Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Oxford Street is baring all, and it’s no mardi gras
Elizabeth Farrelly. Elizabeth Farrelly writes on architecture, planning and aesthetic issues for the Herald.
VACANT may be all the go on the catwalk, but it’s not such a good look in a shop. At hunter gatherer level, where the shopping impulse resides, we are helplessly attracted to bounty. Facing a laden berry bush and a picked-over one, you’ll go with laden every time. It’s the same impulse that makes people copulate as the world ends. Forget procreation: it’s about connecting with the source. About energy. About warmth. And this is what makes shopping addictive: the search for warmth. It’s also what makes retail vacancy a notifiable disease.
Oxford Street is one of Australia’s oldest, most fertile and febrile shopping streets. Now, though, from Lisa Ho at the top to the Burdekin at the, well, bottom end, the entire strip is a-flutter with “for lease” signs; 60 at last count. Of the non-empties, half seem to have semi-permanent “80 per cent off” sales. There’s even talk of the gays moving out to Newtown. Sure, an Oxford Street shake-up was expected after Westfield Bondi Junction. But two years on?
Sydney retail-guru Frank Elgar, a longtime Oxford Street aficionado, sees himself “running round like Jeremiah ringing the bell”. He says “the chemistry just isn’t there. But to change the cultural base is to invite disaster”. Still, for Oxford Street to be so beset just when international trends show a resurgence of strip over mall is a worry.
Oxford Street chemistry is complex and organic. Streets, unlike roads, are walled creatures; corridors whose walls are permeable, habitable and, in the high street, fruitful. High streets are our cultural orchards, their aisles meant for loitering and tasting quite as much as shooting-through. This double life, as both container and conduit, underpins their charm. For the moderns, though, such ambiguity was criminal. As Le Corbusier yelled, bespectacled, from the rooftops, “il faut tuer la rue!” We must kill the street.
What he hated about streets was precisely what we love; the dual emphasis on journey and arrival. Modernism approached cities as a four-year-old approaches dinner: wanting all colours, textures and tastes clearly separated. Hence the idea of use zoning, separating the old mixed-use towns into CBDs, industrial areas and dormitory suburbs. Hence, too, the idea that, within cities, roads should cater to speed – the faster the better – with pedestrians in tunnels and shoppers in malls, zoned out like good little bunnies.
Slowly, now, we’re coming to see that while this might make objective sense, it’s actually boring. That the joy of cities, like the joy of dinner, depends on the rich and sometimes unpredictable intermingling of difference. But talking diversity is one thing; letting it happen, another.
Twenty years back, in its heyday, Oxford Street exemplified this diversity. Rents were low and shops brimmed with the adventurous and the experimental. To walk the walk was to have a cultural adventure, never knowing what might come next.
Gradually, though, as success led to consumerism, Oxford Street snowcloned itself under avalanching boutique and chainstore cliches. Rents skyrocketed and adventure went west, to Newtown.
So when the vacancies began, it was easy to take a Darwinist stance, seeing it as a natural correction that would send the chainstores scuttling back home to the mall, reduce rents and, after initial pain, return the creatives.
Such optimism, though, ignores one crucial factor: immense landlord resistance to rent reduction. So immense, in fact, that many prefer empty shops for months or years to cutting rents.
This disturbingly counter-intuitive effect derives from the fact that retail properties are valued on rental yield. To reduce rent is to lose borrowing capacity, summoning the spectre of foreclosure. Even vacancies are better than that.
So although rents have fallen on Oxford – compared, for example, with King Street, Newtown, where they’ve risen almost 20 per cent in a year – the drop is negligible; too small to affect either the fashion-heavy retail mix or the vacancy rate.
Because rents are generally seen as success indicators, agents, retailers and pollies all frantically talk them up. In fact, though, that’s back to front. If you compare average weekly rentals on Oxford Street, Paddo ($2100 a week), with Cavill Street, Surfers Paradise ($2300), Knox Street, Double Bay ($1400) and King Street, Newtown ($1200), what you notice is this: the higher the naffer.
The challenge, then, is not to maintain values, but to anaesthetise their shrinkage. This is just the sort of emergency for which we keep governments. In Oxford Street, as in climate change, the hands-off method may eventually work, but the interim casualties could be catastrophic. As Elgar says, “husbanding markets is about intervening so that the cycle is short”.
On Oxford Street, the most obvious candidate for such intervention is the pink end where, from Zink to Taylor Square, the main landlord is the city council. This is especially interesting since it is also Clover Moore’s core constituency.
And while the city promotes ideas like an arts piazza outside the College of Fine Arts, reduced cafe footpath rentals and “special-permit busking zones”, plus the first-floor fresh produce food hall approved by council last week, there may be a simpler way to enhance Oxford Street’s “quirky shopping” aura.
With a $340 million budget and more than $200 million cash, the City of Sydney is Australia’s richest council. One of its Oxford Street tenants, Darlinghurst Business Partnership’s president, Philip Wharton, says the city imposed a major rent increase when it took over from South Sydney; it also regularly pings shoppers for parking after 3pm. Taking a cut here, rather than all that fancy lifestyle expenditure, might be all that’s needed.
PHOTO: Photo: Andrew Meares