By Gabriela Szymanowska and Addie Morton
Heading into another day of construction, businesses and residents along the Light Rail project can expect more headaches, dust and business downturn. The NSW government is facing yet another threat of a class action suit, this time with plenty of physical and financial evidence of damages caused to small businesses and residents.
There is no doubt that once completed the $2.1 billion Light Rail project running from Circular Quay along George Street through to Surry Hills and onto Randwick’s High Road will provide plenty of benefits to the area.
“Small businesses are a priority and we want to ensure that those who have experienced disruption while we build the light rail will reap the benefits once services start,” a spokesperson for Transport for NSW said.
Around 40 businesses have closed with many on the brink of closing, while others have increased their debt levels massively. Currently the construction is causing a 20 to 50 per cent downturn for businesses in the area.
David Sherbert, resident of Devonshire Street, said he has already counted 16 stores that have closed near his home. Stores that are still open and need compensation are not receiving enough, even though in 2017 the State Government decided to award compensation in the form of backdated rent relief.
“The State Government was forced into some sort of compensation, but all it actually was was a partial assistance with rent,” Mr. Sherbert said. “So, if a shop owner was a renter, they would get part of their rent subsidised.”
As of 25 March 2018, 75 businesses had officially applied for compensation and Transport for NSW is waiting for six more businesses to complete an assessment of outstanding progress.
“Applications are assessed as quickly as possible, once all financial statements and any additional information required has been provided to Transport for NSW,” a spokesperson for Transport for NSW said. “On average, applications are determined within less than four weeks after all information has been received.”
Isaac Cheng, owner of Mohr Fish restaurant on Devonshire Street, said, “No, we do not receive anything. No one contacted us to try to give us this information. We found out information about the Light Rail on the internet.”
Mr. Cheng also commented on customers cancelling bookings due to a lack of parking near his shop. Although he has created a map of alternative routes for his customers, he has seen a 20 to 30 per cent loss in business because of construction.
Chris Deale, owner of Dove and Olive Café on Devonshire Street, wants to look at the bigger picture of the Light Rail. He acknowledges the decline in business, but in the long run, he believes the new system will benefit everyone.
“I guess you have to say that it’s not a surprise that we have seen a decline in business. It’s not a shock to anyone: not to Light Rail, it wouldn’t be a shock to the government … everyone along here knew it was going to impact business,” Mr. Deale said. “From our point of view the issue isn’t so much how long it’s taking, it’s not the impact to traffic, it’s that the site looks like a construction site.”
City of Sydney councillor and owner of Vivo café, Angela Vithoulkas, has been a leading voice for small businesses in the area, but is facing her own battle as her cafe is entering another year on the construction zone.
“This October, it’ll be three and a half years on a construction zone. And we don’t know how much longer we are going to survive. What was once one of Sydney’s most awarded cafes is now the face of Light Rail devastation,” Ms. Vithoulkas said.
Transport for NSW has already had one lawsuit filed against it, but there is potential for another larger suit as a large array of evidence that has been collected.
“A group of small business owners got together and set up a website to gather data information and had people sign up because so many people got knocked back from financial assistance for Light Rail, they didn’t fit the criteria—not that we knew what the criteria was before people put in their claims—and residents haven’t have anywhere to go to put in their claims,” Ms. Vithoulkas said.
The website, Sydney Light Rail Class Action, lists the reasons for the class action suit and asks those who have been affected to fill out a form.It also has a virtual map pinpointing the locations impacted by the Light Rail construction. Currently, the website mentions that 84 businesses and residents have been impacted and that the number is growing. While the website is a good idea in theory, the site has its own problems.
There is no acknowledgement as to who set up the website and one of the questions requests information about the respondent’s mental health.
While the website is collecting data to file a class action suit, there is also the question of how safe the site is and who is this information being given to.
Construction is set to be complete in April 2019.