Councils have to put the ‘strip’ back into shopping
Have you ever been to Balmain in the inner city of Sydney? Or have you been down a suburban shopping strip in your capital city? If you have you will know that something has changed over the years.
Even when walking down the shopping strip in your local town centre you are bound to have seen some changes. More often than not you will find that places like Balmain or your own local town centre are not as vibrant as they used to be.
There may be more vacant shops or the shops may be looking tired or run down which all makes the shopping strip less appealing. Some town centres may even be attracting gangs of youths or the graffiti artists which may all detract from the shopping strip.
All in all, the shopping strip at the heart of your town centre may be suffering from a range of problems which is causing the strip’s demise.
Leaving aside the potential for anti-social behaviour by bored youths, the high street shopping strip is facing even more dangerous challenges. How it meets those challenges will be critical to whether or not the high street shopping strip survives.
Here Balmain provides a microcosm of the Australian high street shopping strip. It has an extended shopping strip which is a short bus or ferry trip from the city.
The area is generally well known with an eclectic mix of shops. It is very much part of the fabric of Sydney having been the home of former NSW Premiers and the Balmain Tigers, a founding member of the NSW rugby league competition. More recently, leading pastry chef Adriano Zumbo has brought new culinary delights to the area.
Despite all these advantages the Balmain shopping strip is coming under increasing stress. The strip is still a great place to visit but its vibrancy, like many other high street shopping strips, is being threatened by a number of things.
First, there is the ever present parking meter and council parking officer ready to issue a parking infringement. Now there’s no doubt that the mere mention of parking meters and parking infringements is likely to get some people agitated. If you have received a parking infringement notice you will obviously know that annoying feeling of finding a notice left on your car.
If you break the parking rules then you should not be surprised to be hit with an infringement notice. End of story some might say. Well, not so fast. Let’s think about whether the parking rules are justified in the first place. Naturally, there may safety issues with, for example, `no stopping’ zones, but generally street parking offences are not like other offences designed to try and stop injury to property or person.
With street parking offences you have a body, typically a local council, imposing restrictions on parking and enforcing those restrictions with fines. Along the way the body may also impose a fee for parking in the area. The problem is that fees for parking along the shopping strip work to discourage customers from shopping along the strip.
That’s what happening in Balmain and no doubt in shopping strips around the country. In Balmain you may get 15 minutes free parking but then you have to pay for parking. Why would shoppers pay for parking along Balmain’s shopping strip when they can go to nearby major shopping centres where they can get two or three hours free parking or don’t have to pay at all for parking?
So the point is simple. A local council’s desire to impose parking fees along its shopping strip may have significant unintended adverse consequences such as discouraging shoppers and undermining the strip’s viability.
There’s no point in the local council tying to raise revenue through parking fees if that leads to vacant shops in their shopping strip or town centre. Vacant shops, as any major shopping centre landlord will tell you, have a very negative effect on customers’ perception of the shopping venue.
For local councils vacant shops along the shopping strip or town centre lead to other problems such as graffiti and vandalism of vacant shop fronts further adding to the negative perceptions of the town centre and the local area.
Local councils should be doing everything possible to encourage shoppers to keep returning to the shopping strip including providing up to two or three hours free parking and exploring ways to provide longer periods of free parking if shoppers spend more than, for example, $100 in stores on the shopping strip.
In the absence of extended periods of free parking, customers are increasingly likely to go to a nearby major shopping centre which further undermines the vibrancy of the high street shopping strip.
Here there’s no doubt that the rise of major shopping centres and other `big box’ developments has presented a major threat to shopping strips or town centres around Australia. Local councils and State Governments must take some of the blame for allowing major shopping centres to effectively become local retail monopolies with shoppers forced into those shopping centres by increasingly draconian street parking fees and infringement notices.
In Balmain the threat from major shopping centres is a growing one and will only get worse as the former grand club house of the Balmain Tigers rugby league team is being pursued as a major retail development that will bring more of the big brand retailers to Balmain and you guessed it, with a few hours of free parking.
The free parking will drive shoppers into the big retail development and the two or three-hour free parking limit will keep them in the development leaving no time to visit the shopping strip or town centre.
Naturally, the retail development will be sold as bringing `more retail competition’ to Balmain, but that so-called retail competition will be nothing more than those big brand retailers who are increasingly cutting the range of brands they stock and raising prices whenever they can.
So, the suggestion of `more’ competition will soon be found to be a smokescreen for the further undermining of the Balmain shopping strip, especially as more and more stores on the shopping strip go out of business.
If that wasn’t enough of a threat to the Balmain shopping strip, there’s always the risk of Balmain retail landlords raising rents to small businesses along the strip. We often hear suggestions about large shopping centre landlords trying to push retail rents to unsustainable levels, but we shouldn’t forget about small scale landlords who could have the same urges.
Unless retail landlords resist any urge to squeeze unsustainable rent increases out of their retail tenants, the landlords will find that their premises will be hard to rent and remain vacant for longer periods.
A lower realistic and sustainable retail rent with a successful business operating from the premises is always far preferable to trying to seek a higher unsustainable rent and having the premises vacant. That’s obviously a lesson for both large and small landlords.
With the growing threat to the Balmain shopping strip and other town centres like it around the country all of us should make a greater effort to regularly visit those shopping strips before they’re gone or changed forever.
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