News from the front desk issue 442: It’s no secret among our most avid readers that we’re based in inner Sydney. Glebe to be precise. On Tuesday night thanks to a gentle prod from architect Tone Wheeler we made our way to the very nice new community hall provided as part of Mirvac’s Tramsheds to hear about the future of Glebe.

Among the first issues to be discussed in a great panel lineup that included City of Sydney councillor Jess Scully, former pollie and state minister Verity Firth and Wheeler, moderated with great verve by another local, former ABC journo Jane Singleton, was the area’s heritage. And the heritage here is impressive. As one of Sydney’s earliest settlements it’s got a profusion of great Victorian houses and streets.

Heritage is more than the buildings though, it’s about community, it was recognised.

Currently, “The Glebe” has a profusion of social housing mixed with remnant hippies (now much wealthier than when they moved in during the 60s) and newcomers who migrated from leafy north shore suburbs or outer areas, giving up gardens and big energy guzzling houses so they could save time travelling to work and enjoy the cultural amenities of the city.

What’s in store?

At a similar heritage suburb, Millers Point on the fringe of the CBD, the state government acknowledged the heritage importance of the community and then summarily moved out its social housing tenants. Would Glebe be next? Not if this group of locals had anything to do with it, you sensed. You could feel the “Hands Off Glebe” movement picking up where it left off last time they started quietly selling off public housing in Glebe.

But The Glebe, named for its origins as belonging to the church, has another problem. Its shops are closing down.

One place, a former downmarket supermarket, has been closed for two years or so. The owner told The Fifth Estate  he was asking $1600 a week. We wondered how many loaves of white bread and discount milk and packet biscuits you need to sell before you could make those payments. 

Sydney councillor and panel member Jess Scully said the problem wasn’t just in Glebe, it was also in Oxford Street, it was in “every high street around the world”.

Retail is in danger thanks to online shopping, online delivery services and the competition from the shopping centres.

At the end of the very long Glebe Point Road is Broadway and some of the people in the audience were surprised to learn it’s considered the most successful shopping centre in Australia with the highest rent.

It doesn’t have to be an “either or” situation one audience member said. This community wants both: the convenience and cheaper prices of the shopping centre and the community benefits of the local village shops.

So how can the trend be reversed?

We called the Village Well in Melbourne, which specialises in retail and placemaking. Managing director and founder Gilbert Rochecouste was currently in Mauritius but colleague Alice Leake who is an urban designer and landscape architect knew exactly what we were talking about.

Service towns such as where she comes from, a place called Naracoorte about half way between Melbourne and Adelaide on the South Australian side of the border, has been going through the same thing.

It’s progressively lost its cafes, along with it a sports store and the albeit small country style Target. Some pushback is underway with a “mum’s café” opening and another one or two other initiatives. But in general, it’s not a good sign.

On the other hand, Robe, which is about an hour away, is on the tourist route and doing much better.

It’s the kind of problem that besets not just small regional towns but local areas in the city too. And the kind of problem that Leake and Rochecouste work on a lot of the time.

One of the keys is to recreate the idea of the village in its traditional dynamic.

There’s the start of a shift from a section of consumers but not all.

“From my own experience, I shop as a person who is conscious of where things come from, who the artist is, where the food is from. I live near the Queen Vic markets (in Melbourne) and so I go to the same guy,” Leake says.

“In small towns there’s a sense of community. People will support the community, so it’s ‘so-and-so’s dad is a butcher so I will shop there’ or ‘so-and-so’s mum does the quilting so I will go there’”.

“There’s a movement back to the community. But it depends on who you are. Some are happy to shop at Zara and Target and H&M but if you’re interested in quality then [you will seek it out].”

But be careful how you approach reinvigoration

The consultancy is often approached to help re-invigorate a small town or a city area but people tend to seek out material ways to do this, such as through landscaping or planting trees, Leake says.

This misses the point that the activity comes from the human connections.

Shopping centres that get it and try to bring in small retailers – “the donut bars that sells amazing donuts” to recreate that village feel – like Melbourne Central does – but shoppers like Leake won’t be fooled.

Ingo Kumic who refers to himself as “generalist” but has more specific qualifications has had plenty of exposure to the problem in his work for the City of Knox in Melbourne.

He’s in total agreement with Leake.

He’s seen the same thing over the years – the “overemphasis” on “user experience” that is often cosmetic and can end up being a ruse, often an expensive one.

A lot of the challenge of the High Street is structural, he says. It’s about the local economy. It’s about “who actually lives in the area” and what their spending power is.

