LOCAL | Retail, busways & losing the plot

Posted on 20/10/2011


The implications of local news often doesn’t attract much analysis. Sometimes you can look at the local through the lens of large scale dynamics and sometimes you can look at the local as a sign of things to come. Most recently, John and I have been speculating about what’s happening at our local supermarket (Pick’n’Pay Hypermarket, but really it’s Coles). A significant part of the store – we’d guess a quarter – has been emptied and sectioned off. The rest of the store is now undergoing reorganisation. We asked a staff member about what was going on and were informed that the empty section is likely to be sublet or re-leased by centre management depending on what arrangements can be made under the current lease. The staff member also mused that it would make sense for the parent company to relocate OfficeWorks into the empty space to better utilise the significantly empty warehouse. OfficeWorks is situated in its own box further up the road at the entrance to a caravan park, which is due for redevelopment as an apartment complex. While I dislike any affirmation of the current shopping mall and big box approach, this staff member had an interesting point. However, I also think there is a need for us all to be thinking about the longer adaption of these kinds of sites for other purposes and uses – what can we do with a half empty warehouse and a significantly empty car park?

The news is full of stories about the retail sector’s current woes, such as the threat of online retail and the preference for walkable centres and places. The Hypermarket seems to have had a fairly consistent rollover of tenancies, with an increasing service orientation (e.g. Mortgage broker, medical centre) moving in as well as independent retailers, much loved by locals, such as the Spice Mart (who now operate an online shop) and the Top Spot Fruit Mart (who stock local/regional produce). We’ve even had two coffee shops set up. It’s a pity that the centre is such a monolithic and ugly thing, showing its age and its lack of care for community and context. What this affirms is that the current large format retail offer is obsolete and that these centres with their incessant demands for increased rents are simply not sustainable and leverage their property assets in ways that skew markets. Take, for example, a story I heard recently about a small food franchise at Westfield Chermside which probably occupied as much space as an average sized bedroom. The story I heard was that they paid $70,000 per annum in rent; this was increased to $130,000 per annum in one hike (please note that this is unverified). Without really having a grasp of property economics, I had wondered if the rent increases might be, in part, attributable to the increasing density in the area, which is designated as a major activity centre and is anchored by Westfield. On top of that, Westfield Chermside is introducing parking fees for its carparks, payable by staff, commuters and customers. This is the legacy of all kinds of governance systems that fail to grasp complexity – they privilege the privatisation of space, create spatial monopolies and affirm car dependence.

However, this seems to be a shift in asset management approaches to shopping malls and a response to the current changes in community retail behaviour, largely, I assume, to protect shareholder value or profit. But let’s be clear about this – this is neither sustainable nor desirable; it does not protect the interests of communities, local economies or the small businesses/networks on which they rely; it creates environments which we do not care about and cannot dwell in.

Also this week, the state government released its preferred corridor for the Northern Busway. According to the brochure I received in the mail, the intention is to protect the corridor for future development of the busway. I noted that there are several strips along the route that will be ‘required’ for the busway. My hope is that this will mean enhanced pedestrian environments and amenity. I couldn’t help but wonder, when I saw these plans, whether the planning team keep track of property dynamics in the local area. For example, the plans note shifting the bus stop from the Aspley Centre to the intersection of Albany Creek Road (outside the Foundation Shopping Centre). While the intent is to protect the corridor from ‘inappropriate development’ for the next decade, one also presumes it’s so that they can compulsorily purchase the car parks of the businesses that rely on those car parks to trade because it is, afterall, a car dependent environment!! However, the Aspley centre is currently up for sale – this is where the bus stop is currently located. Notably, there is late night trade in the centre, making is a safe environment for night commuters, and not so much in the area where the bus stop is planned. Some things just don’t add up as these planning processes fail to respond to current opportunity to future benefit. There’s more than one way to protect the corridor and link land use and transport, so perhaps it makes better sense to purchase the Aspley Centre now – probably at a good price in the current market. It gives the market and the traders some certainty. During the consultation process, it was suggested by an information session attendant that the block bounded by Gympie Road, Maundrell Terrace and Albany Creek road may be purchased so that the land required for the busway was available and the remainder then repackaged for redevelopment. As I keep saying, this kind of activity needs better planning than some dotted lines on a map marking out a future transport corridor. It really does need significant community input and planning to leverage the benefits of the infrastructure. With rapid transit and linkage at Royal Brisbane Hospital, the 12km commute to the city can probably take 20 minutes.

When I raised my concerns, they were duly fobbed off (just as they have been fobbed off by all elected representatives for the area – two local, one state and two federal), with a siloed tone of ‘thanks for your email but we really do know best and we’ll deal with all those planning issues in a decade’. Hmm, thanks so much for taking citizenship, futuring and integrated and sustainable planning for the locality seriously at a time when we hear so much about urban policy, regional planning and population growth!! In part, we just don’t want to see a repeat of what’s happened to the community in Lutwyche and Kedron; we want transition to be adaptive, opportunitistic, aspirational and responsive.

I woke this morning to stumble into a twitter feed and webcast of a James Howard Kunstler presentation at a conference in Boulder, USA. (I can’t wait until we have high speed broadband!) Kunstler’s words can be like a stinging slap in the face sometimes. He made a few important points about resource scarcity and cheap energy, asserting that globalisation is a transient set of economic conditions and relations, that economies will be internally focused again, that America will have great cities on a smaller scale, that rivers and lakes will be important again, that skyscrapers are obsolete. Some of that is up for debate, but in the end he points to a wholesale change, rather than tinkering with propositions that were flawed from the outset. With some pointed jabbing at designers, architects and decision makers, he said that when you have enough spaces people don’t care about, you’ll end up with a culture that doesn’t carry civilisation forward. He ended with ‘Give us hope, give us solutions. Greet the signals that reality is sending us (ie climate, energy). Respond intelligently and build confidence. Inspire the young to carry on … Now is not a time for cry babies.’ While he was speaking of the difficulties facing America, it is equally valid for us in Australia, even in Aspley. If we can’t read the signs locally to get the approach to planning and the weighing of opportunities right at the scale of a suburb like Aspley, then how can we expect to do it at city and regional scale?

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