The ACT Government’s discussion paper on reinvigorating Northbourne Avenue and the city centre could not have been better timed, Canberra CBD Ltd chief executive, Jane Easthope said.
The long term Canberra resident, who blasted the unkempt state of Civic in an article in Sunday’s Canberra Times, said Northbourne had never lived up to its promise as a grand entry to the national capital.
“I’ve lived here for 30 years and have always been a tad embarrassed by it,” she said.
Robyn Hendry, the chief executive officer of the Canberra Business Chamber, said Civic itself let the side down.
“We tell people Canberrans are well educated, sophisticated, socially concerned, green, lifestyle oriented and interested in the public good,” she said.
“If a visitor [having heard all of this] arrived in the city centre they might think they were in the wrong place.”
The discussion paper, which is open for comment for the next eight weeks, advocates a “Northbourne Mall” to close the gap between the Melbourne and Sydney buildings, village hubs at projected stops along the light rail route and ongoing moves to direct through traffic away from Civic.
Ms Easthope welcomed the plaza concept, saying it had the capacity to redefine Canberra.
“The intervention with the plaza and the Melbourne and Sydney buildings will help trigger change into the pedestrianised spaces in the older part of the Civic – City Walk, Garema, Petrie Plaza and the bus interchange,” she said.
“There is potential to build street frontages that speak about being in the heart of the Canberra.”
Extending footpaths into what are now traffic lanes would make it easier to “activate the edges” with restaurants, trees and public spaces.
“It’s time for the pedestrian,” Ms Easthope said.
As a pedestrian is somebody who has found a park that also needed to be addressed.
“If we are taking short-term parking away [from the side of the road] it has to be put back somewhere else.
“Civic and Braddon should be pedestrian-oriented making it easy for a person to access Canberra’s heart, park and then make multiple stops on foot.”
Light rail was also a key element.
“The [light rail] hub in the plaza should be more than just a bigger bus stop. I’m thinking a “folly”, something that says something about us, a remarkable and important space marrying art and landscape.”
Ms Hendry and Ms Easthope cautioned against rushing the village hubs.
“These areas should develop over time so they are not just all of the one thing,” Ms Easthope said.
Ms Hendry said the hubs should develop in step with the needs of the corridor population.
“I agree with the hubs, and the plan, for the most part but believe they need to be developed in a responsive fashion in conjunction with population growth and housing needs.”
Ms Easthope feared pushing the hubs could impede renewal at the heart.
“There is the danger of siphoning activity away if you start developing on too many fronts,” she said.
A recent Canberra CBD Ltd vacancy audit showed 17 per cent of commercial sites in Civic were currently unoccupied.
“There are a lot of unoccupied places in City Walk, Petrie Plaza and Garema Place and yet-to-be-leased new places on the edges of Braddon. Renewal should start here.”
The Canberra Centre, by contrast, had a zero vacancy rate.
“We have to ask why,” Ms Easthope said. “Outside [the centre] there are many challenges. They include presentation, the constant presence of “chuggers” [aka charity muggers], and the general cleanliness of the streetscape.
“Shops are empty, older buildings are tired, pavements are broken and grimy, parking is difficult, homelessness and begging are obvious and rates and betterment charges are challenging.”