine would be ‘directly over our water supply’. The uncommitted punter would like to know what the risks actually are, however small. And what about the tailings?

Then there is the dust issue.  Jess Abrahams from the Arid Lands Environment Centre  stated unequivocally  Alice Springs would  have radioactive dust clouds if mining went ahead.   A  scary prospect, but it’s also a big call. Not ‘could’ or ‘might’, but “we’re gonna have”. Basil Schild talked of town camp residents getting “lungfuls of radioactive nucleides every time the wind blows the wrong way.”  In response, Cameco can argue that dust from mines like Ranger and Olympic Dam has been constantly monitored and found to be consistently well below the danger threshhold. They will present studies that show people who live near uranium mines in Australia do not suffer higher rates of cancer and other diseases than other people. Opponents must produce studies that disprove them or  face accusations of fear-mongering. If it turns out that the mine is not open-cut, as Basil asserted it would be,  but underground, as it may be,  the argument is in more trouble. Perhaps “could” is more effective than “will” , at the risk of losing short-term (but short-lived) dramatic impact.

Of course there are other statistics in this debate that go back a lot further in time – to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Long Island, to the high rates of cancer that occurred among miners before proper ventilation was introduced to extract radon gas. But many people  – including some in Alice Springs – have accepted nuclear power and uranium mining not as they were, but as they are in 2010: a fait acomplis on which many millions of people rely. And the reality is that in recent decades, the safety record of uranium mining has been way better than that of coal.

And yet there have been accidents that have seriously affect local environments close to towns, and one of the most effective planks in the Alice Springs campaign has involved the detailing of those accidents –  some of which have involved Cameco. Campaign strategists will have to assess what emphasis to give to Cigar Lake and Port Hope as world-wide pressure to extend nuclear power, and hence mine more uranium, increases. Not only has the new federal opposition leader jumped on the nuclear power bandwagon immediately after his election, but lefties like Philip Adams are weighing the evidence as they hear about the latest kinds of reactors, or discuss the possibiilty of thorium reactors, which can reportedly solve the problem of nuclear waste from traditional power stations by simply incinerating it.

Campaigners may have already decided it’s best not to muddy the debate with science – science that is only likely to get complicated. That’s risky, and ignores the reality that many ordinary people endeavour to understand the science of all sorts of complicated things, including climate change (which, ironically, leaves them open to considering the alleged benefits of the nuclear cycle). It’s true that supporters of uranium mining have been relatively quiet in the letters pages of the local newspapers in Alice Springs. This might be seen as an argument that, as Jess Abrahams says, opposition to Angela Pamela is growing.  But it might also point to a flaw in the campaign:  the fact many letter-writers have inhibited free and open discussion among assumed equals. There has been a stated or unstated assumption that the neutral or pro-mining people don’t care about Alice Springs and the environment, only about money.

One letter-writer suggested that people who presented arguments in favour of mining, should be suspected of being  Cameco stooges, funded out of its lavishly appointed publicity campaign. Others have consistently assumed the high moral ground, often with a palpable sense of righteous anger.  A recent letter accused people who favoured a mine of being morons, despite himself  appearing to think that minesite was also to be used as a nuclear waste dump.

Of course the anti-mining coalition cannot control the output of every letter-writer, but there has been a conspicuous shortage of letters that acknowledge people’s right to hold a different opinion without being considered morally bankrupt. In my opinion such an attitude is not only likely to discourage people from expressing their views or doubts in the paper, but also increase the resentment many people in the town already feel towards the “intelligentsia”. Threats by doctors to leave town if the mine goes ahead may have a similar effect.

Recently on this site the CSIRO’s Mark Stafford-Smith said he thought there had to be a “huge discussion” about the role of nuclear power in our society, and that it “would be helpful if we could have it in reasonably sober terms, supported by data, rather than emotionalism”. The Angela-Pamela debate is about one aspect of nuclear power: mining uranium near a large town like Alice Springs. We know all that uranium mining and nuclear power is an emotional subject, but that doesn’t mean we should give open slather to feelings with no regard for facts or others’ opinions.  Feelings won’t necessarily win the battle, and apart from that, we owe ourselves the right to rational and informed discussion. If we don’t take it up, we risk creating an even more divided town – whatever happens to Angela-Pamela.

Below the tree line, but …

October 20, 2009

“I have to pinch myself when I realise we live in the best part of Australia,” says Sandy Taylor. “I love the uniqueness – the fact that I can see the country and not just the buildings.”

Sandy is an Alice Springs Town Council alderman and one of two Council’s nominees on the Development Consent Authority, which in a couple of weeks time will have the ominous task of deciding whether the town of Alice Springs should go in a new direction:  up.  The Authority will recommend to the Planning Minister Delia Lawrie whether she should say yea or nay to a group of  five storey buildings, a full two storeys, or four and a half metres, above the town’s current 14 metre height limit. The buildings, if completed, would provide 120 apartments, some serviced, The target residential group  is “professionals, hospital staff and mine workers.”

In this debate, as in the last one more than 20 years ago, proponents of breaking the height limit will talk about judging buildings on their merits. They will talk about urban sprawl, and the high cost of land in Alice Springs and the importance of developers getting value out of a block.

