Alice Springs: Our culture and physical centre in council mess

In Featured Home Page News, National Headlines, Northern Territory

From the Alice Springs News

ALEX NELSON asks the question after decades of ill-fated developments in the town’s main drag, the war between two shopping centres,  tinkering with traffic, parking and public use, and lots of government largesse.

With the deconstruction of the north Todd Mall well underway, it’s worth taking a look at the opposite end of the historical spectrum when there was considerable debate over the impending full mall’s construction in the mid 1980s.

Perhaps most telling is the article “Develop or die: it’s our choice” published in the Centralian Advocate, 18 July, 1986, from which I quote the following extracts: “Alice Springs must develop or die, according to one of the town’s leading architects, Mr. Les Platt.

“Mr Platt is the architect of the $16 million Ford Plaza development [now the Alice Plaza].”

Platt stated that he “believes Alice Springs will not develop while existing planning regulations restrict building height and while it is seen as a necessity to preserve the town’s older buildings at all costs.

“I’d be the first one to protest if a building like the old court house was going to be demolished. But most places around Alice Springs were gerry-built after World War II. When we pulled down the old Stuart Arms Hotel it was full of blue asbestos and was a real fire risk”.

(This last comment is hugely ironic in light of Platt’s leading role in the bungled upgrading of the Alice Springs Hospital over a decade ago – see the Alice Springs News, February 23, 2005; and March 2, 2005 – where fire safety, amongst other things, was severely compromised).

The article continued: “Projects worth some $40 million are currently underway in Alice Springs, Mr. Platt said.

“These projects include the Ford Plaza, the new Telford complex and the Woolworths Building [Alice Plaza, Diplomat Motel, and Yeperenye Shopping Centre, respectively].

“According to Mr. Platt it is not accurate to say that tourists want to see Alice Springs ‘as it was’.

“This is supposed to be a tourist town and yet it is obvious that it just isn’t geared to tourism’, he said.

“I get embarrassed walking around town on the weekends. There is nowhere for people to go and nothing for them to do.

“There is such beautiful country around Alice Springs and people think tourists want to come back to a haven in the evenings.

“But I don’t agree. People should be offered plenty of entertainment and facilities.”

“He says the new full mall for Todd Street and the Ford Plaza will be an asset for tourism in Alice Springs”.

Well, how’s that for a load of irony! It’s relevant to note that Les Platt subsequently became an active and prominent member of the Alice Springs Branch of the Country Liberal Party.

Another very prominent local CLP identity involved in the construction of Todd Mall was (then) Alderman Bob Kennedy, who chaired the Alice town council’s Todd Mall Committee overseeing the project. I was also informed many years ago that Kennedy was instrumental in negotiations with Woolworths to relocate from the north end of Todd Street to its present site in the Yeperenye Shopping Centre.

Woolworths initially had publicly stated it had no intention of moving from Todd Street (the site now occupied by the Alice Springs Cinema complex). In March 1985 it was revealed that the Aboriginal Development Commission, which owned a substantial parcel of land between Hartley and Bath streets, had been approached by a “development organisation” with a “confidential proposal for development of the land”.

This development organisation was known as “the Centralian Aboriginal Enterprise (Aboriginal Corporation)” – “Members of the corporation include the Tangentyere Council, Pitjantjatjara Council, Central Land Council and Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association” – the precursor of the Aboriginal investment business Centrecorp (“Prime site mystery bid”, Centralian Advocate, March 29, 1985).

The article concluded: “Any development was expected to be a development owned and operated by the Aboriginal organisations”.

“Woolworths NT-SA property development manager, Mr. Jim Meirs, said in Adelaide that Woolworths was not involved in any development in Alice Springs.

“He said the company had not approached anyone in regard to acquiring land or had had negotiations with any landowners in Alice Springs”.

The subsequent relocation of Woolworths away from Todd Street/Mall proved to be an “own goal” as far as the future economic viability of the north end of the mall was concerned – it was, however, a vital lynchpin in the success of the Yeperenye Shopping Centre which is owned by Centrecorp, for which Bob Kennedy worked from at least as early as 1989 until retiring just last year. Woolworths re-opened at Yeperenye in October 1987, the same month the full Todd Mall was officially opened.

Almost simultaneously when news first broke about a “confidential proposal” to develop ADC property between Hartley and Bath streets there was a major announcement for plans to re-develop property on the corner of Parsons Street and Todd Mall (at that time a semi-mall with a one-way traffic lane).

“Developers plan to demolish the Stuart Arms Hotel and replace it with an $8 million two-storey shopping complex.

“The shopping centre will include specialty shops, executive offices, two bars, elevators and Alice Springs’ first escalators.

“The developers are DKB Investments – controlled by the Ford family, who own the Ford Resort.

“Director of DKB Investments, Mr. Kim Ford, said: ‘The new shopping centre will definitely bring people back to Todd Mall’” ($8 Mill. Shops Centre Planned”, Centralian Advocate, April 10, 1985). It’s interesting to note that the initial cost of $8 million for the proposed Ford Plaza had doubled by the following year when construction was underway.

The Ford Plaza was officially opened on October 15, 1987, the day following the official opening of the full Todd Mall. The Yeperenye Shopping Centre was officially opened the following week, on October 20.

The concluding line in a story following the opening of Yeperenye proved remarkably prescient: “It could turn out to be a battle for one-stop shopping in the town between the new Yeperenye complex and the Ford Plaza” (“Fat Cat draws kids at complex opening”, Centralian Advocate, October 23, 1987).

The real irony in all this is that much of the fault for the demise of the north end of Todd Mall clearly lies with Les Platt’s monstrous architectural creation, the Alice Plaza.

In its quarter-century history the Alice Plaza has undergone four major internal refits, while just over a decade ago $5 million was spent on a partial re-opening of the north end of Todd Mall and the demolition of Turner Arcade and the Shell Todd service station to make way for more car-parking – all in what were apparently vain attempts to attract more shoppers to the north end of Todd Mall.

Moreover, the Alice Plaza has been subsidised by the NT Government for its entire existence in the form of rent to pay for occupation of the upper level of that building (how many remember the Spencer and Gillen Museum that first took up so much space on the second floor?)

The Alice Plaza has demonstrated all along it is uneconomic as a stand-alone commercial entity without government aid; and it is largely responsible for the failure of the north end of the Todd Mall which has (and is continuing to) cost us millions of taxpayers’ dollars.

On the basis of this scandalous record, there is no reason to believe the current partial demolition of Todd Mall allowing it to be re-opened to traffic is going to work any better than anything that has been tried previously.

There really should be a commission of inquiry held into this whole sorry saga.

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