BALLARAT'S Central Business District could be mistaken for suffering a great divide when it comes to retail success but more can be done to rescue the eastern end, say commercial agents and developers.
At the western end of Sturt Street, you have a thriving new restaurant scene focused on Ballarat's own 'little Lygon Street', Armstrong Street, which has brought foodies from across the country to experience the unique cuisine of the city.
But for all the success and new businesses opening in the upper area west of Lydiard Street, one look at the eastern end at the lower parts of Sturt Street and Bridge Mall and you know there is still a lot of work to do to revitalise the area.
With the Ballarat 'GovHub' to open by the end of 2020 according to the State Government - bringing up to 1000 new employees to the CBD - plus the planned creation of bike paths running the length of Sturt Street, the time is now for rejuvenation.
That's why the City of Ballarat's latest plan, released on Friday, to basically start again at Bakery Hill and Bridge Street - bringing in up to 5000 new CBD residents over the long term - is being welcomed by the business community.
The radical new plans have been designed to breathe life into Ballarat's CBD. Under the suggestions, currently at concept stage, a 70-hectare district surrounding Bakery Hill and the Bridge Mall would have a comprehensive facelift over the next few decades.
The draft plan outlines an expanded strategy for the whole of the area surrounding Bridge Mall reaching as far as the Ballarat Station precinct to the north and to the Canadian Creek to the south.
But while the long-term plans show a progressive future, right now business needs a helping hand and the reopening of the Bridge Mall to traffic is being seen as the first step in revitalising the region.
Colliers International Senior Executive Sales and Leasing Charles Kennedy said bringing traffic through the Bridge Mall was the start.
"In my opinion it just needs to be done," Mr Kennedy said.
"It will open it up beyond the 9am-5pm limitations. We've seen it done elsewhere. The time of enclosed malls has passed."
A look around the CBD and Colliers 'For Lease' signs are everywhere across the city.
Buildings including the former Unicorn pub and cafe site, the former Thomas The Jewellers and 30 Mair Street are just some of the empty premises ready for new tenants to move to in the east of the CBD.
"You can't be completely reliant on food," Mr Kennedy said. "There's a whole host of different uses but the market dictates what goes on and what takes over.
"30 Sturt Street is a gem that can be polished, it's got a first floor, but there's no staircase, but it does have a large rear yard area. Realistically you could get it at $600-650,000.
"We've got the Sovereign Needlework site (215 Mair Street) and we've shown some people through there. A lot of people see that and the station precinct, with a huge amount of foot traffic. We've also just done a lease on 319 Mair Street (currently Mary & Peg)."
It's being proactive... it's attempting to find solutions to a difficult problem. Revitalisation of the CBD is vitalCharles Kennedy, Colliers
While there are a number of vacant retail options in the east, one of the few prominent vacant spaces to the west is 334 Sturt Street at the corner of Doveton Street.
Buxton Director Mark Nunn said it was a prime two-storey retail space.
"It's a great position and it's got great signage, any business that goes in there is going to get an abundance of advertising material just from the building alone," he said.
"Personally I think it's the best opportunity in the CBD. Right now it's set up for offices or retail and you could move straight in in its current form but it could easily be converted into a restaurant or cafe.
"As we've all seen in the last couple of years, the CBD really does thrive in the night time - it really is a buzzing little hub - and this is the perfect building to capitalise. If someone is interested in it, it's 280sqm and it's on the market for $1.2-$1.3 million."
Mr Kennedy said the support the City of Ballarat had given the Armstrong Street precinct needed to be given to Bridge Mall.
"It's being proactive and you take your hats off to it. It's attempting to find solutions to a difficult problem. Revitalisation of the CBD is vital," he said.
His view was backed up by Commerce Ballarat's executive officer Jodie Gillett, who while not yet prepared to comment directly on the plan put forward on Friday, said she would welcome anything that could help revitalise the area.
"We've got some terrific retailers there, and we need to make it a vibrant part of town once again," she said.
Hygge Property director Joe van Dyk said he was excited by the proactive and forward-thinking discussion, but suggested the best way forward for the area was to first develop an affordable housing strategy.
He was also cautious about plans to open Bridge Mall to traffic, suggesting that one or two large commercial enterprises could have a strong effect on pulling in traders.
"There's merit in the idea, but I don't think we should rush into it, it might only take one or two developments in that space to transform it," he said.
Mr Kennedy said the biggest issue in the Bridge Mall was that it is like a "separate microcosm of activity" and doesn't relate to Sturt Street and Mair Street.
Quite clearly there's a lot of struggling retailers, a lot of vacant shops and it's attracting less demand than Sturt StreeRay White Ballarat director Trevor Booth
He said proactive measures - such as council's Evolve program, which provides free short-term rental for vacant properties to tenants in the arts field - were important, but so too was the cutting back of red tape for owners and occupiers.
"There is an abundance of first floors that can be touched, that can be revitalised but the biggest problems developers and owner-occupiers face is the cost of permitting processes," he said.
Director Ray White Ballarat Trevor Booth said higher density in and around the Bakery Hill and Bridge Mall was essential for the ongoing viability of the area.
"Better to have a plan than not," he said. "Quite clearly there's a lot of struggling retailers, a lot of vacant shops and it's attracting less demand than Sturt Street.
"I would draw a line down Grenville Street as we've leased several properties on both sides of Sturt Street in recent years. They are separate."
CHECK OUT THE FULL PLANS AND LET US KNOW YOUR THOUGHTS:
A LONG HISTORY
The Bakery Hill and Bridge Mall Precinct Urban Renewal Plan released on Friday is the latest phase in an area that has a rich and varied story - but one that has undeniably fallen on harder times over the past few decades.
Historically, the area was one of the most vibrant parts of the city, full of prestigious shops, hotels, pubs and schools. Perhaps the most fundamental change to the area came in 1981 when Bridge Street was closed off to traffic and became a pedestrian mall. Many long-term residents of Ballarat remember it as one of the most thriving retail areas in town.
However, by the turn of the century, competition from other malls meant a decline had begun to set in. By 2002, both local politicians and developers were seeking ways to revive the area, but usually met with staunch opposition.
It was discussed periodically over the years. Then in May this year, as a precursor to the wider urban renewal plan, council announced it planned to re-open Bridge Mall to traffic and pump $15 million into the area to trigger development. At the time council officers acknowledged that previous efforts to spruce up the area had come to nothing. However, they said the difference this time was an increased appetite for change.
THE URBAN RENEWAL PLAN
The council released its Bakery Hill and Bridge Mall Precinct Urban Renewal Plan on Friday.
The proposals are all at the blueprint stage, but they suggest that the 70-hectare district could undergo one of the most comprehensive renovations the area has ever seen over the next few decades.
Suggested as a blueprint for how the area might appear by 2050, the plan indicates there will be a much greater focus on residential development in the longer term.
In the short-term, planners hope that council investment - which totals $15 million over three years as announced at the most recent budget - will start attracting the attention of developers and rejuvenate an area that has been in decline for many years.
They hope for hundreds of millions of dollars worth of investor development to increase the number of people living in the area and evolve a night-time economy that is currently largely absent from the area.
Key points of the plan
- There is potential for up to 5,000 residents in the CBD, a huge increase from now.
- Up to 600 news jobs could be created, according to the Council.
- Council funding is designed to act as "seed money" to attract interest of investors.
- The plans are designed to be a long-term vision towards 2050. Nothing is finalised. This is a draft plan now out for consultation with a final version due before councillors by the end of the year.
- See https://mysay.ballarat.vic.gov.au/bakery-hill for full details.
- The feedback time runs over a month run until September 30.
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