Montefiore: Is the New CBD School a Disaster in Waiting?

For thousands of families, from Mile End to Nailsworth and from Marleston to Hilton, the construction of a new city high school is many years overdue. A new site has been earmarked, but a government-dominated Authority last winter quietly found that it’ll be in the wrong place. There are only 10 reasons why, but who’s counting?

Sir Monty has sat on many boards and knows that, when a tricky agenda proposition arises, the best way to deal with it is to hedge one’s bets. Experienced administrators write the recommendations last, glossing over the tricky bits, and hope that no-one reads the fine detail inside to discover an alarming disconnect between the two.

An agenda paper like this lay on the table on the chilly evening of 21 July 2016, when members of the Adelaide Park Lands Authority met and were introduced to the evening’s business by Presiding Member, Lord Mayor Martin Haese. The proposed new school is to be sited on Frome Road park lands, near the city zoo. It will capitalise on a soon-to-be refurbished, six-storey Reid Building, a university research hub, which the government bought for $30m when plans to locate the school at the old RAH site 500m further south collapsed as developers stepped in and pressured government ministers to fast-track their own profitable plans. Announced in June 2015, the school plan anticipates seeing first students commence in term one of 2019.

In July 2016 – a year after the 2015 announcement – administrators got around to briefing the Authority that monitors park lands rules. During that fallow 12 months, however, a critically important policy change had been embedded by Deputy Premier and Planning Minister, John Rau. This altered rules about erecting buildings on park lands (‘public infrastructure proposals’) from ‘non-complying’ to ‘merit-based’. This sees proposals such as the new school classified as ‘category 1’ – allowing development without consulting Adelaide’s community about the wisdom of new bricks and mortar rising within the unique green belt that surrounds the city.

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The site of UniSA’s Reid building and future CBD high school

There’s also now an expansion plan to erect another school building adjacent to the Reid building, thus commandeering what is currently a green open space surrounding the original building and delivering an eruption of concrete, glass and steel – the antithesis of what the Rann Government, and the subsequent Weatherill Government (14 years of the same brand) promised voters over a succession of state elections.

The Authority’s 21 July meeting supported the bid (which was at that time only valued at $85m, but by mid-September had been adjusted to $100m); supported adjacent court and play equipment; sought restrictions of on-site car parking, limiting it to three spaces (!); supported initiation of a dedicated school bus, a drop-off/ pick-up zone north of Victoria Drive (University Drive); and recommended later start and finish times ‘to ease peak traffic conditions’.

Apart from the farcical car parking deficit, other elements appeared reasonable. However, further into the agenda pages there appeared a much harsher analysis, noting 10 reasons why the proposal stands a good chance of becoming a government education portfolio disaster as soon as the 2019 school year commences. Sir Monty’s response after reading it reminded him of those red highway signs, stating ‘Go back – you are going the wrong way’.

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In contrast to the government and developer PR ballyhoo let loose on the internet in June 2015, the 10 reasons underscore that once a ‘brilliant idea’ within state cabinet turns into a policy ball and starts rolling, it’s often impossible to stop.

1. The plan is predicated on heavy use of cycling, but the Authority noted that there were insufficient safe connections and routes.

2. Even if paths were improved, students in years 8, 9 and 10 are highly unlikely to want to cycle unaccompanied (noting that only about 20 students in those years ride to the existing Adelaide High: clear evidence of such reluctance).

3. There are insufficient current bus services along Frome Road to meet the morning and afternoon period demand.

4. Walking distances from Grenfell Street’s bus corridor or the central train station are too far.

5. Even if the government’s North Terrace light rail plan eventuates, the footpath to the school from it is ‘inadequate to ensure safe and easy access’.

6. On that path, there are existing safety risks for cyclist and pedestrian conflicts, especially during peak periods.

7. A drop-off/pick-up facility in front of the school couldn’t be supported because it would encourage car use (contrasting transport policy) and create safety risks. (Worse, near the zoo such demand would strip it of commercially important visitor spaces).

8. The slip lane arrangement at the intersection of Victoria Drive and Frome Road won’t support large numbers of students crossing there.

9. ‘Student and teacher movement between the [new] school site and the adjacent university teaching, research and sporting facilities would likely require dedicated infrastructure’ (not planned).

10. ‘The lack of on-site parking is likely to increase the demand for long-term parking in
the surrounding area.’ (The closest street parking to a new 1250-student and many-support-staff site would be served by only 921 spaces, most of which are already taken up most days by park lands users, zoo visitors, and city shoppers. In other words, a heavy new parking demand created by a new school couldn’t be met.) And there are two more.

Firstly, new demands for sports grounds access will focus on Parks 10 and 12 nearby, currently heavily used by University of Adelaide (the licence holder) and other groups, with leases. Once the school opens, a bitter turf war will follow – resulting in losers (never a good result). And secondly, no-one is talking about the Reid building’s asbestos problem, or the school site being near sacred Kaurna burial grounds and on land heavily contaminated by decades of hospital medical waste. Ticking construction time bombs.

Building kicks off this month, through to December 2018. In other words, even if the time bombs are defused, the manifest operational weaknesses of the site won’t be tested and revealed until safely after the March 2018 state poll.

Timing, as ever, is everything.

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