Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Ambitious makeover to keep up appearances
Plans are afoot to make Double Bay the ultimate in urban chic, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
Question: how do you start a new profession? Answer: create a need nobody knew they had, then fill it. Just like selling mobile phones, really.
Urban design is the latest professional thing and, like the ubiquitous pocket-chirper, it has become an essential accoutrement of contemporary life. What apter place could there be, then, in which to practise the new practice than Double Bay, pulsing heart of Eastburbia’s shop-till-you-drop-land? Or is it? And if not, will it be helped by the Kiaora Lands development proposal?
One of Sydney’s most enchanting traits is its rude agglomerative nature, inherited from olde London, as a spontaneous compilation of nuclear hamlets each little retail yolk compassed in residential white. Over the years, though, most of Sydney’s hamlets have been swallowed whole by serpentine strip-shopping from the tram-and-bus era. King Street, Newtown; Military Road, Mosman; Norton Street, Leichhardt; Oxford Street, Paddington: delightful, certainly, but strictly linear in their delights.
Double Bay is unusual in that the high street isn’t really where it’s at. So non-linear as to be positively sliding doors in its array of routing options, Double Bay is less strip than patch-shopping, a triangular pocket of upscale boutiquerie defined by streets but crazed and fed by snug dogleg alleys. Touching New South Head Road only passingly, it exhibits a disdain for mainstreet matched only by the perversity of its relationship to the bay for which it is named.
The bay itself is a dear little thing, but undeniably low on access and entirely ignored by its settlement. Sand and sea it may have, but there’s no mistaking the sense as you stand, trousers rolled, that what’s cool in Double Bay goes down elsewhere. Double-Bay-the-beach may be Sydney’s only harbour-front stretch that feels like a poor relation to its hinterland.
Less poor, even so, than the south side of New South Head Road. The north may fancy itself as the Paris side of Double Bay, but the south is not exactly Left Bank, its alleys flavoured more by car parks and Sulo bins than couture cafes and art-book shops. Now, however, a joint venture between Woolworths, Solotel (who own the redbrick, deco-esque Golden Sheaf Hotel, which passes for heritage in Double Bay) and Woollahra Council aims to change all.
It’s nothing if not ambitious. Double Bay’s once-formidable A-list shopping aura is already somewhat the worse for age, sustaining perceptible body-sag from Castlereagh Street’s competition and expecting further furrows as the newly Botoxed Bondi Junction reawakens.
The current proposal, encompassing Kiaora Lane and Anderson Street car parks as well as Woolies and the pub, will bring 25 specialty shops, 3400 square metres of office space, 134 apartments, a new supermarket and refurbed hotel, as well as 2000 square metres of new public library and more than 320 covered public car-spaces. Plus a couple of squares, or squarishes. The aim is to revitalise Double Bay as a class retail centre, dragging its slightly saggy centre-of-gravity south across mainstreet.
This is no small thing, surgically speaking. It just might work.
The idea has been around for some time, though perhaps not quite as long as it’s been needed. Finally, in 2001, Woollahra Council having assiduously sought ICAC’s advice on probity issues roused by being both proponent and consent body, invited expressions of interest. Then, with advice from my learned colleagues on the State Government’s Urban Design Advisory Service, the council selected the Woolworths/Solotel scheme, designed by Alexander Tzannes Associates who are also, as it happens, doing the little five-storey commercial number on the ex-BP site at Coopers Corner.
Now, some 80-odd options later, the Kiaora Lands masterplan has in-principle support from its various client bodies. There’s a vast quantum of water to flow before a development application can be lodged, let alone eight buildings built, but so far it has made all the right moves. Stretching 2 1/2 blocks back from New South Head Road, the proposal concentrates the higher buildings and more civic/commercial use on the main street, with residential behind.
In pursuit of the patch model, though, poor little Kiaora Lane (behind NSH Road) will become, Cinderella-like, a kissing cousin of Knox Street: leafy, retail-fringed, porphyry-paved. Car parking goes underground (serious money in a flood zone), with a supermarket at ground level. With five storeys of million-dollar apartments stacked over it, Kiaora Lands looks set to become the material, as well as spiritual, homeland to the shopping classes.
So who will live here? Who will shop? Double Bay, even more than the rest, has an ageing population that is distinctly overendowed in the 75-plus department and low on under-14s.
A third of its population is over 55. Which, since age is the great gender-winnower, biases the Bay to femaleness: 1.25 women for every man. Which may explain the Bay’s preposterous preponderance of hairdressers. Furthermore, while Double Bay has an extremely high ratio of flats and units 51 per cent of all dwellings, compared with a Sydney average of 22 per cent it enjoys Sydney’s third-highest median income, after North Sydney and Mosman. This should spell money to burn. Retail heaven.
But Double Bay shopping rates only a rough third, after Oxford Street Paddo and Queen Street Woollahra. Its high rents are offset by higher turnovers. Retail is disastrous in Double Bay, says local real estate legend Billy Bridges. You see more people standing over a dead snake than buying here. Double Bay is full of pretence. It’s all about seeing and being seen. No one buys. So what keeps the rents up? Again, it’s all about appearance. That and survival. Fellows put their wives into the shops if they’ve got plenty of money and they’re driving them mad from change of life, just to get them off their backs. Shop wi(n)dow syndrome.
Double Bay is, nevertheless, one of the few places in Sydney you can still spend up big in the fresh air. And while this outdoor thing may be driven by the deep human need to park the Merc next to the latte as Bridges says, you could sell the world’s best coffee indoors in Double Bay and no one would go, because it’s all about being seen its effects are salutary.
So, will Tzannes’s handsome Dubrovnik-meets-Barcelona side of Double Bay survive, despite sending the four-wheel status symbol to the netherworld? Probably, with both on-site residential and built-in parking working to create a captive audience. Extending Patterson Street on a gentle curve through to Kiaora Road, providing a sunny, triangular square on the south side of Kiaora Lane and a five-storey glazed arcade through to New South Head Road, plus a generous dash of tree planting and boutiquerie, all make the strategy pretty plausible.
And the tactics, the architecture? Properly speaking, we shouldn’t have any idea at this stage. It is one of the ironies of the extraordinarily thorough, not to say anal, urban design process to date which has produced document mountains detailing individual envelopes for every site in Double Bay that it has forced the Tzannes team into premature architectural resolution.
Personally, I’d back the urban designers off a bit. Get them to focus on exactly which public interests they are there to protect, then let the architects go on the architecture. Precision incision. But what can you do when there’s a fledgling profession squawking for every worm except feed the thing, watch it grow and hope to goodness it’s not a cuckoo?
THREE ILLUS: The future looks fabulous, darlings .
an artist’s impression of Kiaora Lands, top, which it is hoped will help Double Bay, above, recapture its cachet.