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A long-running turf war between some commercial operators, residents, and an Italian-Australian charity has left Leichhardt’s Italian Forum at its lowest ebb after decades of decline.
By Ben Cubby and Natassia Chrysanthos
Leichhardt’s Forum shares some things with its Italian namesake: intrigue, political machinations and an almost gladiatorial taste for infighting.Credit:Steven Siewert
The marble arches of Rome’s Forum have stood for 2000 years. In Sydney’s version, the arches around the Leichhardt piazza are polystyrene and they are already crumbling.
But Leichhardt’s Forum does share some things with its Italian namesake: intrigue, political machinations and an almost gladiatorial taste for infighting.
The polystyrene arches, found to be a fire hazard and now partially removed, are the latest flashpoint in a long-running turf war between some of the forum’s commercial operators, factions among the forum’s residents, and an Italian-Australian charity that owns the theatre and cultural centre at the heart of the complex.
Many business owners say the charity, called Co.As.It, has failed to adhere to a covenant dictating that it bring events and performances to the forum. Instead, it has maintained the lease of the theatre to a private acting school.
Others blame the business community for the high vacancy rates among shops, and a dysfunctional building management committee for the dilapidated state of parts of the site.
The struggle has left the forum at an impasse and its lowest ebb after decades of decline. Even the fountain at the centre of the piazza, a monument to Italian writer Dante, has fallen into disrepair.
The fountain at the centre of the piazza, a monument to Italian writer Dante, has now fallen into disrepair.Credit:Steven Siewert
“The beautiful fountain used to create the ambience of a real Italian piazza,” said Gina Di Francesco, who owns the only original Italian restaurant still operating.
“People come down here regularly saying ‘what happened to this place’. It’s frustrating.”
It’s a far cry from the optimism of October 16, 1988, when the forum’s foundation stone was unveiled by then-Italian president Francesco Cossiga.
The land had been granted to Sydney’s Italian community by the Neville Wran government and the forum was to be the cultural hub of the inner-west, blending restaurants, upmarket shops and apartments around a central square, when it opened in 1999.
“It was lovely to hear the buzz of children playing in the piazza,” Di Francesco said. “We had a merry-go-round for a long while that brought families into the place.”
One long-time resident, Connie Tropiano, said she met her husband at a bowling alley that used to occupy part of the site. “That’s why we went to live in the forum, my husband and I, to reminisce. We gave up our house in Stanmore. It just meant so much to us and to all my friends in the Italian community from the 1960s. It was just wonderful.”
Connie Tropiano said she met her husband at a bowling alley that used to occupy part of the forum site.Credit:Steven Siewert
But the buzz of the forum’s early years soon wore off. Pockets of empty properties appeared and some landlords became reluctant to lease spaces for lower rent. After a decade of stagnation, the local council commissioned a study which found the forum was “a white elephant due to poor management and high strata fees for commercial properties”.
These days, most restaurant lots are vacant. Strewn table cloths or stacked chairs can be seen through shopfront windows. Residents and shop owners told the Herald the introduction of parking meters in surrounding streets, as well as the bankruptcy of one of the piazza’s main restaurant owners, had helped fuel the decline.
The theatre and cultural centre that was part of Wran’s vision finally opened after years of delay in 2009, propelled by federal government funding championed by local member, current Prime Minister Anthony Albanese.
It provided a brief shot in the arm, but the precinct fell into administration in 2013.
After a protracted legal battle, the charity Co.As.It. emerged as the preferred bidder for the site as far as the then-Leichhardt Council was concerned, despite initially putting in the lowest bid for the cultural centre, at $2.6 million.
Inner West mayor Darcy Byrne said he received a personal phone call from actor Hugh Jackman, pitching for an actors centre to buy the site.
But the council backed Co.As.It based on the view that its focus on Italian culture made it best suited to fulfil the covenant, which specifies that it be used for cultural and community activities at all reasonable times.
“We are thrilled that our vision for the growth of the Forum can now be realised,” Co.As.It’s press release said in 2014. “We understand how important the Forum is to the local, and wider, communities, and we are determined to make it realise its true potential under Co.As.It ownership.”
