26 August 2020

If Garema Place is part of Canberra's 'soul', we're in purgatory

| Zoya Patel
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Garema Place

Garema Place used to be a hub of outdoor dining and a safe environment. Remember? Photo: File.

Outdoor malls and paved public spaces have been the hallmarks of vibrant cities the world over. Singapore, New York, Wellington, Shanghai – these are just some of the locations where I have enjoyed a meander through a bustling outdoor boulevard lined with stores and cafes and thriving with locals and visitors alike.

When I take those images and transpose them to Canberra’s Garema Place, the vision dims somewhat.

Garema Place has been the subject of debate for many years and has evolved over decades through numerous versions of its potential. Older relatives remember a time when Garema Place was the hub of outdoor dining, a safe environment to enjoy a meal while letting the children play in the open square.

Of course, other memories will include the ongoing use of the space by the homeless, down and out, and drug-addicted members of our community, its proximity to the bus interchange bringing all sections of Canberra’s wider populace together (whether they like it or not).

But even just in my own memory of frequenting Garema Place over the last 15 years, I’ve witnessed the swift decline from a space that still clung onto some remnants of the glory it was designed to encompass into a hollow empty space where (imagined) tumbleweeds blow, only enlivened three times a day when office workers walk to and from work or travel through the space to grab lunch at the Canberra Centre food court.

The outdoor dining culture, the use of the space for rallies and public events (difficult to imagine in COVID-19, but they did happen and could still happen again) seems destined to die out, especially if the development plans for a hotel by Geocon, and the inevitable ongoing expansion of the Canberra Centre unfolds (the latter might not be locked down, but I can’t imagine prime real estate just across the street from the existing Centre will be left untouched for long).

READ MORE Instagramable rooftop and new Gus’ Cafe within new greenlit Geocon Garema Place hotel development

Now, as plans for a mixed-use precinct on the north side of Haig Park from Braddon are promoted, I can’t help but wonder why the City Renewal Authority maintains the charade that the government gives a hoot about revitalising Garema Place when all of the development to date seems bent on driving traffic further and further away from it?

A consultation recently closed on the place plan being drafted for Petrie Plaza, City Walk and Garema Place, and I’ll certainly wait to see the proposed strategy when it’s announced. But it does seem interesting that in the many years throughout which Canberrans have been calling for a revitalisation of Garema Place, numerous other development plans for the areas around the city (indeed, the areas closer to various apartment developments), have been swiftly approved and put into action.

The City Renewal Authority states on its website that Garema Place is part of the ‘the heart and soul of Canberra.’ If that’s the case, and so little attention has been paid to it, Canberra’s soul appears to be in purgatory.

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Gus Petasilka drew up several plans for Garema Place when he moved there from Manuka – I will check out the box of plans at the Canberra & District Historical Society. Fairly sure he had a central kiosk for starters. Definitely no high rise blocking out the light.

Queanbeyanite8:25 pm 03 Sep 20

I remember back in the 80’s when unelected bureaucrats considered it immoral to drink coffee after Saturday lunchtime, it was all tumbleweeds and empty concrete.

They were right; now it’s packed with the drunk, drugged and Greenpeace touts all week.

Of course the local council now think this colosseum a national attraction, worthy of a 5 star hotel. I recall the chief minister promoting its closeness to the tram to Gungarlin as an other major attraction.

I suggest the council take a well earned break and leave it up to the surrounding landlords and tenants, what’s left of them, to come up with their own solution on which they can spend their own money to implement.

A common complaint and analysis outcome related to urban planning is that the Civic pedestrian malls are too wide, giving a sense of emptiness. Practical solutions would be to fill the median of the pedestrian malls with stalls, such as food stalls, for example.

Ugh so true. Though I think Garema did get better pre covid with restaurants like iPho, Pepper Lunch, the Italian patisserie / gelato place, etc. I really wish they’d move those shoe shops elsewhere as that could be utilised for more cafes / restaurants too. More live music and buskers could be good too to provide a vibe?

‘Those shoe shops’? Redpaths and Frawleys were recently acknowledged as two the oldest businesses in Canberra (https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/6480784/canberras-oldest-businesses-revealed/) but yeah, let’s just get rid of them cause they don’t support the ‘vibe’.

I’m now into my 50’s and lived in Canberra on and off for 45 of those years and I don’t ever recall Gaerma place being vibrant, nor do I ever recall it being an outdoor dinning mecca where you sit outside to eat and let the kids run wild.

The food places I remember were mostly takeaway shops, one or two may have had some seats outside. But when it comes to food choices there are more of them now than ever and more have outside seating that ever. In fact food is the one thing that seems to be doing ok in this part of town.

It seems to me this article has been written through some very foggy glasses and some very forgot memories of times gone by.

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