13 May 2019

A Nightmare on Elder Street... Beware the Hipster Apocalypse!

| Alex Tricolas

This is a tale of an evil developer, a tree and an overzealous commentator who got it so wrong (and perhaps inspired some ludicrous and anonymous flyers).

The developer is Nik Bulum, well known in Canberra for a number of urban renewal projects and building works in and around Lonsdale Street in Braddon. Bulum’s company recently purchased the site of the old Canberra City Bowling Club in Braddon with a view to redevelop. He also purchased the adjoining residential property and is planning a knock down rebuild and to move in.

The tree is a heritage listed oak tree that sits in the backyard of the residence adjacent to both the residential property and the Bowls. It is a glorious thing, probably about 80 years old or so, and quite imposing, even if members of the public can’t actually get anywhere near it.

The commentator is one Paul Costigan of well-known website The RiotAct.

A few days ago, The RiotAct published an article by Mister Costigan which implied through its tone and a number of claims and insinuations that Bulum (known for his ‘Hipster’ developments according to the writer) was about to tear through this idyllic Braddon neighbourhood like a bull in a china shop; and push ahead with both developments with nary a thought for the heritage listed oak tree or the concerns of his soon-to-be neighbours.

Problem is, most of the claims were unsubstantiated.

Now it isn’t really my thing to ‘go after’ fellow writers or local alternative media outlets, nor is it my ambition to assume the role of a poor man’s Paul Barry; but I fear Costigan – who has form for his anti-development rants ­– has jumped the shark on this particular article and is perhaps in need of a little Media Watch inspired intervention.

Without a doubt the The RiotACT would have picked up great traction with this – and made the click hungry ad people smile ­­– but the end result here is an article that amounts to a hatchet job on Bulum.

I’m not suggesting Canberra media organisations should engage solely in sycophantic kowtowing to developers or potential advertisers (many of us have done so from time to time in a small community with limited advertising revenue) but I would suggest they at least demand from their contributors a minimum of journalistic best practice before they embark on a rant as misinformed or wilfully ignorant as this particular article.

It may be that in his apparent zeal to manufacture the desired community outrage, Costigan has completely neglected to actually contact the developer and ask him a single question. It wasn’t hard to do but for whatever reason, he has chosen to take a pitchforks and torches approach to the impending Hipster apocalypse.

Yesterday, I spoke to a very nonplussed Nik Bulum and asked him whether anybody from The RiotACT had contacted him. I got an emphatic no. I also asked him about some of the claims and insinuations made in the article. Here is what he had to say:

The claim (or insinuation): The developer is planning a high density apartment block on the City Bowls site that will be incongruent with the nature of the street.

The reply: Bulum says he has no solid plans yet, but building a high density apartment block is not one of them. He says he is aiming for low-rise (no more than two storey) boutique commercial accommodation that will incorporate a restaurant or bar, preserve at least one of the present bowling greens and create a country club feel with swimming pool, food facilities, space for picnics and other outdoor activities.

The claim (or insinuation): There has been no community consultation or government comment regarding this commercial development

The reply: The reason the community has not been consulted and the government has not commented is because no proposal has actually been planned or submitted. Sure, the developer has spoken publicly about some of his plans but beyond that, he is simply throwing ideas around. He reiterates that he will be very active in seeking the views of the neighbourhood, which he also will be a part of when he builds his own home right next to the City Bowls block.

The claim (or insinuation): Neighbours have received plans for a large accommodation and leisure complex on the site of the existing private home adjacent to the tree

The reply: No. The neighbours have received preliminary plans for a private home with a swimming pool on the block as well as confirmation of approval for works in accordance with the relevant codes specific to the protection of the tree.

The claim (or insinuation): The developer is building too close to the tree and will most probably be unsympathetic to its fate.

The reply: Bulum says he is as concerned about protecting the existing tree as anybody. As stated above, he has already lodged plans that comply with the relevant regulations and clearly show no work inside the protection zone for the tree.

The claim (or insinuation): The developer will seek to change the lease of the City Bowls site in order to make a financial gain at the expense of the surrounding residents

The reply: The developer says he has no plans to seek a change in the lease as there is simply no need. It is currently listed as CZ6 and gives any leaseholder substantial licence to operate a number of commercial and recreational activities. Approved CZ6 uses are many and varied, including commercial accommodation, dining and hospitality, retail, sports and recreation, even a zoo!

In the meantime, over the last few days a separate but seemingly related campaign has been activated by anonymous persons hoping to put a stop to a temporary restaurant and bar – almost complete and due to open in less than a month – that Bulum is opening along with Brodburger owners Sascha Brodbeck and Joelle Bou-Jaoude in the existing club building.

‘Our peaceful street is going to be turned into a Nightmare’ reads the headline on flyers that are being nailed and taped to anything that sits still long enough on Elder Street and surrounds. Ludicrous claims are being made; amongst them that the restaurant will promote drug use and lead to increased crime, appalling noise, screaming and empty beer bottles. All this in a restaurant housed inside the confines of an existing premises that has for many decades actually held a liquor licence and offered bar, restaurant, gambling and entertainment amenities without major incident.

One cannot be certain that this ‘Nightmare on Elder Street’ campaign and Costigan’s article are related. On the surface, they do not seem to be. I would not be so presumptuous as to accuse the writer of being in cahoots with the anonymous flyer publishers, but it does seem like a hell of a coincidence that the flyer campaign began just a few days after the article was published.

In any case, in just a few short days the whole thing looks like it may turn into an A-Grade shitfight. Yesterday morning, the chair of the Ainslie School Board appeared on local ABC radio and stated that the school will also oppose the licence. Incidentally, she confirmed that the board had also not sought to contact the developer and that they had been made aware of the proposal through ‘other means.’ I can only presume that she meant the crazy flyers nailed to the trees on the verge.

Amidst this hysterical reaction to what looks like a proposal in the short term to open a restaurant; and perhaps some time down the track, a low rise boutique hotel and hospitality venue that falls within the zoning guidelines on a site that has fallen into disrepair and become somewhat of an eyesore, it is perhaps wise to consider that our city is well served by rather stringent development laws that leave very little to chance.

In most cases, Canberra’s planning laws do a pretty good job of balancing development with community concerns, and often err on the side of community groups. Sure, not everybody gets their way every time, but on the whole, the system allows for a very robust challenge in most cases. Dickson’s proposed apartment development adjacent to Woolworths is a good example of a proposal that has been sent back to the drawing board on more than one occasion due to community dissatisfaction. Giralang Shops is another.

The objectives of the CZ6 regulations are stated quite clearly when regarding any commercial development proposals. Amongst them are the following:

  • To protect the amenity of nearby residential areas, with regard to noise, traffic, parking and privacy
  • To ensure the location of facilities, and their design and landscaping is compatible with environmental values
  • To ensure that the bulk, scale, size, design and landscaping of development is compatible with the surrounding landscape

To suggest that this developer will run roughshod over Elder Street is to suggest all regulation and best practice will be thrown out the window in direct contravention of the code and in the developer’s favour. This type of thinking amounts to nothing more than scaremongering and populist drivel that is feeding into the current narrative in some quarters that the Barr government is too cozy with developers; and all at the expense of one person’s professional reputation.

Paul Costigan and his fellow concerned residents no doubt know too well that they will have ample opportunity to challenge a proposal if and when it is lodged, and the rest is just much ado about nothing.

Note: The publisher and writer of this article has not received any payment or commercial favour for this article.

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