As in many other great cities, complaining about the Wollongong Central Business District is a local pastime that many out-of-towners struggle to understand.
Initially I couldn't understand what the fuss was about, but then again, I came down from Sydney when the lockout laws were in full effect and at the peak of light rail construction mayhem.
Wollongong CBD has what most others don't: easy access to uncluttered beaches, a pedestrian-friendly mall and a cosmopolitan culture where 112 new bars restaurants and cafes have opened since 2012 at last count.
People actually enjoy living in the CBD, and the many that do have everything on their doorsteps, including great shopping, coastal walks, green public spaces, sporting and entertainment venues and public transport.
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On the other hand, there are areas of the CBD that are dilapidated, poorly planned, and disconnected. While these problems are apparent to all of us, there are a number of other, underlying issues within the CBD that are concerning local businesses.
During July, Illawarra Business Chamber staff walked the streets of the Wollongong CBD to promote the City Centre Excellence category at our annual business awards, which is free for all to enter.
Speaking to some hundred-odd business owners we heard an array of views, but a few key themes emerged. Many are concerned at the 'dead spots' in the city centre, and the high rents incurred by businesses operating on quiet strips that were often peppered by 'for lease' signs.
Many believe that the central offerings of retail and food are dispersed across too large an area for people to easily reach on foot, and some blame a lack of convenient parking for driving shoppers elsewhere.
The Crown Street retail strip is too long to provide an inviting and easily navigated retail, shopping and dining experience. This is not unique to Wollongong, as anybody who has visited the protracted stretch of Port Kembla's Wentworth Street can attest. Further afield, some of Australia's most storied shopping strips have faced this challenge, from Paddington's Oxford Street to South Yarra's Chapel Street.
As a business representative, I don't pretend there are any easy solutions but offer these recommendations to improve trading conditions and the experience for residents and visitors in our CBD.
We need to consolidate the 'commercial core' of Wollongong to a few square blocks - and we should start by creating a definition of what this should be. I suggest this could be the area bounded by Burelli, Harbour, Market and Regent streets.
To achieve this, Council should remove its requirement that all new residential developments include ground floor commercial space. When these occur outside the 'commercial core' it dilutes the CBD and draws retail, food offerings and other consumer services outside of town, requiring customers to drive or walk long distances.
Crown Street Mall and other key precincts are struggling to retain businesses. If council were to reduce the levies it applies to those premises it would put downward pressure on rents and encourage greater commercial activity.
Alongside the commercial core, our city comprises a number of existing precincts that require greater activation, and these include the Entertainment Precinct, Waterfront Precinct, Recreation Precinct, Health Precinct around the hospital.
By activation I mean there must be a plan for these precincts that better directs public and private investment and includes better linkages between them and to public transport. I'd suggest that micro-precincts could be devised for the Mall itself, to establish an alfresco dining zone, along with the existing entertainment zone and a family friendly zone where children can play.
Parking is another issue raised by businesses and residents alike, but rather than create ugly multilevel parking stations in prime locations, we should better utilise the parking spaces we have, examine opportunities in new and existing buildings, leverage new developments and continue to develop alternative modes of transport within the CBD alongside the Gong Shuttle. The popular on-demand bus trial is one example.
The good news is that our civic leaders are receptive to these ideas and we are already seeing the results. Lower Crown Street is already being transformed into a commercial hub with the much-needed development of new office buildings at Langs Corner and the next-door Triple One Crown proposal.
Council acknowledged the need to create a commercial core in its new Economic Development Strategy and is considering creating a 'commercial-only zone'. It has committed to review city centre levies and should be encouraged to reduce these as far as possible.
The Invest Wollongong initiative - also supported by Council - promotes our city to investors and ensures that their proposals are given swift consideration.
With 18 cranes in the sky right now, Wollongong is a highly attractive place to invest and I expect we'll see ongoing development and improvement of the CBD that will eventually see the end of its dead zones.
With bold planning and an entrepreneurial approach, it will become a better place to do business as well.
Adam Zarth is the Executive Director of the Illawarra Business Chamber and Illawarra First