School blocks access to community green space
RESIDENTS are demanding the state's top-performing high school reverse its decision to lock them out of a westside green space donated to the state by the son of a pioneering premier.
Late last month the Queensland Academy of Science, Mathematics and Technology (QASMT), which tops NAPLAN and university entrance results every year, locked a gate that allows access to Vera St Common.
The common, and the community garden within it, is the social hub of that part of Toowong and is used by gardeners, cyclists accessing a Council bikepath, children playing sport, and dog walkers.
Furious locals say they were not informed before the gate was closed and have heard conflicting reasons for the move, including crowds and lack of social distancing.
But neighbour Brendan Grice, who moved to the area a year ago, said he had never seen unsafe numbers there and more people used the nearby Wests Rugby Club's fields.
"It (Vera St Common) is very social, the community is almost centred on the use of the grounds,'' Mr Grice said.
"The land north of Toowong Creek is part of the school grounds, but in the year I've lived here I've seen them use it only three times for volleyball and once for badminton.
"Most people are using it outside school hours or on weekends.
"This is land that was bequeathed to the state by (the son of) an ex premier of Queensland, Sir Arthur Palmer (who served in the 1870s), for a school but also for community use.''
Locals believe the real reason for the closure was previous protests by environmentalists opposed to QASMT's building works adjacent to the creek.
An Extinction Rebellion crew staged a protest last year and there were reports of a fire at the construction site, but it has been peaceful for many months.
Security guards now patrol the area 24 hours a day.
The community garden organiser has a key to the gate and can let people in, but previously neighbours had free access and can now bring along compost only on Sunday mornings from 8-10.30am.
QASMT referred Westside News to the Department of Education (DoE). The Department was contacted last week but had not responded at time of publication.
Mr Grice said the school's stance on the fence closure "seems to change constantly''.
"Originally it was supposed to be for student safety and they had been told by (the DoE) to lock the gate,'' he said.
"Then stories came out that it was due to COVID-19, but it's a pretty big space and there aren't dozens of people standing on top of each other.''
A group of neighbours has begun a letter-writing campaign to Education Minister Grace Grace and circulated an eight-page statement in support of their goal of reopening the access.
They said they wanted an end to recent conflict with the school and to foster a more cooperative relationship, similar to Indorooopilly State High School which allows neighbours to use its playing fields after hours as an unofficial offleash dog park.
In return, the neighbours fundraise for the school each year, police the collection of dog faeces via a Facebook "shame'' page, pick up litter and keep an eye out for vandals and thieves.
"The Academy, in its former incarnations as Toowong State High, Toowong
College and now as QASMT, has made these green spaces available for local residents to spend their recreation time in what has been a beautiful community gesture since 1963,'' their statement read.
"Locals have picnics at the Vera St park, kids immerse themselves in nature playing in the creek and many have learnt to ride their bikes along this flat space.
"Daily you will see people exercising, walking their dogs, riding their bikes and playing basketball and tennis. This has been the case for decades.
"They have also used the lower part of the grounds, including the oval and Vera St Park, as a thoroughfare to connect to Miskin St.
"This is particularly important given the steep topography of the area and the use as a cycling and walking route, away from traffic.
"The recent expansion of the Academy has had an inevitable, undesirable impact on the local community in a number of ways including; increased foot and vehicle traffic; decreased on-street parking; restricted access to their own residences during school evening events as a result of school traffic; increased pollution (including construction noise) which has had a damaging impact on the native habitat.
"It is our hope that the Academy seeks to maintain the beautiful natural environment in which they are situated and use it as a learning tool as students study topics like ecosystems and sustainability practices.''
State Greens MP for the local seat of Maiwar, Michael Berkman, said he was not consulted on the closure or told the reason for it, despite a sign on the gate asking residents to contact him or Education Minister Grace Grace for information.
"Initially, we were told that the (school's) facilities manager advised some residents that the direction to close access was made by the Department, and that this was a further response to the ongoing construction on site, rather than a response to COVID-19,'' Mr Berkman said.
"I wrote to the Minister on April 29 to ask that the Department restore access to the Community Garden and Miskin St, from Vera St.
"I've not yet received a response from the Minister, but my office was able to speak with some of the Minister's staff, who indicated that this issue arose from complaints to the Department that people were congregating in the Community Garden and green space in breach of COVID-19 health directions.
"We were also told by the Minister's office that QASMT undertook to advise all residents who use the space, yet this appears not to have been done in writing by the Department or QASMT.
"We have heard that someone from QASMT doorknocked some nearby houses.
"We've heard various conflicting information about whether this was a decision of the school or the Department.''
Mr Berkman said he had also written to QASMT principal Kath Kayrooz seeking answers on how long the closure would be in place and the reasons for it.
Mr Grice and other neighbours said they were told last year by the school that access might be limited during construction but would be restored upon completion of work.
Other school gates were still unlocked, although a gate on the Soudan St bridge was closed last year after protests from environmentalists.
"This is a treasured green space and community hub. It's clear to me just how important it is that locals can continue to access areas they've always used to meet their neighbours, spend time by the creek and get around the neighbourhood,'' Mr Berkman said.
Maiwar LNP candidate, Lauren Day, accused Mr Berkman of not being "across this issue and working to reach an agreeable solution''.
"Unfortunately, we are seeing a pattern of the current state Member blaming everyone but himself for his failures to know what's going on,'' Ms Day said.
"He is proving to be both ineffective in Parliament and asleep at the wheel in his own electorate.
"It's important to now resolve this matter. As the LNP candidate for Maiwar at the upcoming state election, I have spoken to many locals who are united in their desire to work positively to reach an agreeable solution."
LNP councillor for Walter Taylor ward James Mackay said locals should be disappointed in Mr Berkman "who apparently didn't even know the fence was being built''.
"It's upsetting for locals who have lost access to space they have enjoyed for decades,'' Cr Mackay said.
"At the very least, we have to trust access to the garden will reopen after COVID restrictions lift.
"From a local point of view, I'm happy to work with neighbours to see if we can't work something out. Ultimately though, it is school land.''
Originally published as School blocks access to community green space