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Civic an urgent urban planning problem

By Paul Costigan 6 May 2015 57

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Several decades ago, the centre of Canberra provided a very different shopping experience. Civic was a series of pedestrian plazas with a small complex named The Monaro Mall. In 1989 this mall was enlarged to become the first Canberra Centre. There were howls of protest at the time about how the government’s deal to sell off land would result in a commercial venture that would block Ainslie Avenue.

In the end the property lobby won the day and the government sold the car park and part of the street (now there’s an idea – sell off more streets!). The Centre went ahead and the major axis from the London Circuit up Ainslie Avenue was no longer. Canberra had a box mall plonked right into the city’s commercial and social heart.

Years later, the ACT Government sold off the car parks to the west to allow the Canberra Centre to expand further (some things never change). Residents protested that Civic was designed to be a set of open plazas and that having an even larger big box mall would destroy the ambience of Civic, being a popular place to wander about and to shop for nearly everything including hardware. Again, the property lobby won the day (things really never change).

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Small businesses also protested, as they were worried that the large mall would maul the surrounding shops. They were right. The open plazas have never been the same. Over the last decade there have been many closures and many lingering ‘For lease’ signs. Unfortunately, Garema Place descended into the centre for crime in Canberra.

Today the main pedestrian areas of City Walk, Garema Place and Petrie Place have loads of good things as a result of public spending on public art, landscape design, furniture and trees. That arm of the government is to be congratulated.

However, even allowing for the cold weather during these last weeks, the open areas are seriously devoid of people and activity. The whole place feels shabby. Even the officially sanctioned graffiti and painted artworks add to the desolation as they compound the unfriendly nature now prevalent around Civic.

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Back in the early 1970’s a new Big Idea confronted the government bureaucrats. Until then, cafés in Canberra (and indeed in most places in Australia), did not have outside tables. The bureaucrats were worried that if people were seated outside then flies could get into the food and pedestrians would be at risk if tables and chairs cluttered the sidewalks.

Gus Petersilka was from Vienna and could not understand why tables were not allowed outside. Rather than heeding the restrictions of the planning bureaucrats, he pursued his Big Idea and placed tables outside his café, Gus’s Café. The bureaucracy responded by raiding the place in the early hours and taking away all the furniture. It made for great headlines and the public responded in support of Gus. After more unbelievable episodes like that and more raids and lots of public protests about the stupidity of the planners, the politicians agreed to the radical step of having outside tables.

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Next time you walk around Civic, think about the battle that Gus won and what Civic would look like if the planning bureaucrats had been allowed to maintain their precious planning legislation. There’s a plaque near Gus’s Café to honour him but it does not mention the early morning raids and the attitude of the planning bureaucrats to change (heard that before?).

In the end it was the growth in cafes, complete with outside tables (thanks to Gus) that brought life back into some areas of these plazas. However the people still flock into the big box and the outside precincts continue to struggle.

In recent years we have seen several special events staged in Civic in the hope of getting people back into the area. The trouble being that while these have been successful as social events, they have done little to encourage the daily shoppers away from the mall.

The government continues to do the right thing to make the open areas attractive but this has had very limited impact. Our politicians’ big problem is that the buildings themselves are overdue for refurbishment but that these are owned by finance companies that are not rushing to upgrade.

Civic has become an urgent urban planning problem for the ACT Government. The planning bureaucrats have seriously struggled to work out how to begin to address the problems their predecessors and the property industry have passed down to them. The best they have done is to fly in a continuous stream of international and interstate experts in the hope that someone will eventually drop that Big Idea.

This article is the first in a three-part series exploring Civic’s past, present and future.

What’s Your opinion?


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Civic an urgent urban planning problem
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rubaiyat 10:09 am 14 May 15

sepi said :

I actually really like Gungahlin shops, where you can go inside, but also can walk along the outside and cross the road to other shops. I don’t want to be stuck inside all the time.

I agree there isn’t much to them but it was the one thing the planners got more right than wrong.

And surprise surprise it is sunny! At least on the south side.

P.S. Why not convert ALL the open space in the City into Car Parks, it is obviously what people “need” and enjoy.

sepi 10:57 pm 13 May 15

I actually really like Gungahlin shops, where you can go inside, but also can walk along the outside and cross the road to other shops. I don’t want to be stuck inside all the time.

rubaiyat 10:02 am 11 May 15

Bennop said :

Hang on, thats cr*p. Do people not remember skate in the city?

…and the camel rides! 😀

Bennop 9:12 am 11 May 15

Maya123 said :

JC said :

I am surprised to see that some think the desolate nature of the city centre is a) something recent and b) the result of the mall. Having lived in this town since the late 70’s I personally don’t recall it ever being that vibrant. Yes there were more shops but if you stop and think many of these ships were small independents that the country over have closed due to people’s preference for brand stores. Yes maybe we could blame the malls but then again the businesses themselves are to blame for not providing what the consumer wants b

Then of course in civic we have seen Youngs get taken over by Grace Bros and eventually close their stores, Woolworths Vareity closed nationwide so leaves very little ‘big stores’ to fill the space.

