For a planned city that is supposed to be a shining light on the hill, Canberra is rotting at its core, and I don’t mean Parliament House.
A recent stroll through parts of Civic was an uncomfortable and disturbing experience, particularly along various sides of the heritage-listed but dilapidated Sydney Building, down East Row and parts of Bunda Street.
Run-down, with empty shopfronts and reeking of neglect, it felt neither safe nor secure. Grime attracts crime and I would hate to be walking around some of these places at night.
The grunge is in stark contrast to the marble tiles and high-end shops hidden away in the vastness of the Canberra Centre, blamed for sucking the life out of surrounding areas such as Garema Place.
But a city is more than a mall and these distressed streets have suffered for too long.
The City Renewal Authority has been trying to get the multiple owners of the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings to invest in their properties to smarten them up and create a city gateway worthy of the national capital.
Frustratingly, it is still a work in progress, despite the CRA’s cajoling and waving of regulatory sticks.
Its laneways project took another step last week with a contract for a design study to see how Odgers and Verity Lanes can be reborn as buzzy, people-filled places instead of the unkempt and on-the-nose back entrances they are.
But progress is excruciatingly slow and the area is being left behind as other parts of the city are transformed, such as the Constitution Place precinct next to the Legislative Assembly.
NewActon has for years set the benchmark for urban redevelopment, creating places that incorporate old and new that people feel comfortable in.
Civic is still waiting for something like that, and many people prefer to retreat behind the Canberra Centre walls.
The CRA also knows the bus interchange in Alinga Street and East Row is a problem and even contemplated going underground near City Hill at one point, but a solution seems a long way off.
The Sydney Building’s heritage status means that part of town will remain low-rise, but nearby on Garema Place and Bunda Street, Geocon’s high-rise hotel project will sweep away a wedge of the city that had lost its lifeforce.
There will be shadows, but the tradeoff will be a modern amenity, greater economic activity and a re-energised city centre.
It is pointless maintaining a dated, unattractive and dangerous environment in the name of holding back the development tide or misguided notions of heritage.
The trick is to ensure development that will set the tone for the city is up to scratch – surely not an impossible task.
Canberrans deserve a city centre that makes them want to be there, that makes them feel safe and which is in the spirit of the national capital.
At present, there are areas of Civic that are a disgrace and completely out of character with a modern planned city like Canberra. It’s time the neglect ended.