But what will determine our support or opposition to this proposal is ultimately a question of our individual perspectives. Effective planning – which, unfortunately, Alice Springs has never had – could deliver accomodation for residents and business, and allow developers to make money. The accomodation shortage the town faces, as the real estate industry has told us so consistently, has been caused by insufficient land release. This particular land has already been released. And even then the developers are hedging their bets about it. Their project proposal consists of a series of buildings which will be erected sequentially according to demand, beginning at the northern end of the block – “allowing flexibility as the land and sales market in Alice Springs may dicate.”

Surely a series of three storey buildings would be more likely to meet the as yet unestablished level of demand.

This debate is not about being for or against development, as two anonymous letter-writers suggest in the Centralian Advocate today. It’s about how we and our visitors experience the town of Alice Springs. Do we , like Sandy Taylor, pinch ourselves when we see the MacDonnell ranges – or Billygoat Hill – or Annie Meyers Hill – or the gums of the Todd River  – as we walk or cycle or drive around the town? Are these views worth giving up, as the next proposal goes even higher and the question of its architectural merit becomes somehow less important, when there is no longer a height limit?

Alderman Brendan Heenan is the other town council nominee on the authority. Like Sandy, he grew up here, but his benchmark is lower – or higher – depending on how you look at it.

“I haven’t seen the full proposal yet,” alderman Brendan Heenan told me on the weekend. But he said, “as long it’s below the tree line and doesn’t destroy the view of the ranges from Anzac Hill”,  it was worth considering.

Fair enough. But how often do we look at the view from Anzac Hill? We  love the view and we appreciate it because we see it so rarely.

I have to admit I don’t always pinch myself when I see massive amounts of blue sky and glimpses of the countryside as I go about my business. Sometimes they’re just the background music.  But I know they  – and not the architecture – were the first thing that inspired me about the town when I first came here from a big city thirty years ago. I’m still here, and so far, so are they.

Dave Richards

The Community-proof Fence

September 25, 2009


Do you believe children learn from example?  If so, expect a generation of youngsters adept at double-think coming out of our schools in Alice Springs.

Yesterday on ABC Radio in Alice Springs the Chief Minister expressed his faith in the Braitling School Council, which has given its one hundred per cent approval to a plan to fence out the broader community from the use of facilities it’s enjoyed for more than thirty years.

The ABC quoted Mr Henderson: “If the school council, a democratically-elected body, in consultation with the school community and the principal have determined that they have specific and peculiar needs to require a fence, well I respect their decision.”

Meanwhile a few kilometres away students at the Anzac Hill High School are grappling with the decision to amalgamate their school with the Alice Springs High School.

Its school council reports it was misled by the Education Department into believing ANZAC would maintain core subjects such as English and Maths, which would be taught on both campuses.

Council chair Alan Smith told the Alice Springs News: “It seems that the Education Department’s idea of consultation has been asking people to watch powerpoint presentations which superficially look good but are all very theoretical.

“Then we get five minutes for discussion and our ideas all get pushed to the side.” Parents at the school have expressed numerous concerns about the “merger’’, apart from the loss of a valuable school and community which had a reputation for relative harmony under the guidance of principal John Cooper.

They fear some children will drop out of school altogether and that feuds between some families in the town are likely to flare up at ASHS, which has struggled with discipline issues, schoolground assaults and conflict for years.

But Mr Henderson does not appear to have noticed such concerns. Instead he has encountered only “enthusiasm, commitment and support for the Government’s plan to achieve better outcomes for young people in Alice Springs.” He obviously does not read the newspapers.

The decision to close off Braitling School seems just as likely to increase social disorder, although  parents who write letters to the editor have decided to focus on the active (and reasonable) protests of mothers with pre-school children who have used the school’s playgrounds.

The playgrounds have provided a brilliant early connection to school life for many hundreds of schoolchildren at Braitling over the past decades.

Now, like the pupils the school will be given the very clear message that schools are fortresses that are separate from the rest of the community. It’s what educationalists call the “hidden curriculum.”

The letter-writers don’t mention that Braitling School is also used by dozens of teenagers and older families, who use its cricket nets and basketball courts on a daily basis. They are losing a valuable physical outlet and alternative to computer games, internet chat rooms, or simply hanging round with not a lot to do.

Don’t forget that the facilities are the only ones of their kind in the Braitling area, and the solution generously suggested that people should use other facilities three or four km away assumes that the world is full of two-car families – or perhaps children who steal cars and drive without a licence.

The fence advocates who have focused on legitimate concerns about damage to the playgrounds and school caused after dark also neglect to mention that the school refused a compromise that should have kept everyone happy: build the fence closer to the school, and leave the sports area open.

Meanwhile the Chief Minister and his government continue to pick and choose which school council they will listen to and about what.

It is appropriate and desirable for school councils and parents to have a say about their schools. It is appropriate for the department (and the Government)  to listen, and then for the department (and the Government) to make a decision.

In the case of ANZAC High, they have listened, responded and then trashed both the council and the deal they promised them.

In the case of Braitling, it has refused to show leadership, sacrificing the needs of the broader community to allow Sue Crough andher school to buy a sledgehammer to crack a nut.