13 May 2019

Midnight Express - How Light Rail inspired Braddon's gateway

| Alex Tricolas
Midnight. This is Canberra

In July last year, with the ACT election still a few months away and the ACT Libs promising they would scrap the project if they won government, Canberra’s light rail was in limbo. At five minutes to midnight, Canberra Metro was geared up and at the starting blocks, but very little was happening.

Sure, ACT Labor had signed the contracts and cleared its property assets of tenants along Northbourne Avenue, insisting the rail and the resultant makeover would go ahead; but the lack of any meaningful works could well have been interpreted as an admission of nerves by the contractor.

No such nerves were evident though, when local developer GEOCON snapped up the site of the old NRMA building, a site its CEO Nick Georgalis rightly described as ‘the most significant development along the light rail route’ for a cool 25 million at the very spot earmarked for Braddon’s sole light rail stop on the corner of Elouera Street.

The first Monday after the October election, with Labor safely back in and Light Rail a sure thing, the notable lift in activity along the route confirmed that Canberra Metro had found its groove. And in January this year, GEOCON unveiled their plans for the old NRMA site, henceforth to be known as Midnight.

The brief for Midnight has no doubt demanded a different approach than what we are used to on Northbourne. Architects Fender Katsalidis (the same people who designed Hobart’s magnificent MONA and the award winning Nishi at NewActon) have delivered with their vision of a space that prioritises people over cars and connects Northbourne to Braddon, physically and symbolically.

Not quite a single building, Midnight will be more of a mixed use precinct – an apartment complex wrapped around a hotel, with a ground floor reserved for retail and hospitality and a walk through public space. It will welcome light rail commuters and pedestrians; it will draw us in to Braddon, allow us to peek a little into the neighbourhood and bring human activity to the sidewalks of this heavily utilised but currently indifferent thoroughfare.

Had the Light Rail not gone ahead, one imagines this project would have looked very different. As it stands, the brief called for a more human element. The business of moving pedestrians from the rail line to their destinations has itself presented an opportunity to redefine the way each of us will interact with the new streetscape.

Light Rail will change Northbourne Avenue. Not only because it presents development opportunities, but because those developments need to be placed in an environment that is far more people-friendly. Kudos to GEOCON for thinking it, and to Fender Katsalidis for articulating it. No doubt they will deliver on the vision and set a benchmark for Canberra’s new gateway.

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