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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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57 Responses to
Civic an urgent urban planning problem
Heavs 4:41 pm 06 May 15

Why not jam some grassed areas into City Walk rather than paving everywhere. Or a linear park. At the moment it’s basically a road without vehicle access.

Rollersk8r 2:56 pm 06 May 15

rubaiyat said :

City Walk, Garema Place and Petrie Place need to be retained, perhaps even declared a National Trust monument.

We need to be reminded of just what the dead hand of the NCP Planners and a total lack of imagination can do to cities.

Architecture students and Town Planning students from all over Australia need to walk through the cold, windswept, badly oriented design that totally ignored sunshine and any effort at northern orientation. The Canberra Plan writ small. Repeated in every local shopping centre throughout the ACT to this day.

They can cast their eyes down on the dreary paving, and around at the tank barrier landscaping, located solely by “plunking” the method by which people who don’t know what they are doing arrange things on a plan.

The more keen eyed can observe the way shopfronts and entries are laid out to hide, not reveal or entice, to create dead spots, not life. The dull bland use of materials and cheap as chips aesthetics. The use of potentially interesting courtyards as car and dumpster parking. The aesthetic-free zone. The battle zone where Gus could fight the good fight because the had nothing to lose.

Everything that made the 50’s and 60’s the reason why you stayed indoors and watched black and white television instead, because it was so much MORE life like and colourful.

Don’t touch it! We need to keep it just the way it is, as a warning: “Those who don’t learn from history…”

So I gather you love the place!?

rubaiyat 2:55 pm 06 May 15

There is one immediate, low cost and game changing move that can bring Civic back to life, which will be greated with open arms by nearly everybody, EXCEPT those wanting to keep the status quo.

Open up City Walk and Petrie Place to a regular market.

We have nothing to lose and a lot to gain.

Canberra now has good food and local produce, and could have far more.

There is a proven interest in food, street life and enjoyment of what open city hearts can offer.

Hustle and Scout and The Forage were wildly successful out at Fairbairn and have lost that home. Time to bring them back into the heart of the city.

Permanently.

Holden Caulfield 2:28 pm 06 May 15

Market forces have dictated that people want to shop in the mall (ie. that’s where the decent shops are).

Let’s face it, in winter the Canberra Centre is more appealing than walking from the cold into the next overheated shop time after time.

At the same time, the paved sections of the city are pretty dismal and lifeless and this is one of Canberra’s least appealing aspects.

I agree also that the spaces of Petrie Plaza, Garema Place etc are often filled with people who further make the spaces undesirable, whether that’s chuggers, people begging or whatever.

It’s easy enough to isolate the problems, it’s much harder to come up with workable solutions. Especially when you have the QIC knocking your door down to give you more money so it can expand the Canberra Centre.

And we’re back where we started!

Felix the Cat 2:10 pm 06 May 15

I find shopping malls to be more convenient to shop at. They generally have a good range of shops all in the one airconditioned undercover area that is away from the freezing winter wind or summer heat. And as wildturkeycanoe mentioned no chuggers or drunks/druggos.

Though saying that I very rarely go to Canberra Centre even though I work in Civic, preferring other shopping malls such as Belconnen.

bryansworld 1:25 pm 06 May 15

rubaiyat said :

City Walk, Garema Place and Petrie Place need to be retained, perhaps even declared a National Trust monument.

We need to be reminded of just what the dead hand of the NCP Planners and a total lack of imagination can do to cities.

Architecture students and Town Planning students from all over Australia need to walk through the cold, windswept, badly oriented design that totally ignored sunshine and any effort at northern orientation. The Canberra Plan writ small. Repeated in every local shopping centre throughout the ACT to this day.

They can cast their eyes down on the dreary paving, and around at the tank barrier landscaping, located solely by “plunking” the method by which people who don’t know what they are doing arrange things on a plan.

The more keen eyed can observe the way shopfronts and entries are laid out to hide, not reveal or entice, to create dead spots, not life. The dull bland use of materials and cheap as chips aesthetics. The use of potentially interesting courtyards as car and dumpster parking. The aesthetic-free zone. The battle zone where Gus could fight the good fight because the had nothing to lose.

Everything that made the 50’s and 60’s the reason why you stayed indoors and watched black and white television instead, because it was so much MORE life like and colourful.

Don’t touch it! We need to keep it just the way it is, as a warning: “Those who don’t learn from history…”

Beautifully written, and partially correct. However, there were more people walking around these areas twenty years ago, when the shopping mall was significantly smaller. The lifelessness cannot be blamed completely on those 60s NACADACA people!

dungfungus 12:47 pm 06 May 15

“Civic has become an urgent urban planning problem for the ACT Government”
No more than anywhere else in Canberra and is it any wonder when our leaders have a “pop-up” mindset?

rubaiyat 12:27 pm 06 May 15

City Walk, Garema Place and Petrie Place need to be retained, perhaps even declared a National Trust monument.

