COVID-19 should encourage new approach to development

Hindley Street

By Peter Gill

Theo Maras has long been an original thinker who has never been shy of challenging the established order when it comes to development. His motivation in doing so has been to contribute to the creation of a liveable and healthy city.

So, in response to questions about the implications of the COVID-19 pandemic for the future development of Adelaide, Mr Maras AM, the chairman of the Maras Group and the Adelaide Central Market Authority (amongst other positions), again does not hold back.

Mr Maras says new developments should reflect the clear desire by the public to move closer to the city centre in a post-pandemic world. To do so, Mr Maras says future development should include areas adjoining the parklands that surround the central business district. Mr Maras is adamant that the parklands themselves are sacrosanct but developing the perimeters would give access to one of the most under-utilised aspects of Adelaide’s cityscape.

Such development could create a series of local communities in which people could live, work and play because, as Mr Maras puts it, “cities are about people.”

Mr Maras says the immediate impact of the COVID-19 virus is to create enormous uncertainty which is being felt in both the commercial property market and the public’s aversion to public transport. Both sentiments have implications for future development as some people opt to continue working from home or look to live closer to their workplace to avoid public transport.

“There is absolute and total uncertainty as to what the future will hold and what will happen,” Mr Maras told SACES’s Economic Policy Forum.

“I can attest to that through evidence. We were in negotiations to provide a major national tenant with 6,000 metres of office space in Adelaide and we stopped the program because they came to us and said: ‘Look, we can’t go on’,” he said.

“Six thousand square metres would have accommodated about 2000 people and I can say right now that project won’t even finish up at 800 square metres.”

“People want to come in closer to the centre of the city and we totally and absolutely agree that people are now not keen to go on public transport. That’s very evident by the number of cars that all of a sudden are back on the road with only half of the workforce back in their offices – the streets are blocked.”

“We are going to have to look for an alternative method of transport because I don’t think this business of sharing cars, car-pooling, is going to work.”

In his strong advocacy for mixed use development integrating residential, commercial and lifestyle-entertainment precincts, Mr Maras draws on his Greek heritage and 4,000 years of Hellenic history to support his vision. He describes the ‘agora’, or marketplace, in Athens where politicians, entertainers and scholars congregated. In turn, the public was attracted to a vibrant space where all manner of food, produce and wine was available.

Mr Maras says Adelaide, by comparison, was founded on the ill-advised notion that law and order was more easily maintained if residential, commercial, and dining and entertainment were confined to separate streets.

Mr Maras maintains that Adelaide needs “residential hubs”.

“Adelaide is designed for that with squares and parklands around the city that we are going to have to start making use of by building medium to high density residential buildings in and around it.

“One thing both State and Federal Governments need to do is to take the handcuffs off the planning process and allow proper and orderly planning to take place straight away. We need immediate activation in the development industry.

“And that’s not because I’m in it but for every $1 million invested in the development industry - when you build houses, shops or offices - you have ten people working. If you build infrastructure for $1 million you might have one to one and a half people working.

“We have enough roads and highways which people won’t use anymore because people are not going to go north and south, they want to come in to the city.

“We have a great shortage of accommodation but have all this beautiful open space. We don’t build on the parklands but the parklands are the asset that you build to, a place for the people to come out to.

“The reason why development has failed or not really taken off along the parklands – Greenhill and Fullarton roads are examples – is because there is no amenity. You have got to provide amenity for people, provide for all of their needs not just an office and not just residential accommodation. That’s why main streets like King William Road or Norwood Parade are so popular, they have all the amenity that people want.”

Mr Maras commitment to creating amenity for the occupants of mixed-use development and preserving the local architecture was the motivation behind his group’s redevelopment of the East End of Rundle Street over the past 30 years. He successfully fought off the demands of the Adelaide City Council to demolish buildings that Mr Maras regarded as integral to the character of the area. In doing so, he retained a familial link as the Adelaide Fruit and Produce Exchange had been the outlet for his family’s vegetable production from his early childhood.

Mr Maras is also driven to develop healthy spaces. The company’s development pipeline includes a description that projects will be “creation(s) intended to inspire and foster ‘wellness’ for better health”.

He elaborates in his discussion with the Economic Policy Forum.

“Society has graduated over many years into thinking ‘green’ and ‘sustainable’. Today health has become a much more needed prerequisite in buildings than ever before because we have been struck with this phenomenon of COVID-19.

“But even before COVID-19 we were looking at healthy buildings – ones that breathe, have social spaces to enjoy, natural sunlight, spaces where one person is not trampling over another. It’s also important to give people some space other than a desk because mental health is a very important thing. If you are down mentally, then your whole system is down.”

At 72 years of age, Theo Maras is showing no signs of slowing down as he pursues his ambition to see Adelaide grow into a more liveable and healthier city.

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Tagged in Commentary, COVID-19