Having a capital city feel comes with pain

The councils latest effort to build a plan for the Ballarat CBD is the more interesting if taken in the context of the older activation plan because it is its guiding principles and their impact that are most likely to create resistance but also potentially deliver real transformation. Underlying the whole plan is the principle of change; change driven by growth, market demand and land values.

Aiming to meet this change are several key objectives but the most critical one is based around a key ingredient; people.  Whether they are shoppers, tourists, workers or residents seeking entertainment or distraction; the CBD must be a place people want to be. Only this sway will it thrive and avoid the dreaded “doughnut effect” that major American cities suffered from as business and people fled to lower rent and unlimited parking in greenfield fringe areas.

But the plan also recognises Ballarat’s has a fabulous draw card in its heritage legacy and streetscapes; for beauty and ambience alone this is a place people want to be. That is not to say they want it in form of an open air museum but rather as successful events like White Night show by incorporating contemporary events and life within much-loved, historic and adaptive precincts.

The latest manifestation of this takes the form of 12 projects to meet these goals by 2021. Many are not primarily council projects and others could be regarded as only tinkering at the edges. Nevertheless they are important enough; the State Government’s GovHub on the Civic Hall site aiming to bring an extra 600 jobs into the CBD, the Railway Precinct, Sturt Street and Mair Street upgrades. 

But even here the plan must face up to some of the inevitable difficulties of change and changing perceptions of what a CBD is. First up is the reduction of traffic which in turn makes it a better place for pedestrians. The catch is this comes not only at the expense of commuter car access but increasingly to the detriment of easily accessible free parking. The “capital city experience” shows parking is often off-street, expensive and needs to supplemented by internal public transport alternatives. This is a big leap for a city where the vast majority of suburb to CBD trips are still made by car.  

So this makes some of the long term suggestions and floated ideas even more intriguing, not because they don’t address the challenges of this future CBD but in raising the question of whether Ballarat wil rise to meet the change.