Then of course we have Snowtown distorting the office rental market by building outside the territory plan which I turn has stopped the growth of Civic and whilst parts are seeing residential it is all mostly on the ANU side of Northborne or in Braddon. So again not much to bring people into City Walk.

I lived in Civic for a time in the 1970s, and from my experience actually living there, rather than visiting, it had more life when the Mall was only the Monaro Mall. The big mall has killed it. I only visit the Mall when I ‘must’. It does not encourage me to hang around and browse. Get what I want and and get out.

Agreed.

However, it has always been a grey ghostland when the winter comes. There is not that much that can be done about that apparently.

Hang on, thats cr*p. Do people not remember skate in the city?

dlenihan 10:11 pm 10 May 15

I work Mon-Fri in Civic and dislike it immensely. Garema Place and City Walk is devoid of any draw cards and full of vagrants and chuggers. The stench of the laneways off Bunda St and around the Sydney and Melbourne buildings is enough to make anyone not want to visit. There is no charm in the smell of over-flowing dumpsters, vomit and urine. The Canberra Centre has no shops of interest, just clothes shops upon clothes shops. Myers and David Jones are struggling dinosaurs of days long gone.

What the Civic needs is a draw card, markets may be the answer, maybe a better mix of shopping. Quick fix is likely destination restaurants, but at the moment the thought of going back in the city after hours,for me is not on.

Its simply a grey depressing dump.

bd84 9:13 pm 10 May 15

cea075 said :

I just love that the Canberra Centre is owned by the Queensland Investments Corporation. Just seems rather hilarious to me.

Well it isn’t overly amusing until you add that QIC is wholly owned by the Queensland Government. The QIC also own many of the buildings opposite the Canberra Centre. The QLD Government probably owns over a quarter of the Canberra CBD.

Maya123 6:30 pm 10 May 15

sepi said :

and now they are trying to kill of dickson with a giant Mall as well.

nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

My thoughts exactly!

dungfungus 5:01 pm 10 May 15

rubaiyat said :

dungfungus said :

It’s the Canberra Cringe – we have to mimic Europe and if that means going broke like Europe has, so be it.

Or mimic America down to the street beggars. In San Francisco they sleep on your doorstep.

The only reason America isn’t officially broke yet is if China, England or any of the other nations holding U.S. debt call it in, that’ll make the Great Depression look like a Sunday Picnic.

It is also why America is frantically blowing trillions of dollars on badly managed wars to maintain the oil interests, because petrodollars are now a substantial part of America’s economy, and printing them and manufacturing weapons are the last viable industries left to The States.

Europe has more sophisticated street beggars who can abuse you in several different languages if you refuse to give them money.
Don’t kid yourself that Europe doesn’t have a major problem with homeless people either. There are camps (mainly the Roma) on the outskirts (where the tourists don’t go) of all major citys in Europe.

rubaiyat 4:22 pm 10 May 15

sepi said :

and now they are trying to kill of dickson with a giant Mall as well.

nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

Does that take the prize as the worst design in a City built as the Museum to Bad Design?

A gigantic wall on the NORTHSIDE of the Dickson shops, casting an enormous shadow over everything else particularly in winter when we should be enjoying the sun.

I have repeatedly pointed out just how this is the set piece stupidity all over Canberra, and many people have said, “Oh no that was ‘Then'”.

Well here we are: “Then” all over again. Again.

Just came back from the “Café Lifestyle” (in reality Deep Fried Potato Cake Lifestyle) of Googong, after having done Molonglo yesterday. You either have to laugh or cry.

2015 and we are still creating badly built, designed and oriented MacMansions on tiny remote suburbia, an expensive and pointless drive from anywhere. And to accommodate the real estate speculation yet another dual carriageway built at taxpayers’ expense, subsidising all the bad ideas.

Spoke to one of the builders, who was fully cognisant of what is going on, but has to comply with all the restrictions placed on the micro-blocks, particularly the killer double garage built facing the street and eating up most the good orientation and face of the houses. Double garages that cost more to build than the cars they supposedly protect, cars that are “essential” because they are the end of a chain of bad decisions by government, planners, developers, builders and the starry eyed consumers for whom this is their first major house purchase and to which they will be fettered with a 30 year mortgage.

sepi 11:14 pm 09 May 15

and now they are trying to kill of dickson with a giant Mall as well.

nooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

rubaiyat 12:48 am 09 May 15

rommeldog56 said :

I wouldn’t worry about a lack of people in Civic outside the Canberra Centre though. As I understand it Civic can be expected to “grow up” – along with the rest of Canberra – when the light rail fixes everything.

Have all the roads and car parks fixed everything yet?

We have this mess now, with billions upon billions spent on “beautifying” Canberra with hundreds of square kilometres of bitumen and concrete (55% of Canberra is devoted to cars and roads).

rubaiyat 12:36 am 09 May 15

dungfungus said :

It’s the Canberra Cringe – we have to mimic Europe and if that means going broke like Europe has, so be it.

Or mimic America down to the street beggars. In San Francisco they sleep on your doorstep.

The only reason America isn’t officially broke yet is if China, England or any of the other nations holding U.S. debt call it in, that’ll make the Great Depression look like a Sunday Picnic.

