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Who killed Oxford Street?

Who killed Oxford Street?

Monday 4 May, 2015
Oxford Street, the Queen of Sydney’s thoroughfares is dead according to Edward Mandla and it’s going to take a wildly different strategy to allow her to live again.
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The Death of Sydney Oxford Street cartoon featuring Clover Moore

I recently left the Beauchamp Hotel and was confronted by what I saw as I walked down Oxford Street. The Queen of Sydney’s thoroughfares is now in terminal decline. Grief is now turning to despair. A resurrection will require bold thinking, new ideas and collaboration. I have attended numerous forums where the subject was raised (including Council). None of the options are remotely plausible. What I do believe is the City of Sydney has thoroughly lost its mojo and instead is drowning in a sea of consultant reports on any topic imaginable. Essentially, it’s a self-appointed mandate to appear busy, do little and blame others.

When it comes to revitalising Oxford Street, all it seems we have to fob concerned citizens off is a shabby third-rate version of reality.

Oxford Street was sentenced to death by a jury of its peers. I was not in the jury room to hear the deliberation, but I know how they voted. They voted with their feet. Westfield Bondi Junction signed the death warrant. Clover Moore pulled the trigger.

The reason is not rocket science. Westfield had what the customer wanted with convenience, amenities, parking and transport. The customer has backed it. It’s that simple. Meanwhile, the City took away parking, condemning shops in Oxford Street to either cater to a few hundred locals or the night time economy. A designer furniture shop cannot survive if it only supplies locals, it needs people from all over Sydney to thrive…and they need parking. So they take their custom elsewhere and we get another For Lease sign or another (in)convenience store.

Now that we know what has caused its demise, I should probably reflect on what can be done to return it back to life.

The first thing to decide when something goes wrong is whose problem it is and who is going to solve it. If success has a thousand fathers, Oxford Street is an orphan. Problems are not solved by a “committee of this” or a “co-production model of that”. They are solved by someone.

The next is to work out what Oxford Street would look like when it is “fixed”. In my view, and you are welcome to add your own below, Oxford Street will be a whole lot better with local traffic only on Oxford Street (or as close as you can get to that), more parking, innovative residential redevelopment and improved transport options.

What won’t work? Well I can tell you for sure what we are doing at the moment won’t.

The best tell-tale sign of what is wrong is the type of tenant that landlords have signed – mostly food services. There is a reason for this – they pay the rent and rely on local foot traffic. When an owner with a vacant shop is fighting for survival underneath $173 a square metre Council rates (our rates are more than double Melbourne’s, by the way) and other costs, they will take whatever life line is thrown. So it was with much fanfare I was told in the Council Chamber that Oxford Street was reactivated because a Mexican restaurant was opening. That’s not a sign of success. It’s a milestone on the road to damnation. That demonstrates how blind the City is to the problem. How do you fix something when you don’t understand what it looks like when it is fixed?

That’s what we are doing now. Shoe-horning bizarre tenants into Council premises at peppercorn rents in a desperate attempt to “reactivate” Oxford Street with “creative tenants”. It’s clearly a failure and there is no suggestion otherwise to someone walking down Oxford Street. The worst example of this? I recall a tenant being leased City of Sydney prime retail space at $100 a metre to sell skateboard accessories. Not exactly what I had in mind when I think of high value added uses. Did it work? You be the judge.

What do I get told? I am presented with all manner of metrics and surveys that tell me we are on the right track. A stroll down Oxford Street will tell you otherwise.

With respect to the musings of our Lord Mayor, if our people knew how to fix Oxford Street they wouldn’t be working for us, they would be working for Westfield. We should stop pretending we know what we are doing and look for new ideas and a fresh perspective. However, admissions of failure are not our strong suit.

In my opinion, it is an axiom of business that you do not tell your customers what they want, which is exactly what we do with Oxford Street. The customer will tell us what they want and it’s up to us to provide an urban environment that allows that to happen. We can’t blame them if they don’t like our offering, that’s our fault.

It’s not my problem at the moment. It is currently the problem of Alex Greenwich, the recently re-elected MP for Sydney who has promised voters that the seat of Sydney is best in his independent hands, and Clover Moore the current Mayor, who also assures us that Sydney is best in her “progressive and independent” hands.

The City of Sydney election is September next year by which time Cr Moore will have had 12 years (the length of the Vietnam War) to fix Oxford Street and Alex Greenwich will have had 6 years (the length of WW2).

So I am challenging them both to fix Oxford Street by then. This is not just a disappointment, it is a disaster and demands results. I wish them well in their endeavours to do so.

If they can’t or won’t, I will promise you one thing, I can fix Oxford Street as Lord Mayor and I will. That’s what I will be asking Sydney to cast their vote on next year…and you can hold me to it.

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