Who owns the long run: Ballarat’s CBD vacancies, household trusts, absentee landlords and options to a dying Sturt Avenue | The Courier

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Before you start reading: there’s no mention of parking in this story. We understand. Parking is a problem, public transport is a problem, Ballarat’s over-reliance on cars is a problem. We get it. This is a continuing story about the need to action in a dying CBD – about the options and the chance to be different. The drive to re-establish Ballarat’s central business district as a vibrant, versatile place to live and as a retail and hospitality precinct is a fraught hypothesis, say experts, one repeated the world over as online and ‘big-box’ shopping claim buyer allegiance. In the first of these articles last week, there was a list of small, medium and large stores once peppering the main blocks of Ballarat. But it appears fewer can survive. Some recent losses include Elliott’s Tool Shop, Thornton Richards Camera House, NL Harvey, Cherub Gifts and Le Kitchen. It’s not only retailers leaving the CBD – Centrelink is now moving from Albert Street to a former big-box site in Wendouree. Melbourne has sought to reinvigorate its inner-city population in the past 30 years, with small bars and late night venues. But CBD housing has collapsed as cheap, poorly planned and built apartments stagnate, empty, their prices stalled. Many were aimed at the international student market, which collapsed in the pandemic, but the economic and environmental sustainability of the giant high-rises – which obliterate many lower-level historic Melbourne landmarks – is questionable. Their footprint legacy is shadows and wind tunnels. Just six years ago former state government architect John Denton of Denton Corker Marshall warned Melbourne was creating “a new problem for the future” in the high-rise boom, which he said could need major repairs within a few decades. Even the new little bars, much lauded in self-congratulatory ‘Melbourne: Home of Hipster’ ads, were wiped away as the real estate boom meant swathes of the city were redeveloped, and many of the older buildings housing them demolished. How will Ballarat reinvigorate the city, but avoid the same mistakes? Between the desire of developers to make as much money as possible and our much-vaunted but little-protected heritage, can there be balance? “It needs to be attractive to a developer to put together a well-designed building sympathetic to the area. Pragmatically they will want to see a return on their investment, and that’s okay,” mayor Daniel Moloney said. “Equally, as I said, it’s not a free-for-all. You don’t get to trash the CBD with substandard development. So we want to see good, sustainable design that’s sympathetic to our heritage environment and that can be done.” READ MORE: Meanwhile as Ballarat’s population increases – 64,000 in 1986, 93,000 in 2016, and now somewhere near 120,000 – the pressure grows to stop talking and make choices. Is it possible for Ballarat to overcome its inherent conservatism, its bias for the same developers, builders and estate agents who reserve their place at the table every time, who see high-rise and sprawl as the way to build cheaply and make fast money? Are there more integrated, thoughtful planning options? Dr Melissa Kennedy is Lecturer in the Community Planning and Development Program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at La Trobe University. She says one of the great barriers to redevelopment which embraces more thoughtful re-use of buildings is the prevalence and government support for property banking in Australia. “So much investment in Australia is in property; it’s financially desirable for landlords to leave spaces vacant, rather than rent them out, as a tax write-off,” Dr Kennedy says. “Shopfront housing is an advocated model to get people in, but there are definitely lots of barriers to that model, that mixed use and converting the buildings (to residential use) – the cost, the planning and heritage controls.” Dr Kennedy says Ballarat, with its UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art status, needs to find willing, forward-thinking landlords willing to champion the city and the tangible possibilities of tying in retail, residential, hospitality, arts and council’s own strategic priorities. “It’s not an ‘either/or’ situation,” Dr Kennedy says. “But there has long been tension with big box retailing undermining CBDs: there’s a case study in Missouri where the community wanted to get people into the CBD after hours, because of the hot climate, and modelling what’s done in Europe, with siestas and shops closing for the hottest part of the day, and opening in the evenings. A lot of progress was made, and then the local shopping centre put up an advert saying it would open at night with air-conditioning, completely undermining the initiative and rocking the confidence of the CBD retailers as well.” Stuart Benjamin is the chair of Regional Development Australia’s Grampians region and the state’s Small Business Ministerial Council. He has a more vigorous approach to driving rejuvenation. “The reality is you’re never going to have people living at the ground level (in the CBD),” he says. “So you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the shopfronts right, and you’ve got the right mix. While there’s a lot of people, property owners, who are worried about one in ten shops in CBD being vacant, as the city grows by another 30 per cent, around its fringes, we still have only one CBD.” Mr Benjamin says council can make an immediate difference to vacancies: increase rates on empty properties. “Council has all of the data on this. They know who the owners are; they know who has paid and hasn’t paid their rates; they know which owns multiple properties; they know how long that owner has owned a property. They know that, on a commercial property, the tenant pays the rates. “So if the rates are being paid by the owner of a commercial property, they know it’s vacant. And if that has been happening for two, five or 10 years, alarm bells should be ringing. They have all of the data, why wouldn’t you do something? Why aren’t they talking to the owners of these properties, saying it’s ridiculous? Why wouldn’t we look at charging a differential rate to owners who have made a decision, for whatever reason, to leave it vacant? What can the owners say – ‘I’m going to sell my property?’ Great! “The biggest issue continuing to face the CBD is fragmented ownership. As you walk down any of the main streets – particularly Sturt Street – then you’ll see there’s a building, that’s clearly one building that might have four separate tenancies or four different six-metre modules in it. Because Ballarat is built on a slope, normally all of the ground floor tenancies are a step down the hill. “But the upstairs is normally all on one level. The problems you’ve got, of course, they’re often owned by four different owners, which means you can’t do anything with the upstairs, because you can’t combine across one level. They’re all separate. It’s very difficult to do anything with the upstairs of shops in Sturt Street or even Lydiard Street because to get access to them and to fire rate them and to provide car parking and rubbish collection, you’ve got to give up the one thing you don’t want to give up: your ground floor frontage. “In the shop downstairs: if you’ve got to give up one and a half metres to create an entrance and a stairwell and that kind of stuff, you’re just not going to do that. So that’s seen a lot of those properties sit vacant. It’d be great if if the city was able to come up with a strategy where we can somehow amalgamate all of those in those groups of buildings. They’d be perfectly good offices. “I think accommodation is a really hard thing to do. But I don’t necessarily think it’s a great lifestyle that we should be encouraging people to have. It’s quite bespoke. To turn 100 square metres that you might have in an upstairs, terraced retail building into 400 square metres of upstairs office space with one entrance – that’s a really attractive place to work. And there’s been a number of those examples in the town.” If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat’s story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.

