This week, one of Australia’s leading shopping centre groups received planning approval to do something that would have seemed unthinkable even 10 or 20 years ago: redevelop a suburban mall into a high-density mixed-use precinct featuring Green Star rated buildings.

That’s what Vicinity is planning, with an urban regeneration plan that will see Box Hill Central transformed over the next 10 years into a 5.5 hectares mixed-use and retail precinct, including office space for 6000 workers and 3800 apartments for residents by 2030. 

The news comes just weeks after a recent report showed that there is a $16.3 billion windfall from building higher density mixed use developments near stations – in Sydney alone. By reimagining legacy centres like Box Hill Central into vibrant mix-used precincts, shopping centre owners such as Vicinity potentially unlock an attractive financial opportunity.

The first phase of the project, on the site of the current Box Hill Central North building, which was previously known as Whitehorse Plaza, comes as the suburb continues to emerge as a Parramatta-style second CBD, serving Melbourne’s sprawling eastern suburbs.

Part of a bigger industry shift towards precincts

The bigger story underlying the Box Hill Central redevelopment, or the award-winning Brickworks development in nearby East Burwood, is that shopping centre owners are beginning to move away from the traditional single-use car-dependent retail model. 

Instead, they are reinventing themselves as developers of vibrant, higher-density mixed-use precincts that combine residential, retail, office space, hospitality, entertainment and open public space.

In the case of Vicinity, it has similar projects already on the drawing boards for Bankstown in western Sydney and Buranda Village in Brisbane already in the planning process.

Andrew Pettifer, built environment sector leader for Australia at Mott MacDonald (which are not affiliated with the project), told The Fifth Estate higher-density mixed use precinct developments were once unusual in Australia – but that’s rapidly changing. 

“Now, virtually every development is mixed use because you get synergies of different typologies feeding off each other and creating a sense of place, and somewhere that you would want to go to. Retail needs that, because if you can just buy online, why would you get up and go shopping?”

In the face of growing competition from online retailers, such as Amazon or Kogan, mixed use developments create a more robust retail offering. It takes little effort for apartment residents or office workers to pop downstairs to the shops. 

In contrast, shopping online is a tempting option for people living in a detached family home who would otherwise have to battle traffic.

It also creates diverse streams of income for shopping centre owners that can buffer them from any future retail downturns.

“For the owner, they have to diversify their portfolio and their income streams because if people are not just going to go to the shops, then they have a more robust business that relies on other sources of income,” Mr Pettifer said.

So what will the new Box Hill Central look like?

The new Box Hill Central will include a new 25-level, 42,000 square metre commercial office building next to the existing train station that will target a 5-star Green Star Design and As Built certification, as well as a 5-star NABERs energy and 4 star NABERs water rating.

It will also feature a 48-level, 43,000 square metre residential building with 366 apartments, 7000 square metres of office space and retail on the ground level, trading onto a revitalised Main Street, that will target a 4-star Green Star Design and As Built certification.

Around 3350 square metres of new public space will be created on the site of the existing centre, featuring a town square, along with “Spanish style” amphitheatre-style steps.

To improve walkability through the precinct, an east-west connection will be created across the site through the extension of Prospect Street to Clisby Court and Whitehorse Road, extending across to a revitalised Main Street. 

New cyclist facilities and reduced car parking also feature in the plan, feeding into Box Hill’s existing train and tram lines and extensive local bus network.

A big move away from the traditional mall

Developments such as Box Hill mark a big move away from the traditional model of an enclosed single-use car-dependent retail shopping centre, which were typically up to three stories tall and surrounded by car parking. 

That model of development first emerged in the US during the 1950s, alongside the car and the interstate highway system, with the Victor Gruen-designed Southdale Center in Minnesota. It was first replicated in Australia in May 1957 with Brisbane’s Chermside Drive-In Shopping Centre. 

When you’ve got a single-use single-story slab surrounded by car parks in a residential desert by themselves, it is extremely car dependent, very non walkable and ugly as sin – and many centres obviously were.

Wendy Morris

Wendy Morris, director of boutique planning agency Ecologically Sustainable Design and chair of the Australian Council for New Urbanism, told The Fifth Estate there are some drawbacks to that traditional model.

“When you’ve got a single-use single-story slab surrounded by car parks in a residential desert by themselves, it is extremely car dependent, very non walkable and ugly as sin – and many centres obviously were. They’ve gotten better in recent years because developers realised they have to have a little bit more lifestyle quality to them. 

“All of their formulas were based on just doing retail because retail was such a cash cow back in the day. It no longer is. If they’re to make money out of a site like Box Hill, they’ve had to move into more diversity.”

Sustainability benefits

In a world that’s moving towards net zero, car dependent malls in car dependent suburbs poses big risks. According to the CSIRO, just under one-fifth (17.6 per cent) of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels for transport – especially petrol-based cars.

“From a sustainability point of view, there’s the obvious benefit around trying to get people out of their cars and go from node to node on public transport. And once you’ve reached somewhere, a place you can do multiple things there. You might even live there, so you don’t have to travel so far,” Mr Pettifer said. 

Aggregating different types of usage can create efficiencies in terms of energy use, Mr Pettifer said, because peaks are less pronounced. This is because not all energy users will be equally active at the same time.

Location, location, location!

While Ms Morris generally supports mixed-use developments in most cases, she cautions that it’s important to keep in mind that not all shopping centres are in a great location, and that there’s a big difference between “good mixed use and bad mixed use”.

“Assuming you’ve got good mixed use, then there’s more things in closer proximity to more users, there’s more customers for the businesses, you can get more diversity of businesses and the whole thing snowballs upwards, rather than having a car-dependent supermarket-anchored centre with a few hangers on,” she said.

“If you do proper rational planning for places you should intensify around existing public transport nodes or within the existing centres that have been designated for mixed use development and growth, rather than trying to push that mixed use onto sites, but we’re never in the right place in the beginning.”

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