ACT News

Civic laneways seen as secret to reviving central business district

Small businesses are calling on the ACT government for support as they march on abandoned laneways in Civic in the hope they will reinvent the city as a creative hub of activity. 

Jean Kirkland, who owns the Kindle Cafe, backing onto Hillside Lane, said Canberra's laneways have been dormant as "wasted opportunities" and are capable of bringing more people to the city, giving struggling businesses a hand and solving an image problem that haunts the city. 

Kindle Cafe owner Jean Kirkland.
Kindle Cafe owner Jean Kirkland. Photo: Rohan Thomson

"Being here every day, I see workers come out from their office buildings to walk down the lane for their smokos and I think, 'Imagine if you could create a green and active space in that would benefit everyone'," she said.

Ms Kirkland said there was no reason Canberra couldn't become more like Melbourne or Sydney when it comes to laneways, with the only hurdles being imagination, effort and government support. 

"The beauty of the laneway culture in Melbourne is that it's not always the type of thing that costs hundreds of thousands to set up, they just get some fake grass, a tub full of herbs and get on with it," she said.

"The infrastructure is already here in Canberra and if you work with that it's a pretty low monetary outlay. We just need more people getting involved and putting in the work."


Another establishment embracing the laneways is Soju Girl, which backs onto Odgers Lane behind the Melbourne Building, which plans to open a new laneway deck in late October. 

Manager Tyron Zappia said the laneway had been a "dead zone" until neighbour Loading Zone decided to open up its store to the laneway, and slowly but steadily foot traffic has developed.

"It's like a Melbourne thing where you turn down a laneway and see cafes you may have never seen before – it's almost like finding Easter eggs in your own city," he said.

"There are hundreds of places going up in Braddon and we all have to up our game to get people around us."

Joe Cataldo, the owner of Loading Zone, which was one of the first cafes to experiment in Canberra's laneways, said following the lead of Sydney and Melbourne could save Civic from its drab and mundane reputation.

"We're a little behind the times and nervous and unsure, whereas in Melbourne and Sydney they are happy to have a crack and back themselves," he said.

"In Canberra, it takes us a lot of time to branch out of our comfort zone and do something new."

But Ms Kirkland said the biggest challenge was working with the government to back initiatives, despite it saying it had become more supportive of change. 

"When business is tough you've got to be malleable and that's the refreshing thing about where this industry is going," she said.

Mr Zappia said in his case the government had been very supporting and the project had been approved quickly, with little fuss.

"As soon as we made the choice we had the planning guys out and it's been pretty quick but the hard part was talking to business around us," he said.

Canberra CBD chief executive Jane Easthope said the example of the Loading Zone, Kindle Cafe, and Soju Girl showed the city's laneways could be more than shortcuts and become bustling destinations capable of reviving the city.

"There are eight laneways in the city that could all do with some activation to allow new businesses to form and face inwards," she said.

"The Sydney and Melbourne Buildings are very deep and narrow from the front to the back so towards that laneway you get toilets, storage areas and kitchens that don't earn you money yet you're paying for them," she said.

"It makes sense to split this area through modifications and allow double-sided trading, with businesses facing into the laneway."


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