The business plan produced by the new owners promised weekly open-air markets, monthly festivals and regular trade fairs promoting Italian products, as well as smaller events such as dance shows and cooking classes. Very little of that happened.
Said Nick Viner, who owns an office on the forum’s mezzanine level: “How can it be that you can have a wonderful, publicly funded space like this and not have it used for the community, for events that would bring life into the forum. It is a clear breach of the public covenant.”
In March, Viner and another of the forum’s office owners complained to the relevant minister, Victor Dominello, who sought an explanation from Co.As.It.
Correspondence obtained by the shop owners under freedom of information laws show Co.As.It. made a stout defence of its management of the site.
The group listed a series of 20 cultural events and shows that had taken place in the past three years and said it was doing its best under difficult conditions to keep up with repair and maintenance, such as monthly water treatment and cleaning of the beleaguered Dante fountain.
But the business owners pointed out that some of the events, such as an Italian book launch, had not taken place within the forum, and the fountain had not contained water for months.
Co.As.It. declined to be interviewed by the Herald, instead emailing a statement saying the organisation was committed to complying with the public covenant, blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for a lack of recent events.
“The responsibility of Co.As.It. is to provide services for the Italian community in NSW,” the statement said. “We provide community, education and aged care services.
“Whilst we take our responsibilities as owners of the cultural centre very seriously, we cannot take responsibility for the commercial strategy of the Italian Forum.”
Ultimately, Dominello decided against taking action to enforce the covenant.
The Italian charity has its defenders within the forum, some of whom feel it has been seized upon as a scapegoat. “People are putting all their energies on the cultural centre when it should be on the shops and opening those up,” Tropiano said.
“It’s like going to Luna Park with no rides: would you go? Why would you go to the piazza if there’s nothing there?
“The place needs to be restored. I am not going to stop until my Italian forum looks the way it should and the way it was built. The site to me is sacred, and not just to me, to a lot of people.”
But with the forum’s building management committee – which includes representatives of shop owners, residents, the car park and Co.As.It. – frequently in deadlock, even some repair work has proved impossible.
One office space has been rendered unusable for months after water trickling down a shared wall from apartments above caused a mould outbreak, but the committee has been unable to agree who should pay for the damage.
Business owner Chris Voukidis in an office where water is trickling down a shared wall from apartments above that caused a mould outbreak.Credit:Steven Siewert
Several current and former committee members the Herald spoke to described the atmosphere as “toxic” and “unworkable”. The strata managing agents, who work with both the resident and commercial groups, resigned on Friday last week, according to a notice seen by the Herald.
“To bring them together and agree for the benefit of the whole forum is a challenge,” said one commercial operator, who has worked in the forum for more than 10 years and asked not to be named.
“I try to stay out of it. It’s very involved and nitpicky. We’ve got to start working together properly and stop the blame game.”
It has left many business owners deflated. Di Francesco said the neglect of the piazza was disappointing. “Many requests have been brought to the attention of the relevant managers to no avail. It’s shameful and very un-Italian,” she said.
Restaurant owners Josephine and Gina Di Francesco.Credit:Steven Siewert
There are only two restaurants still operating in the piazza, Di Francesco’s and a newer Turkish restaurant, where there used to be 12.
For Maria Saraceno, who has owned the Venetian mask shop in the forum for 21 years, attracting restaurateurs to the space should be a priority.
“We can resurrect the forum to be even greater than what it was if we could reignite passion for the restaurants. A big-name chain restaurant in downstairs would be the start. At the end of the day, it is the Italian forum, it’s somewhere to go eat,” she said.
Di Francesco wants to see children back on merry-go-rounds. “To bring back the children, to constantly have activities, weekly markets, something like that. That’s what I’d like to see,” she said.
But Byrne is sceptical about the forum’s future. He thinks the fragmented nature of the forum’s ownership is the root cause of its woes.
“The very unusual way in which individual properties were sold off at the time it was built is hard to overcome,” Byrne said.
“The fact there’s not one unified owner who can promote the shopping centre as a destination, manage the tenancy mix so it’s an attractive place for people to go and ensure shopfronts are occupied, that is the essential reason why visitation is so incredibly low.
“It’s hard to see how it will recover from being a ghost town unless there’s a single shopping centre owner who can revive the place.”
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