Behind the voice of urban gloom

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IN March, Opposition MLA Giulia Jones quizzed the Government over its supposed “neglect” of local shops and in April, demanded information on 13 empty blocks where petrol stations once stood.

In August, it was playgrounds “in urgent need of an upgrade” and eight houses in Amaroo she says have been “unfinished and abandoned” for about 10 years.

“Canberrans… deserve better than to have dilapidated shops in their suburbs as well as derelict petrol station sites and overgrown grassed areas,” Mrs Jones said on September 19, when she raised urban decay as a matter of public importance in the Assembly.

Does she have a point? Or is she just trying to score points?

The next day, “CityNews” agreed to go to Jones’ own local shops in Rivett to see the problems, she says, that affect many older suburbs.

Rivett has a typical vacant petrol station site and one empty shop with some graffiti and a pigeon problem.

“This is owned by a Greek family,” explained Giulia. “Famously, the son was running a little mini mart in here and he died in the shop, but we’re talking about 10 years ago and the family still owns it, and it’s difficult to know how to get it going again if the family doesn’t want to sell it, so this is a big problem here.”

Life got harder for suburban shops – especially small supermarkets – when trading hours were deregulated in 1997. Increased use of cars and the entrance of stores like Aldi and Costco has not helped.

In a rough 2km radius of Rivett shops is Cooleman Court, plus two other local centres at Chapman and Duffy. Is it possible that Canberra has too many shops?

“It’s absolutely a possibility,” Jones conceded, before suggesting traders could survive deregulation as some did in Hobart, where she grew up.

“They became delis instead of corner shops; the cafe became a luxurious cafe that you would travel two suburbs to go to, so there are ways of making businesses work and attracting people, even in an area that perhaps has too many shops.

“But I don’t think that’s the problem here. In this shop for example, the problem is there’s an owner who hasn’t done anything about this shop for a decade, and I think there should be some policy that puts more pressure on, to see an outcome for the community.”

Catherine Carter, whose job as executive director of the ACT Property Council is to “champion the interests of the property sector”, says urban decay is a growing problem “and unless some government policies change, it is likely to become an even bigger issue”.

“A dynamic city needs to constantly evolve and change to meet changing demographics, community expectations, location of employment and a myriad of other factors,” she says.

Carter says the “single biggest impediment” to this urban evolution in the ACT is the Lease Variation Charge, levied when the conditions of a 99-year crown lease are changed to allow a new and different use of the land.

For former petrol station sites, she notes the “extraordinarily laborious and expensive” soil and groundwater remediation process required by law and says that “to be fair, the ACT Government has introduced policies which will enable, over time, redevelopment to take place”.

Earlier in the year, “CityNews” asked Giulia Jones how the Government could improve its approach to contaminated blocks, or on the other hand, what the Liberals would do if they were in power.

She replied by email she “would be pushing for a resolution to these sites being left derelict” if the Liberals were in power and ended her answers with a rhetorical question: “The Government has spent thousands and thousands of dollars for the ‘City to the Lake’ plans, where’s their plan to fix these sites?”

That was on May 7 and when she brought her motion to the Assembly eight days later, the Government’s plan was right there, in the hands of Environment and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell.
He gave a long and detailed account of the independently audited environmental assessment and clean-up process that must be followed, by law, before a former petrol station site can be redeveloped, due to a strong likelihood of contamination and health and safety risks.

“The Government takes the issue of long-term vacant sites very seriously and my directorate spends a considerable amount of time trying to resolve it,” Mr Corbell told the Assembly in his detailed response to Jones’ motion. “But we do so in the context of recognising the very difficult nature of these sites.”

Corbell went on to give updates on each of the 13 sites Jones queried, including the Rivett site, which was to be auctioned in late 2012 but was held up because the directorate “required changes to the lease before any sale to a new lessee”, as well as one in Chapman.

The next month Jones told Chapman residents in a letter that the Minister had “refused to release specific details” about the site, but failed to report the information he had provided: a development application had been approved, environmental remediation would be undertaken shortly and it was anticipated that construction might occur by the end of this year.

The Opposition MLA has said that her main concern is not with details of the relevant policies and processes, but what she sees as a lack of interest in the issue from the Government.

“I just want to, at this point, highlight the problem, because I think you’ve got to be a squeaky wheel sometimes,” she explained during our visit to Rivett Shops.  “… it just feels like it’s from an older time and an older place, and this is Canberra; this is not a backwater.”

 

Thanks to Claire Middleton from ACT Planners for her assistance with background information for this article.

 

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