Wollongong in Transformation

For some time, the city of Wollongong has been changing… and for the better. We’ve always had gorgeous beaches and a picturesque escarpment but elements of our city have needed updating.

The most notable shifts in recent years have been improvements to the Blue Mile coastal areas and old tramway, the refurbished Crown Street Mall, new GPT shopping developments and the annual breath of life that is the Wonderwalls Festival of street art. Not to mention, the city council has undertaken the massive task of overhauling the streetscape, with new footpaths bringing greater consistency into the place. I applaud them for this.

There has always been disagreement, like how how the mall should function. I disagree with the idea that it should have reverted to allowing traffic and am glad that it remained as a pedestrian strip. Around the world, we’re seeing a shift back to pedestrian-friendly areas that enable safer movement, outdoor activities and events such as markets. That’s why when you visit countries like Italy and Germany, you come back with romantic memories of their amazing respective piazze and Fußgängerzonen. These open spaces allow the creation of culture, with locals with visitors mixing and mingling. Cities are for people, not cars.

The thing that does puzzle me about the mall, however, is the lack of eateries on the strip, particularly those that can provide al fresco dining. At night-time (other than on Thursdays with the Eat Street Market), the place is dead. The insistence on having almost entirely daytime retail is strange and totally cuts off the bustling Keira Street restaurant strip from the similar setup on Corrimal Street. We basically have two entirely different nightlife zones.

Recently, I’ve been wondering about another development that was completed farther down Corrimal Street, on the old Dwyers site. The fantastic decision was made to keep the footpath very wide, enabling improved pedestrian access and avoiding the creation of a huge wind tunnel with the new Oxford development that stands across the road.

Except the only issue is, nothing is happening here. It’s dead space. Sure, the Coffee Club has just moved in up the road on the corner, but other than a few chairs outside, everything is indoors and behind glass. One restaurant has already failed and other spaces are offices or have remained for lease since construction was completed.

Sometimes I wonder if there’s actually a long-term vision that drives all of this. Cities should feel lively and inviting; this area, unless there’s some future plan of which I am unaware, does not display those characteristics. Why not add a coffee cart? How about news or fresh produce stands, like in Sydney? How about a place for street artists? The same can be said of Civic Plaza in front of the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, which is often empty unless the Spiegeltent is in town.

As unpopular as this suggestion may be, what about something like the sandstone and palm tree art installation in the mall? Whilst some people hate that design, at least it’s distinctive and children can be seen climbing and jumping from sandstone block to sandstone block. It’s a great combination of form and function, as the blocks function as family seating during the markets and also break up the greyness of the mall. Remember, Parisians hated the Eiffel Tower when it went up and now it’s an icon. I’m not saying that the palm tree is our Eiffel Tower but at least it’s unique, memorable and makes you stop to observe your surroundings.

Wollongong is a beautiful place that’s full of diverse, interesting people. Fortunately, as a regional centre, we don’t suffer the same level of congestion and air and noise pollution that Sydney has. In many ways, we have it really easy here. I’m so proud of the improvements that have been made over the last decade but occasionally you see something like this and wonder… ‘Why?’. I want to see Wollongong CBD become an altogether exciting place, not a mish-mash of food and retail.

If anyone has any clue about the intention for this dead space, I’d love to know about it.

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