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November 14 2021 – 5:30AM

Before you start reading: there’s no mention of parking in this story. We understand. Parking is a problem, public transport is a problem, Ballarat’s over-reliance on cars is a problem. We get it.

This is a continuing story about the need to action in a dying CBD – about the options and the chance to be different.

The drive to re-establish Ballarat’s central business district as a vibrant, versatile place to live and as a retail and hospitality precinct is a fraught hypothesis, say experts, one repeated the world over as online and ‘big-box’ shopping claim buyer allegiance.

The future: Bayleyward architects new, proposed design for the Norwich Plaza site, incorporating housing and retail, says it draws on Ballarat's architectural past for inspiration. Picture: Bayleyward.

The future: Bayleyward architects new, proposed design for the Norwich Plaza site, incorporating housing and retail, says it draws on Ballarat’s architectural past for inspiration. Picture: Bayleyward.

It’s not only retailers leaving the CBD – Centrelink is now moving from Albert Street to a former big-box site in Wendouree.

Melbourne has sought to reinvigorate its inner-city population in the past 30 years, with small bars and late night venues. But CBD housing has collapsed as cheap, poorly planned and built apartments stagnate, empty, their prices stalled.

Their footprint legacy is shadows and wind tunnels. Just six years ago former state government architect John Denton of Denton Corker Marshall warned Melbourne was creating “a new problem for the future” in the high-rise boom, which he said could need major repairs within a few decades.

Even the new little bars, much lauded in self-congratulatory ‘Melbourne: Home of Hipster’ ads, were wiped away as the real estate boom meant swathes of the city were redeveloped, and many of the older buildings housing them demolished.

How will Ballarat reinvigorate the city, but avoid the same mistakes? Between the desire of developers to make as much money as possible and our much-vaunted but little-protected heritage, can there be balance?

Inner-city living: These terraces in Mair Street, and many more like them, were demolished as retail made pressure to expand in the 60s and 70s, aided by council aversion to inner-city life.

Inner-city living: These terraces in Mair Street, and many more like them, were demolished as retail made pressure to expand in the 60s and 70s, aided by council aversion to inner-city life.

“It needs to be attractive to a developer to put together a well-designed building sympathetic to the area. Pragmatically they will want to see a return on their investment, and that’s okay,” mayor Daniel Moloney said.

“Equally, as I said, it’s not a free-for-all. You don’t get to trash the CBD with substandard development. So we want to see good, sustainable design that’s sympathetic to our heritage environment and that can be done.”

