The price of investing in a city may be considerable, but the price of doing nothing is far greater.
The current hallmarks of Canberra’s city centre are empty streets and shops, boring building façades and ageing infrastructure. What should be the engine room of our city is, in reality, a provincial town centre.
But, as the ongoing conversation about how we breathe new life into our CBD has demonstrated, Canberrans are ready for change.
And change is possible.
In Adelaide, a bold and brilliant renewal project on the riverbank is set to deliver a new cultural precinct of grand promenades and waterways, leading-edge performance and sports centres, cafes and playgrounds.
Up in Brisbane, the City Centre Master Plan is transforming a once-lifeless CBD into a city of quality architecture and urban spaces where business thrives and development is encouraged.
Meanwhile, the once dying heart of Newcastle now beats with renewed energy as vacant buildings are converted into temporary pop up galleries, bespoke boutiques and leisure centres.
Around Australia, governments are recognising that they must invest in urban renewal projects or risk squandering the economic potential of their cities. These governments are taking a long-term view to transform urban landscapes, boost prosperity and secure the long-term financial, social and environmental sustainability of their cities.
In Canberra, the Chief Minister’s commitment to urban renewal is a good start. The ambitions laid out in the ACT Government’s City Plan – to attract more residents to the city centre, to reduce through-traffic, improve connections across the city and to the lake, and create a modern built environment – are encouraging. But we need much more than plans – we need results.
With the CBD’s office vacancy rate hovering at 14.7 per cent, and retail sector street-level vacancy at 15.9 per cent, it is clear something must be done – and done quickly.
Postcode 3000, a project initiated in Melbourne in the early 1990s, helped to transform that city’s CBD from a dreary commercial district into a vibrant 24-hour city centre.
Like Canberra now, Melbourne’s office vacancy rate was acute. To address this, Postcode 3000 fast-tracked the conversion of obsolete office buildings to new uses, transforming them into desirable new residences, serviced apartments and hotels. The results are impressive.
Just one example is the transformation of the Telstra building on the corner of Russell and Little Collins streets. Renowned architect Nonda Katsalidis redeveloped the tired art deco telephone exchange into a luxury apartment. Fender Katsalidis later played an instrumental role in the development of the NewActon precinct in Canberra.
More than 500,000 square metres of space was withdrawn from the market over the period of the Postcode 3000 project, with office vacancy rates falling from 25.8 per cent in 1992 to 7.5 per cent in 2000.
Using a range of measures such as changed regulations, financial assistance, technical support and promotion to underpin private sector investment, as well as improved street level amenity and cultural activities, more than 30,000 residential units were reintroduced into the CBD in 15 years.
At the same time, investment in the public realm included street tree plantings, consistency with bluestone paving and attractive street furniture, which combine to give Melbourne’s streets their distinctive character. All new developments provide 75 per cent active street frontage, which has improved the quality, amenity and vitality of the city’s streetscapes.
The broader citywide impacts of the program are equally impressive – the number of sidewalk cafes expanded from two to 500, night-time pedestrian traffic increased by 98 per cent and the pedestrian traffic along Bourke Street Mall doubled, for example. Today, more people walk along Bourke Street each day than they do along London’s Oxford Street.
As Melbourne’s density, connectivity and vitality increased, it became more financially viable. More activity in a compact space has seen local rates and taxes decline by more than 50 per cent. Property owners in 1996 who had to pay 13 cents on the dollar on the value of their property now pay just six cents on the dollar.
They did all this through a clear vision and ambitious, yet achievable targets.
“Where other cities have produced high quality documents Melbourne has managed to achieve a high quality implementation program,” said the man who has overseen much of Melbourne’s transformation, Director of City Design, professor Rob Adams.
Melbourne mastered the art of successful partnerships, bringing together government, business groups and the community to take control of its destiny and create a better city. Canberra can too.