LAST year, in line with a Bass Coast Council policy to dispose of land with no specified use, councillors voted to sell No. 70 Chapel Street, Cowes, otherwise known as Olive Justice Place.
The place, which backs onto shops in Thompson Avenue and has been used for many years as an informal car park, is named after Olive Justice, a Ventnor farmer’s daughter, guest house operator, tourist guide and Phillip Island identity who died in 1994, one year short of her century.
The proceeds of the sale were to go towards developing the Cowes cultural precinct, including a renovated hall, library, heritage centre and improved public open space, with $250,000 allocated to the project this financial year.
But the plan hit a stumbling block when the local real estate agents, many of whom used the site as a car park, refused to list it, forcing the council to commission an out-of-town agent to handle the sale.
Meanwhile the grumbles from locals grew louder: this was an important site and many of them felt their wishes were being ignored. There were complaints about decisions being made in Wonthaggi and renewed murmurings about the need for the island to secede and govern its own destiny.
At their last meeting of 2012, the new team of councillors voted to suspend the sale and review the decision to sell the land. They called for a report to be presented in April looking at alternative public uses for the site and the financial impacts of the alternatives. Residents will also be invited to have their say.
Andrew Phillips, the local councillor who moved the successful motion to review the decision to sell, says 90 per cent of people he’s spoken to don’t want the site sold.
He says a master plan is needed for the Cowes commercial hub before the future use can be determined – perhaps as open space, perhaps for a transport hub. But that’s in the long term; in the short term, he just wants to stop the sale.
Announcing the decision to review the sale, council CEO Alan Bawden said there had been a lot of misinformation about the original purchase of the land, including that Olive Justice had gifted the land to the council. In fact, the council bought the site for $250,000 in 1996.
But who was Olive Justice and what would she want to happen to the site?
Born Olive Grayden in 1895, she grew up on farms, first at Newhaven, then in Anchorage Road, Ventnor. She married Reg Justice, who worked the punt between San Remo and Newhaven before the first bridge was built in 1939.
According to June Cutter’s book, Guesthouses on Phillip Island: a history, in the 1940s Olive operated the Newhaven Post Office and telephone exchange. Later she bought the Ocean View guest house (she renamed it Ferry Lodge), which catered for 10-14 guests. She also offered guided motor tours of the island.
In the early 1950s, the Justice family – Reg, Olive and their son and daughter – moved to Cowes and built a house at 70 Chapel Street where Reg had formerly had a blacksmith’s shop in the 1920s. There was room enough for Olive’s magnificent garden and for the hot houses where her son Roy, the groundsman at the Sunseeker Hotel (now the Hollywood Hotel), grew potted plants for charity street stalls. They also had fruit trees, including the fig trees which are still there.
In her 60s, Olive went blind from glaucoma and her son Roy cared for her until his death in the house in 1992. She then went into care, first in Melaleuca Lodge and then in Warley Nursing Home. But the house was left as it was while she was alive and her nephew, Keith Grayden, regularly took her out in a wheelchair and pushed her home for a cup of tea.
Keith and his niece (Olive’s great niece), Christine Grayden, took care of Olive’s affairs while she was in care. Christine says it was Olive’s very strong wish that her land should be sold to the council for use as a public square, including toilets, a decent parents' room for baby feeding and changing, somewhere for visitors to sit out of the weather, some seating and some gardens.
After she died, her solicitor negotiated with the three commissioners who were in place to oversee the transition from the three councils – Phillip Island, Bass and Wonthaggi boroughs – to Bass Coast Shire and in 1996 the council bought the block.
“They established a public committee to develop ideas for the block and a plan was drawn up by consultants,” Christine says. “But the only part of the plan that ever went ahead was the toilet, and that was an Exeloo. I think the people on the committee tired of fighting the council to get facilities on the block.”
Once the council removed the buildings, the place was quickly taken over by cars, mainly from adjoining businesses and overflow from the Coles car park. When residents complained about the dust and rubbish the council removed much of the fronting vegetation and gravelled the block, thereby encouraging more parking.
Cowes real estate agent Jonathan Dade, branch manager of First National, is adamant: the council should cancel the sale, seal the site and and mark it off as an official carpark.
“It’s a valuable bit of land in community terms. Parking is obviously the thing that’s foremost in retailers’ minds and the council needs to support local business.”
Agreed, the real estate agents make good use of it, he says. “But it’s not just us, it’s a lot of the shop owners. Parking is at a premium in this part of Cowes. I’d like to see a multi-level car park there eventually.”
Mr Dade says the council needs to take a longer view. “This is where the pressure is on. People don’t want to park a long way from where they’re shopping, especially during the holiday season.”
Christine Grayden says it was never Olive’s intention that the site should be used for a car park or shops. “She had numerous offers from developers and she was not interested. She wanted it to be used for a town square and I think she was very far-sighted in that.”
But she has mixed feelings about what should happen to the land now. She says circumstances have changed since her aunt died.
“People from both caravan parks in Thompson Avenue used to stroll down the town to Coles and further down but this doesn’t happen so much now that Woolworths is open and one of the big caravan parks is gone.
“What was envisaged for Olive Justice Place may now no longer be an appropriate location, and the new town square may be better and encourage more people into the northern end of town.
“But the new town square will not have the facilities that Olive envisaged for visitors and parents. Phillip Island is a major family destination, but still there is nowhere decent for a mother to breastfeed in privacy and comfort, and as far as I know there are no plans for this in the new town square.”
She believes there is still an opportunity to remove the cars from Olive Justice Place, put in seats and turn it back into pleasant place for people to gather - fulfilling at least part of Olive's vision.
Thanks to Christine Grayden for information and photographs of Olive Justice.