Scentre Group, the owner of Canberra’s Westfield shopping centres in Woden and Belconnen, has long-term plans to change how they do business and connect with the community.
It wants to turn its big, sealed and self-contained boxes inside out, following the trend started years ago in the US to make the insular shopping mall face outward, with active retail and hospitality frontages.
Scentre Group now calls their shopping centres ‘living centres’ to emphasise this new philosophy.
Obviously, it sees this as a good business strategy to better engage customers and make the best use of its land assets.
In Woden, Scentre Group is the biggest landholder in the Town Centre, not just owning Westfield itself but a bunch of sites outside its walls, including multi-storey car parks and Bonner House East, which it plans to redevelop into an A-grade office block with a government tenant, and the obligatory ground floor retail and hospitality.
Woden Valley Community Council has praised the approach as refreshing, fighting as it has for many years for new life in the Town Centre beyond the mall, particularly the Town Square.
Scentre Group has acknowledged that retail needs to reinvent itself and that the Town Square frontage is ripe for renewal, but its main game is on Bradley Street where it wants to extend its dining strip and pedestrianise the area.
The rest of its plans at this stage are fuzzy, and will rely on a masterplanning process.
The move comes after the Hellenic Club unveiled its own masterplan to expand onto the surface car park, building a new auditorium, hotel and office block, like Scentre Group, to meet the demand for quality stock and secure a long-term income stream.
The club needs to secure its future, but the changing demographics of Woden, much like Belconnen, also demand a response from service providers.
In the next five years, there will be thousands of new apartments and thousands of new residents who will need more than just coffee and alcohol.
There will be a new transport interchange, including eventually a light rail link, and the new CIT will also inject thousands of students into the area.
What worries the Woden Valley Community Council is that all this building and economic activity will be an uncoordinated mishmash of precincts that may have lots of new retail, restaurants and bars – the promised vibrant urban cityscape that developers and government love to spruik – but without the community facilities that people really need, apart from those locked away within private developments.
It appears the government is hoping the private sector will do all the heavy lifting, but it is unlikely to furnish a multi-sports indoor facility so kids don’t have to go to Tuggeranong to play a game of basketball.
Indeed, it seems the government might be hoping the co-location model might suffice, such as local teams using new facilities in local school upgrades.
This approach may seem economical for a cash-strapped government but is unlikely to be adequate.
Another issue is the white elephant that is the privately-owned outdoor Woden pool that is in need of repair and, of course, can only operate in the warmer months.
An enclosed all-year-round facility that swimming and water polo clubs can use, like the new Stromlo Leisure Centre, is required.
The issue of the pool and associated ice skating rink will need to be resolved quickly as the Town Centre evolves around it.
There is also the question of how much open space, acknowledged as important for residents’ mental and physical health, will remain after the development boom.
The government needs to get more actively involved to ensure that the outcomes of Woden’s exciting renewal now underway will benefit the people who will live there and those surrounding the Town Centre who will look to it as a hub.
Most of the big private developers may have good intentions and want quality outcomes, but they also have their own agendas.
The people of Woden deserve better planning and enough community facilities to meet the demand that is already there but will explode in a few short years.
It would be easy to be cynical about Scentre Group’s intentions, but at least it is looking outward at its neighbours, and the notion of a living centre applied across the Town Centre would be welcome.