I am still working on my second post updating New England's demography. In the meantime, an update on some of the things that I have talked about before. For length reasons, I am going to break this into several posts.
Starting with a Facebook focus, one common problem faced by many towns is the way in which the construction of new shopping centres can damage the traditional CBD. Newcastle, as an example, is still struggling with the best way to redevelop its downtown area, an area that fascinated me as a kid. Lismore, too, has been damaged by the construction of big centres in nearby centres.
Now Armidale is experiencing similar problems, leading to the creation of a Save The Beardy Street Mall Facebook group that, as I write, has attracted 475 members.
If you look at the comments already made on the new group wall, you will get a feel for the ideas that are around. I thought that I might add my own brief comments and then post a link on the new Group wall.
For those who do not know Armidale, the main Mall is the central block that used to be centre of Armidale shopping. Now with the construction of shopping centres to the east and especially the west, traffic has been drawn away from the Mall. With a big Aldi store to be built several blocks away, the position could get worse.
In my weekly Armidale Express column I am presently writing on my reactions to Armidale from a visit after a gap of several years. In this week's column (this will come on line next week), I talk about my shock at the number of vacant premises and especially in what was Richardson's Arcade, just across Dangar Street on the western edge of the Mall.
This need not mean gloom, however.
To begin with, the central Mall is in a somewhat different position to, say, the Newcastle CBD problem. The shopping centres to east and west are in fact only a block's walk away, so access is quite easy. Further, the shopping centres themselves are quite small. They are not like a Westfield in, say Bondi Junction, Pagewood or Parramatta, where sheer size tends crowd out. For example, you cannot do your Christmas shopping in Armidale Centro. The stores just aren't there. So redevelopment is quite possible.
Now the first problem to be overcome, and here I am talking from a visitor perspective, is that Armidale's CBD has become remarkably complicated for such a small city. Knowing the place well, I suffered from very real culture shock as I drove around: just working out where to go was not easy. This is especially important for a place like the Mall. How are visitors to find it? My simple suggestion was a CBD map.
The second issue is that the dynamics of parking and parking restrictions need to be reviewed. I don't support the idea of opening the street up again, but parking is an issue. Again talking just as a person seeing the city anew after a gap, I found the patchwork quilt of restrictions quite confusing. I wanted to be in town for a couple of hours and could find no suitable street parking. I know Armidale well, so went to the Hanna's parking lot. Even though the top floor was closed for reasons I do not understand, the ground floor was almost empty.
Again a CBD map would help. However, I think that those interested in Mall growth need to map parking availability for future planning. You see, one of the things about the Mall is that people going there actually need access to longer term parking as compared to, say, a quick visit to the supermarket.
One of the Facebook commentators referred to the loss of buzz from the Mall. I think that's true, although on the Saturday morning I was there the presence of buskers and the massed pipe bands coming to Armidale for the Autumn Festival did create an enjoyable buzz. Here I think of Martin Place in Sydney where the stage area, if somewhat larger than Armidale, does draw people because of the entertainment. I think that Council and Mall operators do need to look at just what might go on in the Mall on a regular basis and especially at lunchtime. This need not be huge, but it does need to be regular.
One commentator referred to the wind. That westerly can be bloody cold. Wind breaks would help, as would the type of outdoor heaters now found so frequently in Sydney and especially Melbourne. I wondered if cafe owners were in fact allowed to erect wind shields? However, this goes to a broader issue.
In some of my Express columns, I have referred to the re-birth of Melbourne as a cafe society along European lines. This hurt Sydney so badly that it lead Mayor Clover Moore, among other things, to push for changes to licensing laws to facilitate the creation of Melbourne style eateries. I have suggested that Armidale should look to Melbourne: both cities sell life-style.
When I was Chair of Tourism Armidale back in the nineties, I saw Armidale and especially the Mall developing along what we can now call Melbourne lines, with the creation of specialist stores and eateries. It hasn't happened. To my knowledge, there is not a single place along the three blocks and especially in the central Mall that you can sit outside at lunchtime and have a meal and a drink.
Food, drink, entertainment and specialist shopping still seem to me to be the key.