It is also why America is frantically blowing trillions of dollars on badly managed wars to maintain the oil interests, because petrodollars are now a substantial part of America’s economy, and printing them and manufacturing weapons are the last viable industries left to The States.

Maya123 7:36 pm 08 May 15

JC said :

I am surprised to see that some think the desolate nature of the city centre is a) something recent and b) the result of the mall. Having lived in this town since the late 70’s I personally don’t recall it ever being that vibrant. Yes there were more shops but if you stop and think many of these ships were small independents that the country over have closed due to people’s preference for brand stores. Yes maybe we could blame the malls but then again the businesses themselves are to blame for not providing what the consumer wants b

Then of course in civic we have seen Youngs get taken over by Grace Bros and eventually close their stores, Woolworths Vareity closed nationwide so leaves very little ‘big stores’ to fill the space.

Then of course we have Snowtown distorting the office rental market by building outside the territory plan which I turn has stopped the growth of Civic and whilst parts are seeing residential it is all mostly on the ANU side of Northborne or in Braddon. So again not much to bring people into City Walk.

I lived in Civic for a time in the 1970s, and from my experience actually living there, rather than visiting, it had more life when the Mall was only the Monaro Mall. The big mall has killed it. I only visit the Mall when I ‘must’. It does not encourage me to hang around and browse. Get what I want and and get out.

dungfungus 6:21 pm 08 May 15

rosscoact said :

For those with very short memories here is what happened to create this situation.

After a decade of virtually no commercial development anywhere in Canberra (caused by Howard’s razor gang), virtually every shop and office in Civic and Fyshwick was full and it was a total sellers market. High prices for crappy stock, you had to take what you could get.

However, land was released when things started to look good, demand for commercial space was so high that ACTPLA wasn’t allowed to stand in the way of development and Snow Town was stealing tenants left right and centre.

QIC won the auction for the Civic shopping and office site and like other developers built a lot of floor space. The new developments were more attractive and not much more in rent than the crappy older spaces. To encourage businesses to go to the new shop areas QIC also bought up many older freestanding shops in the mall and allowed them to stay vacant.

It was a successful ploy and their centre remains full. Too bad for the look of the mall as people got new habits and shifted to the other side of Bunda street. Nothing complex about it, just commercial interests overcoming bureaucratic ineptitude. Happens every day in every city in the world.

“After a decade of virtually no commercial development anywhere in Canberra (caused by Howard’s razor gang), virtually every shop and office in Civic and Fyshwick was full……”
I must have been on holidays during that ten years.
When was the start and when was the finish, exactly?

rosscoact 5:05 pm 08 May 15

For those with very short memories here is what happened to create this situation.

After a decade of virtually no commercial development anywhere in Canberra (caused by Howard’s razor gang), virtually every shop and office in Civic and Fyshwick was full and it was a total sellers market. High prices for crappy stock, you had to take what you could get.

However, land was released when things started to look good, demand for commercial space was so high that ACTPLA wasn’t allowed to stand in the way of development and Snow Town was stealing tenants left right and centre.

QIC won the auction for the Civic shopping and office site and like other developers built a lot of floor space. The new developments were more attractive and not much more in rent than the crappy older spaces. To encourage businesses to go to the new shop areas QIC also bought up many older freestanding shops in the mall and allowed them to stay vacant.

It was a successful ploy and their centre remains full. Too bad for the look of the mall as people got new habits and shifted to the other side of Bunda street. Nothing complex about it, just commercial interests overcoming bureaucratic ineptitude. Happens every day in every city in the world.

dungfungus 4:13 pm 08 May 15

JesterNoir said :

Just putting it out there..
Why do we need crowds? Have we all been brainwashed by Sydney and Melbourne into thinking that we have to have lots of people jammed into one space in order to be a city?

Canberra has a vibrant life, with plenty of opportunities for entertainment. Why do we have to be crowded?

It’s the Canberra Cringe – we have to mimic Europe and if that means going broke like Europe has, so be it.

rommeldog56 4:03 pm 08 May 15

damien haas said :

I was in Civic on a Sunday at midday a few weeks ago. There was not a solitary person visible to me in any direction from the empty space in front of the merry go round. Very troubling. it was a sunny day, so weather wasn’t to blame.

If people visit a shopping venue it is to shop or because a destination store has drawn them. Canberra Centre has assiduously attracted those destination stores.

Parking and a controlled environment all day every day assist, but people will still walk a few hundred metres to visit something they want to visit or if they need to.

Looking at the volume of closed shop spaces in the heart of Civic, it is clear that there is a market failure. The landlords must be keeping the lease rates artificially high or those spaces would be let to small business people with an idea, a speculative business venture or a pop-up style space filler.

That is the policy space the government can work in. One off festivals don’t help traders all year round.

I don’t go into Civic for shopping and eateries purely because parking is just too expensive so I spend my $ in the satellite CBDs shopping centres and increasingly, at my local shops.

I wouldn’t worry about a lack of people in Civic outside the Canberra Centre though. As I understand it Civic can be expected to “grow up” – along with the rest of Canberra – when the light rail fixes everything.

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