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What’s behind Adelaide’s empty buildings problem?

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There is little evidence Adelaide’s record office vacancy problem is caused by over-regulation despite property owners’ claims, says the researcher behind a new university study aimed at finding solutions.

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The vacancy rate in Adelaide’s CBD was at its highest rate since 1999 earlier this year – just above 16 per cent – according to the latest Property Council figures.

University of Adelaide PhD student Gillian Armstrong, a practicing architect with 15 years’ experience, says the problem is harming Adelaide’s reputation, but the cause is yet to be properly understood.

She told InDaily property owners regularly blame regulation, or over-regulation, for their inability to adapt their buildings to new uses that would attract tenants.

But there is “very, very little evidence to support … this claim,” said Armstong.

“Industry voices are repeatedly saying that it’s building regulations [that hamper adaptive reuse of buildings].

“[Yet] the research just isn’t out there to give a clear answer.”

She suggested there could be “a lack of knowledge from a building owner’s perspective” about how they might put their assets to more productive use.

“One of the problem [could] be how the legislation is being interpreted,” she said.

“It may just be this feeling that [adaptive reuse] … is really problematic.”

She added, however, that technologies available in Europe, such as elevators that are significantly easier to install than those available in Australia, would soon hit our shores and make adaptive re-use more attractive, and cost-effective.

Armstong has launched a study designed to discover the causes of the problem and how they might be solved.

“My study is aiming to look at why we can’t do change of use in Australia very easily,” she said.

She said unoccupied buildings may encourage anti-social behaviour, and that buildings without tenants “degenerate much faster” than occupied buildings, because maintenance tends to be neglected.

“If any building is left empty, then there’s a perception that Adelaide isn’t doing very well,” said Armstrong.

“It affects tourism and how the city is perceived.”

She warned that in at least one European city a high vacancy rate became “a point of no return” economically.

She stressed that “each country is quite different” and that this “point of no return” may vary from location to location, but that it was important to avoid the damaging effects of unoccupied buildings.

The “adaptive reuse” of existing buildings, she said, was good for the environment, because it delays demolition and reconstruction, and good for the economy because it meant property owners’ assets were more flexible to economic change.

She said Adelaide, and other Australian cities, had “lot of useful buildings … that are prematurely demolished” because owners are unable to change their use to attract new tenants.

“I’m not looking at trying to save every building,” she said. “But there’s a significant number that could be converted really usefully.”

Armstrong said there was a public policy risk in accepting the argument that over-regulation was causing the vacancy problem, because some of the regulation concerning city buildings was concerned with important social goods such as fire safety and disability access.

“We have [to] also consider what level of risk is acceptable.”

She is calling on building developers and owners, as well as members of the construction and architecture industries to participate in a survey for her study.

Participation involves a 20-minute questionnaire, which you can access here.

“The success of the study demands that people take part,” she said.

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