We need to be reminded of just what the dead hand of the NCP Planners and a total lack of imagination can do to cities.

Architecture students and Town Planning students from all over Australia need to walk through the cold, windswept, badly oriented design that totally ignored sunshine and any effort at northern orientation. The Canberra Plan writ small. Repeated in every local shopping centre throughout the ACT to this day.

They can cast their eyes down on the dreary paving, and around at the tank barrier landscaping, located solely by “plunking” the method by which people who don’t know what they are doing arrange things on a plan.

The more keen eyed can observe the way shopfronts and entries are laid out to hide, not reveal or entice, to create dead spots, not life. The dull bland use of materials and cheap as chips aesthetics. The use of potentially interesting courtyards as car and dumpster parking. The aesthetic-free zone. The battle zone where Gus could fight the good fight because the had nothing to lose.

Everything that made the 50’s and 60’s the reason why you stayed indoors and watched black and white television instead, because it was so much MORE life like and colourful.

Don’t touch it! We need to keep it just the way it is, as a warning: “Those who don’t learn from history…”

Rollersk8r 12:26 pm 06 May 15

arescarti42 said :

I’m confused, what exactly is the problem here?

The mall is full of people because people want to shop there and businesses want to locate there.

Sure, Garema place is less busy, but it’s not exactly some desolate mad max wasteland, and it still functions fine as a public space for events like the multi-cultural festival.

The problem is the lifeless heart of the city. Centrepoint is the centre point of Civic – but look at all the vacant shops and struggling businesses there.

I was once in Garema and was asked by tourists “We’re from Melbourne and we’re looking for the city!?”. They roared with laughter when I said this is it!

bryansworld 11:57 am 06 May 15

arescarti42 said :

I’m confused, what exactly is the problem here?

The mall is full of people because people want to shop there and businesses want to locate there.

Sure, Garema place is less busy, but it’s not exactly some desolate mad max wasteland, and it still functions fine as a public space for events like the multi-cultural festival.

I go into the Mall because the shops I frequent are located there. I don’t go there to hang out. I would rather be out in the sunshine, under the trees! If the QIC gets its way, Civic will get closer and closer to a desolate mad max wasteland! Their interests are not to have a pleasant CBD. Their interests are those of their shareholders. Profit, and nothing else. Hence the role of government, in theory at least.

wildturkeycanoe 11:43 am 06 May 15

It’d be a more appealing place to walk through if you weren’t approached at every corner by somebody begging for donations to some cause or being affronted by drunks and/or people with seriously bad drug-related psychotic issues yelling abuse at their “friends”. Then there’s the chance of being involved in a bag snatch or just being abused because you haven’t got “Two bucks for bus fare”.
I have a real fear for my own or my children’s safety when walking in Civic, day or night. Until they clean the vermin out, it will never be an attractive place to go.

arescarti42 11:28 am 06 May 15

I’m confused, what exactly is the problem here?

The mall is full of people because people want to shop there and businesses want to locate there.

Sure, Garema place is less busy, but it’s not exactly some desolate mad max wasteland, and it still functions fine as a public space for events like the multi-cultural festival.

bryansworld 11:23 am 06 May 15

It’s a bit sad that the CBD of the Nation”s Capital is dominated by an ever-expanding shopping mall. Couldn’t a bit of effort be made with the Canberra Centre’s leases to curb their tendency to design much of the outside of the development to be unwelcoming – that is designed to funnel people into the mall? There shoudl at least be shopfronts all around the oustide, like the cafe part of Bunda Street. Much of Bunda Street bordering the Canberra Centre is characterised by blank shopping mall walls. Isn’t this the role of Government, to encourage development, but in a way that enhances the amenity of the city?

Rollersk8r 10:08 am 06 May 15

I keep a pretty keen eye on Civic, what’s opening, what’s closing, what’s for lease, where the people are and aren’t. Although it doesn’t take much to realise the above: Garema is a graveyard and all the people are “pulled” to the bright lights of the mall. I do a lap of City Walk every day – but inevitably end up inside the mall, for no particular reason, other than that’s where everyone is!

I thought the idea of reopening City Walk to vehicle traffic wasn’t a bad one – may as well, nobody else is using it! There’s also a massive amount of foot traffic coming up from the Casino end of Civic, although it seems most of the businesses down there are also being bypassed. How many times has the old Barbar restaurant (adjacent to the old Electric Shadows) closed and opened and closed again? I still think it’s a pretty good site – sit out there under the trees, a nice space to meet for drinks outside in warmer months – yet people walk by because there’s no action there…

An alternative, which would never fly economically, would be to level the Centrepoint building and turn the middle of Civic into a park. At least then it would be an attractive and convenient place for people to go out and eat their lunch etc.

Of course, compounding all this is the “Braddon effect”, creating even more pull in that direction.

cea075 9:59 am 06 May 15

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

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