Grunge capital: It’s time to clean up Civic’s mean streets

Ian Bushnell 13 June 2021 35
Verity Lane, Sydney Building Civic

The peeling paint of the Sydney Building in Civic. Photos: Michelle Kroll.

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.


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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.

Verity Lane, Sydney Building Civic

The view inside Verity Lane. It’s taking a long time to realise the laneways’ potential’.

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.


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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.


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35 Responses to Grunge capital: It’s time to clean up Civic’s mean streets
Ollie Skylark Ollie Skylark 4:12 pm 16 Jun 21

aren't all cities planned to some extent? What is so special about Canberra planning? How is it different from other capital cities - Washinington DC and other organic cities - Sydney?

rossau rossau 12:07 am 16 Jun 21

Ian Bushnell, Canberra’s Civic is more vibrant and vital than ever before in the prior 25 years. Before then it was vibrant too but now begins to regain its former self. I don’t understand what’s your problem.

flapdoodle flapdoodle 9:19 pm 15 Jun 21

Anyone who has ever or continues to vote for Barr and his band of incompetents are getting what they deserve. The tram is not needed the business case doesn’t stack up and what else could a billion dollars have bought?
And please before you tell me I’m wrong, do some research. The tram is NOT about relieving congestion, climate change or agglomeration benefits it IS about revenue and in filling spaces which were never ever meant to be built on. Expect even more ugly units. Has anyone though of how raising London Circuit will look. Vote for Barr, get more of this sh*t and shame on all of you!

Brian Ashcroft Brian Ashcroft 7:13 pm 15 Jun 21

urban maintenance since the start of self government has always been an underfunded disaster-Canberra was once a showpiece-quickly becoming a dump-grass cut to a recipe dictated by funding regardless of need (height)-trees planted but then left to struggle (no formative pruning), parkland established then left to rot and erode away (once was fertilised every spring and oversown when sparse),public toilet a disgrace (filthy), footpaths cracked and crumbled-high quality landscapes constructed in new suburbs e.g. Forde, then handed over to ACT Gove with totally inadequate maintenance budget (but looked good while the public purchased houses and land-I could go on but, you get the message.

Phil Hogan Phil Hogan 4:37 pm 15 Jun 21

I agree 100% I have lived here all my life (64 years) and never seen it like this and it’s not only Civic Dickson, Woden, Tuggeranong & lots of other shopping centres and it’s worst around the bus stops they look like they have not been cleaned for year’s

Brenda Cooke Brenda Cooke 3:30 pm 15 Jun 21

The Tuggeranong Parkway is strewn with litter from Glenloch to Woden. And weeds out of control. This is embarrassing and can imagine what the visitors passing through think. Millions of dollars spent on trams should be redirected on fixing up our neglected roads etc. Money grabbing by this ACT govt is wrong when the whole place is neglected.

Richard Orchard Richard Orchard 11:04 am 15 Jun 21

Retail space is always troublesome to rent out- it’s either that landlords want rents and leases, with personal guarantees, that will ruin any family business owner who has a go but fails, including taking their home. Right. Also, in an environment where retail really is just being reduced to either chain stores in malls, or restaurants and cafes, with online sales really something that will continue to grow- the rents and the values in the older kind of shops like in the Sydney and Melbourne buildings are just unsustainable. So, they end up with huge numbers of vacant shops. Then, with no income, the landlord has trouble with cashflow, so can’t invest in the place and it’s a vicious circle.

Perhaps these are iconic buildings, and maybe should be purchased by the ACT government and re purposed as cultural assets. Then they’d all be in the same title, you could punch walls out, or keep the facades and roofs and build a totally new guts, including covering the interior lanes. It could be still some restaurant space, and museum/town hall/ CIT campus/extension of ANU campus- that kind of thing. It’s the pretty facades and colonnades and red roofs that are the important heritage parts. What’s behind those front walls is certainly not as important, and they occupy a great space.

In other news- move the bus interchange underground under Northborne Avenue, under the tram stop, and get underpasses to cross Northborne from the tram stop.

Margaret Tuckwell Margaret Tuckwell 7:53 am 15 Jun 21

Nobody owns the whole buildings, but individuals so hard to enforce rules.

Kriso Hadskini Kriso Hadskini 7:27 am 15 Jun 21

The highways that approach are a disgrace too. So much large rubbish on every approach road to Canberra. Its embarassing. People need to properly tie down their trucks.

Rob Tomsen Rob Tomsen 6:00 am 15 Jun 21

The worst city in Australia

HiddenDragon HiddenDragon 7:27 pm 14 Jun 21

So the light rail terminus (and the pretty lights in the trees) haven’t done the trick with all that “activation” and “enlivening” etc. etc. that was promised – what a surprise.

Perhaps if there was more in the way of waiving of rapacious revenue grabs in return for specific improvements, rather than “waving of regulatory sticks”, there might be some worthwhile changes to the Civic grunge zone.

Admitting policy failure is not in the DNA of the ACT government, so more likely we’ll get another deluded vision along the lines of Northbourne Avenue as the Champs Elysees and Canberra as London on the Molonglo, complete with “Night Mayor”.