Meanwhile as Ballarat’s population increases – 64,000 in 1986, 93,000 in 2016, and now somewhere near 120,000 – the pressure grows to stop talking and make choices. Is it possible for Ballarat to overcome its inherent conservatism, its bias for the same developers, builders and estate agents who reserve their place at the table every time, who see high-rise and sprawl as the way to build cheaply and make fast money? Are there more integrated, thoughtful planning options?

Dr Melissa Kennedy is Lecturer in the Community Planning and Development Program, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, at La Trobe University.

She says one of the great barriers to redevelopment which embraces more thoughtful re-use of buildings is the prevalence and government support for property banking in Australia.

“So much investment in Australia is in property; it’s financially desirable for landlords to leave spaces vacant, rather than rent them out, as a tax write-off,” Dr Kennedy says.

“Shopfront housing is an advocated model to get people in, but there are definitely lots of barriers to that model, that mixed use and converting the buildings (to residential use) – the cost, the planning and heritage controls.”

The future?: A high-rise proposed for the corner of Camp and Mair streets in 2011. It did not go ahead.

The future?: A high-rise proposed for the corner of Camp and Mair streets in 2011. It did not go ahead.

Dr Kennedy says Ballarat, with its UNESCO Creative City of Crafts and Folk Art status, needs to find willing, forward-thinking landlords willing to champion the city and the tangible possibilities of tying in retail, residential, hospitality, arts and council’s own strategic priorities.

“It’s not an ‘either/or’ situation,” Dr Kennedy says.

“But there has long been tension with big box retailing undermining CBDs: there’s a case study in Missouri where the community wanted to get people into the CBD after hours, because of the hot climate, and modelling what’s done in Europe, with siestas and shops closing for the hottest part of the day, and opening in the evenings. A lot of progress was made, and then the local shopping centre put up an advert saying it would open at night with air-conditioning, completely undermining the initiative and rocking the confidence of the CBD retailers as well.”

Stuart Benjamin is the chair of Regional Development Australia’s Grampians region and the state’s Small Business Ministerial Council. He has a more vigorous approach to driving rejuvenation.

“The reality is you’re never going to have people living at the ground level (in the CBD),” he says.

“So you’ve got to make sure that you’ve got the shopfronts right, and you’ve got the right mix. While there’s a lot of people, property owners, who are worried about one in ten shops in CBD being vacant, as the city grows by another 30 per cent, around its fringes, we still have only one CBD.”

Mr Benjamin says council can make an immediate difference to vacancies: increase rates on empty properties.

“Council has all of the data on this. They know who the owners are; they know who has paid and hasn’t paid their rates; they know which owns multiple properties; they know how long that owner has owned a property. They know that, on a commercial property, the tenant pays the rates.

“So if the rates are being paid by the owner of a commercial property, they know it’s vacant. And if that has been happening for two, five or 10 years, alarm bells should be ringing. They have all of the data, why wouldn’t you do something? Why aren’t they talking to the owners of these properties, saying it’s ridiculous? Why wouldn’t we look at charging a differential rate to owners who have made a decision, for whatever reason, to leave it vacant? What can the owners say – ‘I’m going to sell my property?’ Great!

“The biggest issue continuing to face the CBD is fragmented ownership. As you walk down any of the main streets – particularly Sturt Street – then you’ll see there’s a building, that’s clearly one building that might have four separate tenancies or four different six-metre modules in it. Because Ballarat is built on a slope, normally all of the ground floor tenancies are a step down the hill.

“But the upstairs is normally all on one level. The problems you’ve got, of course, they’re often owned by four different owners, which means you can’t do anything with the upstairs, because you can’t combine across one level. They’re all separate. It’s very difficult to do anything with the upstairs of shops in Sturt Street or even Lydiard Street because to get access to them and to fire rate them and to provide car parking and rubbish collection, you’ve got to give up the one thing you don’t want to give up: your ground floor frontage.

“In the shop downstairs: if you’ve got to give up one and a half metres to create an entrance and a stairwell and that kind of stuff, you’re just not going to do that. So that’s seen a lot of those properties sit vacant. It’d be great if if the city was able to come up with a strategy where we can somehow amalgamate all of those in those groups of buildings. They’d be perfectly good offices.

“I think accommodation is a really hard thing to do. But I don’t necessarily think it’s a great lifestyle that we should be encouraging people to have. It’s quite bespoke. To turn 100 square metres that you might have in an upstairs, terraced retail building into 400 square metres of upstairs office space with one entrance – that’s a really attractive place to work. And there’s been a number of those examples in the town.”

If you are seeing this message you are a loyal digital subscriber to The Courier, as we made this story available only to subscribers. Thank you very much for your support and allowing us to continue telling Ballarat’s story. We appreciate your support of journalism in our great city.