Bercy Village, Paris

Rethinking the Australian Town Centre –  Part III – 13 October, 2010 – In ancient times, Hindus referred to the ocean as the “dark water.” It was here that gods rested, and to disturb them would draw upon the seafarer the wrath of furious demons and monsters.

Thus, high caste Hindus were not mariners. Those who broke the taboo did so at great risk of punishment. They would be grouped with poets, prostitutes, perjurers, consumers of food prepared by the sons of adultresses, and other allegedly unwholesome individuals.

Times change but dark water persists, and not just in the minds of Hindus. In the modern shopping centre industry there is also a “dark water” over which the high priests of the retail development industry are reluctant to sail. It lies in a channel that must be traversed to get from conventional enclosed shopping centres with all of those retailers we have come to love – Woolies, Coles, Kmart, et al, with a warren of fresh food specialties and fashion chains snuggled up to them – to a town centre development with a genuine sense of place.

Within this treacherous channel lurk the modern day reincarnations of the ancient Hindus’ monsters and demons – bankers, valuers, property economists and consumer researchers.

It’s mostly only American developers who have plucked up the courage to row across this dark water. And the success of the best centres is measurable in economic and environmental terms. The superior US projects yield high sales densities by the standards of comparable conventional shopping centres, and since they incorporate open-air configurations, green space, natural landscaping and local construction materials, they also make an important contribution to sustainability.

Portal la dehesa, Santiago, Chile

But this begs the question: If they’ve worked so well in America, why has the model not been replicated elsewhere? Surely there would have been more town centres under development in other parts of the world now if they were such a good idea?

Genuine town centre developments that incorporate residential, office and civic uses with open-air retail are rare outside of North America, although there are a number of open-air shopping centres that share some characteristics of the town centre genre.

Rouse Hill in the western suburbs of Sydney is one of the more faithful attempts at creating a genuine town centre development and is praiseworthy in a number of respects. However, the project’s flaws are readily identifiable; it could have enjoyed more space, better sight lines and better overall design, which can all be pounced on by cynics as proof that the concept is not suitable for Australia.

That’s a pity because from a sustainability angle Rouse Hill is a big step forward for shopping centres of its size in Australia. Its hybrid open-air/enclosed design offers a lot for future regional centres to emulate.

Elsewhere in the world, there are now numerous shopping centres that borrow from the new urbanist (see new urbanism) characteristics of the town centre but don’t add non-retail uses. They are pedestrian friendly, open-air, well landscaped, use local building materials, go heavy on restaurants and light on conventional retail chains, and avoid the trap of bringing in a conventional department store or supermarket anchor.

In Santiago, Chile, Cencosud’s Portal la dehesa shopping centre is a nice example.

The Curve, Kuala Lumpur

An even better one is in Paris, where renewal of the old wine warehouse district in the 12th arrondissement has resulted in Bercy Village, a delightful open-air shopping centre that remains faithful to its architectural tradition of small warehouses and cobblestone lanes. Shadecloth is used to shield the pedestrian mall from inclement weather. The centre also integrates well with the neighbouring residential area.

Even in tropical Asia where the climate factor is probably the most inimical to open-air shopping during the heat of the day, there are some fine examples of new urbanist centres such as The Curve in Kuala Lumpur.

More such developments are on the drawing board in far-flung places around the world. But the dark waters linger.

Climate is certainly an obstacle in places where temperature extremes are normal. Open-air centres in Dubai don’t make much sense. However, in Australia, a much more prevalent factor is inertia on the part of developers and influential shopping centre tenants, who ignore Australia’s tradition of outstanding CBD shopping and insist that only the traditional mall envelope with its energy-hungry common area HVAC, artificial lighting and non-abundant greenery is the only way to go.

Unlike in America where town centre development is developer-led, such projects in Australia will need to be carefully incubated by urban planners and architects, underpinned by the best economic research, and brought to fruition in a spirit of compromise and civic-mindedness.

The positive spillovers for the environment and for community cohesion could be worth the effort.

Michael Baker is a Sydney-based retail property analyst and consultant. He is a former research director of the New York-based International Council of Shopping Centers. He can be contacted at Mbakerconsult@gmail.com or www.mbaker-retail.com.