Crown Street Mall has always been controversial.
The outcry began back in the mid-1970s, when the council began talking about closing Wollongong’s main strip to traffic, and it’s still going now, with the mall’s new design celebrated and derided in equal parts.
The mall opened in October 1986, but community debate began about 10 years before that when Wollongong City Council was battling to deal with the retail downturn caused by large suburban and Sydney developments.
Consultants found construction of a pedestrian mall would be the most favourable way to deal with decreasing trade, so Crown Street was closed for a trial Christmas and New Year period and then shut for three months the following year.
As the 1980s began, the council started to buy up retail sites along the strip and develop architectural concepts.
The now-famous steel arches emerged as the favourite design – but it wasn’t without its own controversy, as residents mocked the flamingo-pink paint chosen for its entryway.
The Wollongong City Mall, which cost $7.5 million, opened along with the Gateway shopping centre in 1986.
Ten years later, GPT came on board, sprucing up the Crown Central food court, and then buying the Gateway shopping centre from the council in 1998.
In the year 2000, the ’80s pink made way for the bridge link between Crown Central and Gateway and the centre was renamed Wollongong Central. The mall was christened Crown Street Mall.
But by the mid-2000s it had hit a low point. It was 20 years old and looking out of date, and residents complained about hoodlums and drug users hanging around.
Talk around town turned to a revamp and the possible return of traffic.
In December 2006, the council was presented with six refurbishment options, five of which controversially involved the partial or full reopening of the mall, despite repeated community surveys suggesting up to 80 per cent of residents did not support this move.
The council nominated reopening Crown Street to one-way traffic only at night as its preferred option.
But the 2008 corruption scandal and subsequent sacking of the council thwarted any final decision, and the administrators sent the mall plans back to the drawing board.
Three options were presented in October 2008, the most radical of which involved reopening the mall to traffic between Church and Kembla streets. The final decision – to keep the entire mall solely for pedestrians – was announced in April 2009, and detailed design plans were released in 2010.
But these were panned by big retailers and business groups, so the council restarted the process once again, presenting slightly revised concept designs in 2011.
The revamped plans, worth about $14 million, included opening up the space by removing the birdcage, amphitheatre, children’s playground and water fountain.
As the plans made their way through the planning system, ideas including a children’s water-play area, musical hopscotch fell by the wayside, and work finally began on the project in February 2013.
Since then – except for a short break last summer – construction noise, dust and construction fences have crowded the strip, causing headaches and money troubles for many of the businesses.
But on Saturday, the new mall – which cost about $22.5 million according to the council’s latest released figures – will be officially open.
It’s still divisive, with many unconvinced about the merits of its 52,000 grey pavers and wide open design. It’s too hot, they say, and too open, the trees will drop branches and it took too long and cost too much.
But as summer starts, the council has plans to fill it with events, night markets, activities and hopefully a lot more shoppers, and business owners are staying positive that the mall’s heyday will return.