Sydenham retailers want action

SAM SACHDEVA
Last updated 05:00 02/11/2010
Judy Sherwood
JOHN KIRK-ANDERSON/The Press
IN FULL OPERATION: Judy Sherwood serving in the Sydenham Bakery, Colombo St.

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Some of Sydenham's Colombo St shops may be open for business, but gaining access to them is another matter.

Pedestrians have to weave across the road from footpath to footpath, avoiding the fences surrounding earthquake-damaged buildings.

Driving is also difficult. The street is open to city-bound traffic only, and cars have to negotiate an obstacle course of shipping containers and traffic cones to find parks on side streets or behind buildings.

Travel company Flight Centre has already closed its Sydenham shop and relocated its staff, citing concerns about the "retail environment post-quake", and some business owners are worried that the area will become deserted as others follow.

AMI Insurance Sydenham branch manager Eric McKenzie, who has helped to organise meetings between Sydenham shopowners and city council officials, says businesses are frustrated by a lack of action.

"The landscape of Sydenham is pretty much the same as it was on September 6 [on the Monday, two days after the quake].

"There's a lot of uncertainty as to what's happening."

Many businesses have taken a financial hit since the quake, and the owners of some closed stores have told him that they are unlikely to reopen.

Each week of traffic restrictions is "another nail in the coffin", and demolition work and repairs need to happen quickly so the shops can get back on their feet, he says.

"There is goodwill from the council now, and a lot of determination, but it's going to be difficult to attract tenants in here."

Sydenham Bakery owner Hans Kuipers' family-owned business has been in the area for 50 years. His shop was not damaged by the quake.

Kuipers likes Sydenham's "great character and great shops", but says the roadblocks and barricades have made it difficult for people to shop in the area.

Business is getting better as time goes on, but the initial impact of the quake left him with some difficult decisions.

"We've tried to let everyone have holidays, but now we're thinking about how we go from here.

"We may have to cut people's hours or risk losing some staff."

He is concerned that the council has not helped the area as much as it could, focusing instead on inner-city businesses.

"We've been the forgotten suburb of the city. Successive councils over the years have just sidelined us."

Despite the temporary setback, Kuipers has no plans to leave and hopes Sydenham can get back on its feet once the road is fully opened.

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"There's no doom and gloom," he says. "We need to do as much as we can to keep the area going."

Ascot TV, which had its building badly damaged by the quake, has moved to a new location further south in Colombo St.

Co-owner Kevin Thorn says the new building is too small, "but at least we're up and running".

He would like to return to his old area but is worried about the effect demolition delays will have on businesses.

"It's going to make a ghost town of Sydenham. Is there going to be anyone left down there [when repairs are completed]?"

Artist Doc Ross, who has owned a studio and gallery in the area for 13 years, is worried about a possible "tumbleweed effect" as businesses start to leave the area.

Ross has always thought highly of the area and says his stretch of Colombo St has the potential to become a "unique shopping destination".

He compares post-quake Sydenham to a heart-attack patient lying on a gurney. "It's on the verge of life and death, and the old blips are getting smaller."

There has always been a negative attitude towards Sydenham, Ross says, "like we're a crappy little nothing place", and businesses feel like they are being forgotten.

"Someone's got to pour money into the area or do something," he says. "It was bad anyway, and if all the businesses walk, that could be it."

Penny Lane Records was damaged during the quake and has relocated to a nearby site.

Store manager Garry Knight says the business has struggled to attract customers since it reopened.

"Once you come over that bridge into Sydenham, you see the road-closed signs, then the rubble and a pile of safety fences. It's difficult to bring people in," he said.

The area's businesses have been operating at "about 40 to 50 per cent" of their usual levels, and some will struggle if they miss out on the increased sales that usually accompany the holiday period.

"There are a number of businesses close to the brink of closure, and this could finish them off."

He likes Sydenham's "community-based vibe" and its proximity to the central city, but warns that it could become a ghost town if nothing changes.

Cross Bros manager James Bell says the Sydenham butchery has been forced to lay off six of its 10 staff because of lack of business.

"It's unfortunate, but there's no other way of getting around it. If the work's not here, the work's not here."

The butchery is "considering its options" for a move, and Cross says it could be forced to relocate if business does not improve.

"It's just the lack of foot traffic, and all the others shops which are closed.

"It reduces the shopping population, and there's less to draw people in."

While the area's businesses are struggling at the moment, Cross thinks the area could benefit in the long term if the right steps are taken now.

"It could give Sydenham a new start, and a bit of a revamp.

"Everyone just needs to sit back and think about what is best for the area."

Christchurch City Council inspections and enforcement manager Gary Lennan says the council is "committed to working with Sydenham businesses and building owners to try to help resolve the issues that the earthquake has raised and to look at how we can help".

Lennan says council staff began reviewing the Sydenham cordons last Friday, and are developing a plan to address the issues with debris and rubble on the streets.

He says the council wants to see the traffic restrictions removed as quickly as possible, and is working with building owners to speed up the process.

- The Press

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