The City of Mandurah, State Govt, local shop owners, and the general public have been racking their brains for years now trying to figure out how to improve the vibe through the smart street mall.
To a new comer, it's a lovely little mall. It's shady, conveniently located, has some nice little cafes, a bakery, and an assortment of other boutique shops that are worth a visit. It has a Woolworths right next door, which is super handy in the middle of the CBD, and it's a great short cut from the ample parking on Sholl St to the world class waterfront which is Mandurah's eastern foreshore.
So why on earth do locals keep avoiding the Smart Street Mall?
Well, it's kind of a taboo thing to talk about, because it's easy to be taken out of context, misquoted, and come across as heartless. It's far more expedient just to talk up the area, but ignoring the problem is insulting the intelligence of all the locals who know full well why they avoid the area. The reason why a lot of locals avoid the area is because of who hangs out in the mall.
If you're there early in the morning or late at night, it's not uncommon to see people sleeping in the mall. We've all been approached by people loitering in the mall asking for a few dollars "for food", and it's not uncommon to see people off their face in the mall. They're not really breaking the law (I guess they were when they were consuming the drugs), but they sure make folks uncomfortable. I was enjoying a quiet look through the windows of a shop there just last week, when a young woman OFF HER FACE came up to me telling me how amazing all the pictures were in the window. I didn't feel unsafe at all because I'm a 6 ft 4 man, but I know most people don't appreciate people on drugs approaching them while they window shop.
CCTV has failed to fix things there. And the City of Mandurah has just announced even MORE CCTV in the mall supposedly to reach the blind spots.
But I have my doubts as to whether this will fix the problem.
For the last two years I've pondered how we can "activate" the mall, what we could do to change the behaviour in the mall, and why on earth it's such an attractive spot for people begging, camping, and loitering.
Then a few weeks ago as I sat across from the mall observing things and thinking, I saw something surprising.
Across the road from the eastern side of the mall there's a large car park that usually has plenty of bays. I've never failed to find a spot there.
Also located next to the car park is a community centre with a free public toilet.
As I sat on the bench near the toilet block, a woman on a bike came and waited nearby. She was fidgety and had a boston bun she had just purchased from Woolworths. She seemed distracted and didn't notice the seagull that had started to attack the packet her bun was in.
She shooed the seagull away when I pointed it out.
Then there was a commotion in the car park. A vehicle backing into a bay was about to hit another car, and that car tooted it's horn. The drivers hurled abuse at each other, causing a scene for a moment, but the car managed to park. The driver sat in the car and waited.
The woman with the bike and the boston bun walked over to the car and got in the front passenger side. I thought "her ride's here" and didn't think much more of it. Then out of the corner of my eye the pesky seagull caught my attention again. I looked and saw she had forgotten her bun. For a moment I thought about alerting her to her mistake, when it dawned on me what was happening.
After a few moments, she got back out of the car, clutching a small plastic bag with a white substance in it, and walked back to her bun, shooing the bird away one more time. She noticed me looking at her hand, and quickly put the small plastic bag in her back pocket and rode away, looking uncomfortable and trying to distract from what I just saw by talking about the boston bun being her dinner.
The car didn't leave.
A male, perhaps in his 20s, approached the vehicle and got into the front passenger seat. The car still didn't leave. A woman came to the passenger window and talked with the two men in the car. She walked away, and then returned a short time later, reaching into the open window. Shortly after that the young man got out of the passenger seat, and he and the woman walked straight into the public toilets together.
The car drove away, with just the driver in the vehicle.
It was rather obvious what had just transpired.
I started doing some research and asking around about the process of purchasing drugs in Mandurah.
Drug users and dealers aren't exactly thrilled to discuss how it all works, but I was able to find out a small amount of information.
When I was 16 and had friends who used drugs, mobile phones were not a thing. You went to a "drug house" and got what you needed. But people I've spoken to recently suggest to me most transactions now do not take place at a house, but at various locations where people have organised to meet up.
There are a number of car parks that are hot spots for meeting drug dealers. Buyers communicate by text, and meet at the set location. One local mentioned another carpark near the forum where you can observe a dozen or more transactions go down on any given day if you just sit and watch.
Thus it appears car parks, in particular ones where there's a public toilet nearby, shelter, no CCTV, etc, make for a perfect meet-up location.
So the Smart Street Mall appears to be located next to a popular drug transacting car park, cheap food, is well sheltered, and even has a Centrelink nearby. We can't do much about most of those factors, but we can try and remove one of them.
Mandurah had some good news this week with the announcement of tax payer funding for additional CCTV in Mandurah, and the Smart Street Mall in particular.
It's fantastic to see efforts being directed at improving the city centre and reducing the likelihood of antisocial behaviour.
What needs to be done now is have the entire area looked at holistically, an understanding built as to why that area is such a popular hang out zone, and appropriate action taken.
The carpark to the east of the mall needs to be covered in CCTV, as well as other areas around town.
If we make the entire CBD a terrible place to try and purchase drugs, those who choose to do so will be forced to go elsewhere. If we combine this with efforts to reduce homelessness, and rehabilitate drug addicts, we can make the mall a pleasant place to visit as well as help those seeking assistance.