EDITORIAL COMMENT: Harare Gardens conference centre proposal progressive

harare-gardensHarare Gardens is a priceless asset for Zimbabwe’s capital city, being the only large park in the city centre and must be preserved for future generations as a public amenity.

It is acceptance of this concept that must guide the city council in its negotiations with African Sun, the owners of Monomotapa Crowne Plaza, over whether a conference centre can be built next to the hotel and if so under what conditions.

Although the gardens achieved their rough final border in the first decade of municipal government, with the laying out of Park Street, there has always been some nibbling into the public space. Harare’s first power station was built near the south east corner; the swimming pool complex has occupied roughly the same site for decades, although been redeveloped several times; a modest chunk was transferred for the National Art Gallery; a set of bowling greens and a restaurant in the north; temporary facilities for the Harare Book Fair and the Harare International Festival of the Arts; a car park was allowed in the south and finally, in the early 1970s, a portion of that car park was sold for development as a hotel, the Monomotapa Crowne Plaza in fact.

There was a lot of debate and a lot of opposition to the sale of gardens land, even though it was tarmac parking places involved, at that time, but the council was eventually persuaded that the move would benefit the city.

So African Sun’s present proposal, to chew up more parking spaces for a 10 000-seater conference centre, is not unprecedented.

Harare suffers from a shortage of conference facilities and the centre would enhance the city’s amenities.

On the face of it, the offer has merits: $1,7 million to buy the wanted two hectares of land, the renovation of the Les Brown pool complex, and revamping the gardens. But other questions remain unanswered. A chunk of scarce parking will be eliminated and demand for a lot more parking places, with the conference centre, will be created.

Visitors to Hifa have noticed the parking problems that large numbers bring and the huge parking spaces at HICC in the civic centre are easily overloaded at major events, showing the need for decent parking planning.

Our view is that the city council was right to refer the matter back to its finance and development committee for a rethink. A better deal, which might not cost any more, is needed.

One option would be to develop much of the present car park into a conference centre and parkade, with parking underground if necessary and releasing some of the present car park back into the gardens. The parkade would have to have enough bays to replace those in the existing car park and add enough bays to cope with the conference centre’s day-time demands.

What is not acceptable is simply eating into the gardens for short-term benefits and long-term problems. The swimming complex is tatty and the gardens are messy, but time and a bit of council money can sort out both without mortgaging their future.

On the other hand if a way can be found to improve city centre amenities without further degradation of the gardens as a future facility, then the council could close with the deal, so long as all benefits to the city, short-term and long-term, significantly outweigh the short-term and long-term problems.

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