The remaining business owners in Armadale's Jull Street Mall are struggling to stay afloat, but stakeholders remain at odds over whether reopening the mall to one-way traffic is the answer.
The City of Armadale has turned to the community to determine how it should address the CBD’s struggling retail precinct amid mounting pressure from business owners and a damning new report which found it had more than double the vacancy rates of other metropolitan centres.
The city's council unanimously supported the preparation of an Engagement Plan to gauge how the community feels about potentially reopening Armadale’s Jull Street Mall during a meeting last night, with options including reopening the mall to one-way traffic, two-way traffic, or retaining the space as a public pedestrian and civic space.
The decision marks the latest development in a long-running debate between the local government, the business community and local politicians over what should be done to address the issues plaguing the 150-metre pedestrian mall strip and its tenants, with loitering, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity having deterred shoppers and allegedly sent business owners packing.
Now, 63 per cent of the mall’s 27 shopfronts are closed and boarded up, with some having remained vacant for more than five years.
Despite rental prices for some of the shop fronts having been reduced by up to 75 per cent, landlords cannot seem to fill vacancies in the Jull Street Mall.
In 2019, several of the remaining business owners formed Reconnect Jull Street, employing strategic advisory firm GRA Partners to spearhead a campaign to tackle the issues facing the mall and drive much-needed investment in the retail precinct.
The group presented a $306,000 proposal to reopen the mall to slow moving one-way traffic and draw shoppers back to the deserted shopping precinct, a move backed by the region’s Chamber of Commerce.
The proposal was supported by a petition signed by more than 1,000 people, but was not accepted by the city, which believes the actual cost of the redevelopment to be closer to four times the amount quoted, not financially feasible, and not the silver bullet the group may be looking for.
In the last two years, the city has spent more than half a million dollars funding a range of initiatives designed to help the mall's remaining tenants, including commissioning reports into the proposal and its likely impact, employing security guards and activating the space.
While the interim security measures have seen some businesses report a 20 per cent increase in patronage, the two reports reviewing long-term options had conflicting findings.
Town Planning & Urban Design consultants RobertsDay Group (now Hatch RobertsDay) found that reopening the mall to one-way traffic would result in improved perceptions of safety, lighting and accessibility, and improve the prospect of private sector investment, but urban planning and development analysis firm Syme Marmion & Co found that without a significant increase in activity, it was unlikely that vehicles in the street would result in any real change.
Syme Marmion & Co believe the reason to be structural, with the mall bisecting two internalised supermarket complexes which contain only minor entrances to the mall and, by nature, are designed to keep consumers inside.
The majority of the city's councillors also believe the proposal needs to be considered in conjunction with several other major developments in the city's CBD, including the potential elevation of the Armadale rail line, the construction of the state government's $22.6 million Armadale TAFE campus and the completion of the new Armadale Courthouse and Police Precinct.
In the time that the city has been considering its options, more than half of the businesses that formed Reconnect Jull Street have folded, and group spokesperson Michael Facey said others were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
“It should never have taken as long as it has, but it sums up this whole process,” he told Business News after last night’s meeting.
“These are people’s livelihoods on the line, businesses that employ local people and provide essential services; they’ve really been let down here.
“The fact that more than 60 per cent of the prime retail space in Armadale’s CBD is vacant is extraordinary.
“Businesses now are hanging on by the skin of their teeth, they’re struggling to keep their doors open.
“I don’t know how long any of them have left.
“It’s very easy to blame COVID, but this mall was not viable before COVID.”
To date, councillors have stood by the report findings, remaining on the fence about whether reopening the mall to one-way traffic is the answer.
Mayor Ruth Butterfield said the mall's comprehensive history over the past 30 odd years was evidence enough that it was not as simple as "flipping a coin" and her deputy mayor Carole Frost agreed.
“Are we trying to solve the anti-social behaviour? Yes, we should be.
"But can we solve the retailers problems? Can we?”
It's not hysteria: Councillor Colin Campbell
What was included in the agenda for last night's meeting were the observations of the community liaisons during the three-month security contract, with 51 of the 308 incidents considered ‘anti-social’ or ‘disorderly’.
Councillor Colin Campbell said what the survey did do was set aside assertions that the commentary around anti-social behaviour issues were somehow hysterical or being misrepresented.
“This is not hysteria," he told the meeting.
"The accounts here clearly show that there are problems in the mall and that the mall isn’t full of grace and light.
“I think people are getting a bit sick of others minimising the impact that this [anti-social behaviour] is having on businesses and the patrons frequenting those businesses.
“Something else that I’d like to note is that this survey is based on the time in which the security was actually there, which on some days was for as little as three hours.”
Road closure "omission"
Tensions between the stakeholders have been further exacerbated by confirmation that the provision for the closure of the mall expired in 2002, ten years after it took place, an omission that was discovered by the city’s administration following a three-month investigation.
It is understood that the omission was the result of a change to the Local Government Act concerning thoroughfares and the ability of local governments to apply restrictions.
While the Armadale Redevelopment Authority did have the power to temporarily close thoroughfares through a determination, the city has been unable to find a determination to that effect.
City of Armadale chief executive officer Joanne Abbiss categorically refuted that the closure of the mall was in any way improper, telling the city’s technical services committee that the processes outlined in the previous Local Government Act were followed scrupulously and that the act contained a provision to deal with such omissions.
As part of last night's resolution, the council has agreed to extend the use of community liaison officers in the mall and advertise its intention to order that a portion of Jull Street be closed to vehicles to address the original order for its permanent closure having expired.