The Ashburton District Council wants to change planning rules to entice more shops and businesses back into the town centre.
The central business district has been in decline for a decade, following the introduction of new earthquake strengthening laws for buildings, a move to online shopping and this year Covid-19.
A report to council says the health of the town centre is poor, there are vacant shops, buildings needing repair and retail jobs have decreased while the number of office workers have risen.
Council’s own district plan, which does not allow for businesses with a floor space greater than 500m2 in the town centre business A zone, has also been cited for a rise in retail shops in business B and other zones.
But a change to the district plan is being proposed that would remove the 500m2 cap in the town centre and impose a greater degree of restraint on activities in other business zones.
The plan change will be notified for public consultation in January next year, with submission hearings in March at the earliest.
Town centre landowners were advised of the proposed plan change at a meeting on September 9.
Council’s report says those with substantial commercial offerings would be entitled to seek that the status quo is retained or a more liberal zoning is applied.
Mayor Neil Brown said council was also spending $15 million on cosmetic work, including roads and footpaths, to make the CBD smarter and entice people back.
Council’s district planning manger Ian Hyde said the key recommendation of an economic report last year was a need to re-establish the CBD’s position as the economic, social and community heart of the district.
In an update to councillors, he said the intention of the plan change was to make it easier for appropriate retail to be in the town centre than anywhere else. There would be opportunity for people to seek activities outside the rules, but it would be a higher hurdle for them.
Cr Stuart Wilson said council had seen people continually circumvent the current district plan “through money and barristers” and wanted to know if the proposed changes would stick. “Will it be just another case of someone with money coming along and overthrowing it?”
Mr Hyde said the changes would address that issue and that the existing rules “paradoxically” encouraged development outside the business A zone.
The changes would enable appropriate retail and commercial activities in all business zones and discourage or manage the adverse effects of unanticipated retail and offices in business zones B (large format or big box retail), C and D where these would impact on the town centre.
A report by planning and resource management consultants Planz says the town centre has become increasingly reliant on officers workers, with 230 retail jobs disappearing since 2006.
“The concern is that without redirecting investment back into the town centre, the current trends will continue. Leading to a hollowing out of the town centre, with a decreased offer, a lower employment density and reduced amenity.”
It noted that 56 per cent of store floor areas in the town centre already exceeded 500m2, despite rules precluding retail over that level.
The plan change would not be a silver bullet. Council’s $51.6m civic centre, private investment and overall district growth all had roles to play in enhancing the primacy of the town centre.
Ashburton’s population is expected to grow by 5800 in the next two decades to reach 40,500 in 2038.