May Mac May Mac 6:29 pm 14 Jun 21

If the Sydney and Melbourne Buildings could be constructed in separately owned sections which created the beautiful buildings that they were for decades, I do not understand why they can't be maintained properly now?

Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 5:08 pm 14 Jun 21

The entire bus interchange needs to be moved and something more needs to be done with the centre of the city’s that more than putting some out door furniture all over the place

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 11:33 am 15 Jun 21

    Dingo Dom Shanahan No, the bus interchange needs to be better incorporated into the centre of the city, not removed. More people should be using public transport to get to the city. People should be able to arrive by public transport and be in the city centre, not in an interchange removed out of the centre and then they have to walk to the centre. Public transport needs to be at the centre of things.

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 12:22 pm 15 Jun 21

    Julie Macklin I agree public transport needs to be at the forefront of a good city I just think it could be better incorporated

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 12:23 pm 15 Jun 21

    It’s also extremely dated and looks terrible

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 5:27 pm 15 Jun 21

    Julie Macklin what do you define as the centre of the city?

    I consider it to be City Hill, in which case the interchange is as close as can it practically can be unless the proposed plan to put it under the carparks next to city hill is rehashed.

    And when it comes to here people go to it is also about as centre as practically can be.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 6:14 pm 15 Jun 21

    Ashley Wright Roughly this area.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 6:16 pm 15 Jun 21

    Julie Macklin that might be the centre of the shopping area but the city is far bigger than that and the interchange needs to service all of it.

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 9:48 pm 15 Jun 21

    Ashley Wright The Interchange can't be everywhere. This is the area where likely most people want to visit, so a suitable place for the Interchange. Not many people visit City Hill.

    Ashley Wright Ashley Wright 9:57 pm 15 Jun 21

    Julie Macklin I didn’t suggest the interchange should be at city hill. Just pointed out the current interchange is already as close as practical to the middle of the city.

    As many head west of the current interchange as they do to the east.

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 10:25 pm 15 Jun 21

    Also it’s totally impractical why does it have to take up so much space, they should move it down the road on northbourne avenue, get rid of that huge taxi tank.

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 10:25 pm 15 Jun 21

    I catch the bus and I’d be fine to walk like 50 meters more

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 10:26 pm 15 Jun 21

    Actually the interchange sucks so much !

    Dingo Dom Shanahan Dingo Dom Shanahan 10:31 pm 15 Jun 21

    My suggestion is to fill in the road and build all new buildings in the space

    Julie Macklin Julie Macklin 10:33 pm 15 Jun 21

    Dingo Dom Shanahan It needs to be attractive to the most people. It's not how far you would walk, but how far people who normally drive would be willing to walk. Too far and they won't be attracted to use a bus.

    On wet days when I didn't want to ride my bike to work, I would catch the bus to a stop near Civic and then walk two kilometres to work, but most people wouldn't.

Robert Hawes Robert Hawes 4:35 pm 14 Jun 21

The Melbourne and Sydney buildings need some work. Repainting so that there is something other than a car park in the middle of the buildings.

Gabriel Spacca Gabriel Spacca 4:07 pm 14 Jun 21

If Oxford was subject to the development whims of the Canberra “planners”, these buildings would’ve been replaced by high-rise hotels a long time ago. You can revitalise without destroying, and new isn’t necessarily better.

Nick Savino Nick Savino 3:19 pm 14 Jun 21

Maybe some people like it a bit grunge …. Next time I’m in civic I’ll grab some pine o clean and give it a scrub.. I feel safe as day or night ..

John Dawson John Dawson 3:09 pm 14 Jun 21

The government needs to just fix the buildings and send the owners the bill. They have had ample time to make repairs. Simples

Nick Swain Nick Swain 2:21 pm 14 Jun 21

The Melbourne and Sydney buildings are very special. They were the first shops in Civic and are beautifully designed giving the centre of Canberra some real character. It’s sad that some of the owners have no pride in these historic buildings and apparently cannot see that this can be leveraged to commercial advantage. The owner of Verity Lane markets does get it. Also the government may need to be a tad more assertive in enforcing heritage requirements.

ChrisinTurner ChrisinTurner 1:42 pm 14 Jun 21

Imagine the improvements that could be made if the government gave up spending $billions on replacing a few buses with trams. We could not only fix Civic but also our hospitals, schools, police and prison.

    JC JC 7:08 pm 14 Jun 21

    60m a year (cost of lightrail) doesn’t go that far. Some seem to think it’s a magic pudding.

    chewy14 chewy14 8:02 am 15 Jun 21

    JC,
    $60million a year for one stage of light rail that services a tiny minority of the population.

    With the government committing to more stages, that number will grow substantially.

    And when you consider that the entire transport budget (not just public transport) is less than $500million, it’s a massive burden on an already extremely stretched budget.

Ol L Ol L 9:37 am 14 Jun 21

Odjers lane used to be no more than a late night toilet. Any improvement on that is good step

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