Current Issue #488

The square mile tug of war

The square mile tug of war

Adelaide – City of Push and Pull. That could be a suggestion for the SA Tourism Commission as it conducts its search for a new city slogan, especially if it wants to describe the power plays within the city’s ‘square mile’.

This year, some classic industry matters became the cooler-season fare. Three tussles peaked – the car versus the pedestrian, the high rise versus heritage, and the beer barn versus the wine bar. Each prompted the emergence of the usual highly salaried protagonists in the debates, plus a phalanx of well paid lobbyists and PR pundits behind the scenes.

The Adelaide City Council, however, can only blame itself for prompting the car-versus-pedestrian debate, however laudable its origins may have been. It was germinated in 2002 when visiting city design expert, Copenhagen’s Professor Jan Gehl, was enticed to Adelaide by former Lord Mayor Alfred Huang. Gehl left Adelaide a detailed report on how it could rid itself of car-induced congestion, which 10 years later sees 20,000 cross-city car journeys daily, many of whose drivers are tempted by the city’s 42,700 on- and off-street car parks – far more than many other similar-sized European cities (and 10,000 more than Melbourne and 16,700 more that Sydney). It was left largely untouched for eight years until new Lord Mayor, Stephen Yarwood, won office in 2010, brought back Professor Gehl, commissioned an update, then included its recommendations in a new report. In May he let it loose on the car-obsessed city population, as well as the suburban community surrounding the city who daily drive through the city and clog it when they park.

“Our Integrated Movement Strategy is fantastic,” Yarwood emailed potential respondents to the community consultation. “It’s about moving from car dependency, which induces more cars (which will result in the city becoming less appealing) to a focus on pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. Many of the ideas are very progressive and will make the city a much more attractive place to live and spend time. If you agree, we need as many submissions as possible to help make our councillors (and staff) brave enough to be a part of this historical change.”

Brave indeed. It was especially so to poke a stick into the ants’ nest of Adelaideans’ pent-up frustration at a poorly coordinated public transport network around and across the city. Gehl, it must be said, did warn that ‘pedestrianising’ the city (a favourite Yarwood term) would take many decades. In the subsequent court of public opinion, the Lord Mayor was roasted, while transport-responsible parliamentarians watching from the sidelines did their best to keep out of the furore. Worse, a handful of city councillors influenced by the strong retail lobby soon after contradicted the push, implementing lower city car park fees to attract more drivers to Rundle Mall’s retail heart. It was not a good look.

On the heritage front, in June the city’s response to a bid to list 77 historic city properties was released. It had been pared down from an original 250 by invisible government procedures that never get publicly revealed. Of the 77, 46 property owners, assisted by experts, mounted spirited defences. Distilled, many featured the Hanrahan response: ‘We’ll all be rooned’, a defence well practised among Adelaide property owners and investors, even though earlier council attempts to list these properties had given them almost 20 years’ forewarning. In 1993 a similar city council heritage-listing push saw 321 properties endorsed for listing, but abandoned immediately following a council election.

One man who was there (and 20 years later is back for more) was deputy Lord Mayor Mark Hamilton. Now an area councillor, he is well qualified to reflect on Adelaide’s traditional post-war tussle over its heritage assets.

“The public would be shocked to learn that there are probably 350 to 400 heritage buildings throughout the whole City of Adelaide which are not protected by heritage listing,” Hamilton told councillors and community groups. “This has a large part to do with the council’s approach, in recent years, of dealing with the issue of listing these buildings in camera and then requesting the state government planning minister of the day to interim-list the building. This ‘transfers’ some perceived political risk to the minister. This is an obviously flawed and failed strategy given that the planning minister is then not exposed to public scrutiny and public opinion regarding the listing of the buildings.

“Back in my previous career on council, council proceeded on the basis that the planning minister would not wish to take the political position of interim listing. The council therefore published proposed listings and conducted hearings and made a final recommendation to the minister. This, of course, involved the possibility that buildings, earmarked for protection, would be demolished. However, this resulted in the listing of some 2100 buildings (one way or the other) over a five-year period.

“I think that the council should abandon its approach – and proceed with a public process to enable the public to indicate to the government that it supports the retention of Adelaide’s heritage.”

The public perception created by the current procedure allows property owners to paint a picture (at great expense via their expert advisors) of a local government authority that only has eyes for locking up the city’s past. But there are many old city properties that aren’t protected and open to the development whims of owners.

The tussle between the big hotels and the wine bar aficionados is relatively recent in Adelaide, but has been all but resolved in other Australian states, in favour of a quiet glass of wine in a boutique corner of the city. The concept is linked to the Gehl-initiated bid to make Adelaide more accessible, especially after hours: tagged by the city council as “the evening culture”. That this struggle is only warming up in a state that prides itself for being at the centre of the Australian wine industry once again says a lot about the grip held on the city by the hotels lobby, which has, via parliament, made it difficult for wine bar applicants to get a licence.

As the city council observed in June: ‘The South Australian liquor licensing legislation fails to accommodate the concept of small bars by creating a regulatory environment that discourages competition and inadvertently provides commercial competitors (existing major hotels and nightclubs) with the power to greatly influence the outcome of a licence application.’ Bids must wrestle with what is described as a “needs test”. The council reports: ‘Other states have replaced the needs test … with a ‘public interest test’ and they have relaxed restrictions on restaurants serving liquor without a meal (as in Victoria). Western Australia and New South Wales have introduced a new category of licence for small bars.’ Queensland is following suit. The results can be best highlighted in that city of tourists, Sydney, with it approving 70 small bar licences since the small bar licence was created.

While Adelaideans wait for resolution on the wine bar idea, it might be very convenient for influential and well-resourced retail, developer and beer barn lobbyists to let the smoke get in the eyes of those who hold alternative visions for tomorrow’s city, thronged with cyclists and pedestrians and admiring the traces of its heritage streetscapes as they seek to sip a shiraz in some quiet side-street, somewhere

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