Gold Coast losing its retro motels from 1960s as high-rise developments soar


December 04, 2019 07:24:58

Once a staple of the Australian driving holiday, the Gold Coast highway motel is disappearing, leaving only nostalgia and memories of a bygone era.

Key points:

  • Classic motels from the 1950s and 60s on the Gold Coast Highway have been sold for high-rise development, less than 30 per cent remain
  • These motels are credited with helping build a large tourism market on the Gold Coast
  • Competition from Airbnbs, online booking services and more profitable high-rise apartments threaten the future of retro hotels

But while some renovated retro motels thrive, their prime location along this iconic coastline makes them a tempting prospect for developers.

“I think there may only be a handful left in 10 or 20 years,” former Gold Coast City Council strategic planner Tory Jones said.

“The value of the land really trumps any nostalgic heritage value.

“While we might lament the loss of these places, at the end of the day the prevailing sentiment of the Gold Coast favours change over heritage conservation.”

Once a titan of tourism

Ms Jones has been studying the history of highway motels on the Gold Coast since the late 1990s.

She said the motels began to “pop up everywhere”, advertising air conditioning and colour TV as family road trips gained popularity in the 1950s.

“Every motel had this big illuminated sign like flags to compete to attract the passing motorists.”

“At the peak, probably in the late 70s, there would have been about 140 motels along the Gold Coast Highway,” she said.

“When I did a survey in 1999, there were only 85 remaining … I’d be surprised if there were as many as 30 motels left.

She said while resorts and high-rise hotels have begun to dominate the tourism market more recently, the enduring impact of the “pioneering” motel remains apparent.

“It really opened up that way for hundreds-of-thousands of Australians to come and holiday on the Gold Coast.”

Finding a niche market in the retro

In the southern Gold Coast suburb of Bilinga, the 1950s La Costa Motel is an example of the retro finding a place amongst the modern.

“To me this is all how I grew up and this is how the Gold Coast was when I grew up,” owner Di Cartmill said.

She bought the motel 16 years ago to build a high-rise, but during the Global Financial Crisis, she decided to renovate instead.

“It was really scungy-looking and it was very rough … but it was the best thing we’ve ever done,” she said.

“These little retro boutique motels are special … people like something a little bit different, accommodation doesn’t have to be the same everywhere.”

While new high-rise hotels are being built nearby, Ms Cartmill said the bulk of her overnight customers from the nearby airport “need variety”.

“You just have to look at Palm Beach in and Bilinga as well — there is a lot more high rises going up.”

“We’re definitely not knocking it down because we absolutely love it.”

Motels can survive ‘as long as they’re not a drain’

James Nikiforides’ family has been behind some of the Gold Coast’s best known developments, including Niecon Plaza and Oracle Towers.

He also owns the Ventura Beach Motel at Mermaid Beach which now has development approval, with the potential for high-rise apartments.

He said the motels like Ventura could have a profitable future, “as long they’re not a drain on the aesthetic of the area.”

“For now, the motel is the motel … but we like to know what people are thinking and if the interest is overwhelming then maybe it would change our decision.

“There’s a fresh look to it and we’ve been able to renovate and rejuvenate the inside of it, then there’s always a place for property like that,” he said

But Mr Nikiforides said motels face rising costs and competition.

“You’re really competing with an innovation, which is your Airbnbs … which make it very hard for individual operators to compete.

“Then you’ve got to staff it, clean it and all of these costs are rising but people are looking for the cheapest stay.

“When their price is up and their land values is high, I can’t see why they don’t see the opportunity to cash out.”

Motel heritage is a ‘collective value’

Tory Jones said that “as cities change and evolve” with development, she does not think the motels can be preserved.

She is collecting a digital record of the motels but said the “burden of conserving a place” should not be left to private landowners.

“Heritage is a collective value, so that the community as a collective says ‘we value that, we want to save that.’

“We could save just a few of these specimens just for future generations to understand where this city has come from, when it changes and morphs.”








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