The most successful ingredients for a high street are people who work and live in the same area. In one area when a local shopkeeper was robbed of the cash register, the touch football club he belonged to through to his children’s school contacts not only banded together to replace the cash register but filled up the till again so he could keep up his business, Kumic says.

The local families will support the local shopkeepers and there is an “intersection” between the resident population who meet up and the school and the residents who rely on the utility of the high street. There is really a mutually reinforcing relationship.”

What happens, he says, is that going to the shops is no longer a simple transactional thing. “You don’t see someone trying to sell you something, it’s about the father who kids at the school.”

Melbourne does that local community thing really well, he says.

But the key is that you need an area that has the disposable income to support the businesses. Which is why you need more than the “material” view of the village such as trees and other hardware that people imagine and think more about the infrastructure.

For instance, there is a slight backlash against the cool  laneways culture of Melbourne because it precludes the back access activities such as truck loading and unloading that is necessary to maintain the economic functions of the street.

If you no longer have the service laneways for trucks you can spend all the money you want tarting it up to get that experience in the middle of Melbourne but you could end up killing that very thing that you love, he says.

Mistakes have also been made by preserving and upgrading the infrastructure at the expense of the traditional people who’ve lived in an area and can organically curate it and maintain it. The result can be the fabric looks great but it’s devoid of life. (A particular “revitalisation” at a spot in Dublin overlooking the Liffey River comes to mind.)

At the Glebe event Tone Wheeler proposed the revitalisation of the empty shops with offices upstairs that could cater to the digital economy and businesses downstairs for the analogue.

City of Sydney councillor Jess Scully likes the idea and is on the same track.

“Tone Wheeler made a really good point: we need daytime commercial use to help local businesses bring vitality to the area. To get the use of precious inner city space and to help local businesses and retailers who are operating on the ground floor.

“That’s a big idea for Glebe Point Road and also a big idea for Oxford Street.”

Workers would support food retailers at lunch perhaps and maybe go for a drink after work, she says.

But it’s not just online shopping that’s spoiling the high street, it’s the delivery economy. You can be sitting in a restaurant on your own, she says, but meanwhile there can be seven or eight drivers picking up home delivery meals.

The challenge isn’t just to the activity on the high street but to the business that must pay service fees to the delivery service.

It’s convenient, she says, but “There is a cost to the convenience.”

We need to ask, she said, “What do we value in our neighbourhoods? How do our choices add to that?”

Scully also brings up another unexpected angle in the reason the high streets are looking so empty: the tax system.In the case of the local supermarket in Glebe whose owner is asking $1600 a week she says tax provisions allow for owners to write off the lost income as a tax deduction. So there is little incentive to drop the rent and in some cases quite a lot to keep the shop empty.

“Almost everything comes down to tax policy” she says.

It was certainly the case that was discovered by the Renew Newcastle team she says.

In some parts of the world there are moves to tax empty shops at a higher rate. [This is something in local council’s power through rates, or state government through land tax we suggest. Or even through the federal government if it chose to go down that slippery route to messing with people’s tax payer funded subsidies.]

Things might soon change if council comes under pressure from the state government to lift the number of jobs it can provide for in its local environment plan.

It’s a must now with the state government likely to demand that that the city provide for another 160,000 jobs in its area.”

Now if that comes to pass you have the formula for a stronger high street.

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  1. I’m all for penalising those owners who deliberately leave their properties empty , possIbly as a tax avoidance scheme.So destructive to the local community.

  2. Another factor in high retail rental prices, according to a Glebe local MP, is the fact that banks value commercial properties (for loans) based on the nominal rent charged for occupancy of that property. This valuation affects not only the amount that can be borrowed against the property, but buyer expectations at resale and capital gain. Such structural problems won’t be fixed by urging locals to ‘shop local’ or improving parking.

  3. If you’d read this week’s SMH you’d know that Newtown isn having the same problems

  4. Some good ideas. But it comes down to the quality of the retail, the desire of locals for that quality. And then there’s the tax issue.

    There are very successful retailers and business on Glebe Point Road. Greengrocer Galluzzo’s has been going strong for over 80 years, with customers coming from as far away as the Eastern Suburbs to shop there. Why? Because they understand the parameters of their customers, and provide for both the budget conscious and the food lover both of whom are offered good produce.

    A few doors down is the IGA which goes out of its way to provide an astonishingly wide range of foods, and friendly service.

    I could go through other successes, bt they all rely on the excellence of the service.

    The tax problem is a killer. How can that be changed? There is one property on the corner of Glebe Point road and Mitchell Street that has been vacant for well over 10 years.

    And finally, how was this meeting publicised? This is the first I heard of it