Creative tenants have been moved from busy Oxford Street to a back lane, Foley Lane. Credit: Supplied

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BY DYLAN CRISMALE

Local businesses are taking it upon themselves to fill vacant shopfronts on Oxford Street, as the City of Sydney continues to allow the streetscape to decline.

It has been reported that short-term tenants of 66 Oxford Street recently vacated the building impacting the profit of nearby café Greenhouse Coffee.

Darlinghurst Business Partnership (DBP) chairperson Stephan Gyory said: “They’ve just left all the spaces empty, I believe the ACP [Australian Centre for Photography] are still in there and then there’s a little café next door and then it’s pretty much empty both sides until Crown Street, which is disappointing…there’s a couple of other empty shops on the street but I’ve noticed a few of those are filling in. Past Taylor Square it’s a bit grim. The whole stretch is a bit of a dead zone unfortunately.”
A City of Sydney spokesperson said: “There are currently 13 tenants occupying space within this property [66 Oxford Street].”

The spokesperson explained that the City “runs a short-term empty properties program that is designed to provide creative tenants with affordable space for a limited period of time in between longer-term commercial leases or while properties are awaiting capital works or new tenants.”

However, City Hub understands based on the building’s directory that this would mean up to eight spaces at 66 Oxford Street remain empty, a third of the overall spaces.
The spokesperson said: “The City is in the process of confirming commercial tenants for a variety of Oxford Street properties.”
The DBP has partnered with local tech start-up DeepLine. Together DBP and DeepLine want to fill the mass of vacant shops along Oxford St by learning what locals and visitors want in order to invigorate the world-famous strip.

Mr Gyory said “Our council has an economic development strategy, but at the moment that seems geared towards tech start-ups and not really the brick and mortar retail, which form the basis of the interactions in the city. That’s where you meet people down on the footpath. American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist Jane Jacobs (best known for her influence on urban studies, sociology, and economics) called this ‘social capital’, and the city is not investing in that at all unfortunately.”

“We are operating under one of their grants and they do invest more than any other council. But I believe the model is flawed and they’re not investing nearly enough if you consider that business rates net them $200 million a year,” he added.

Over the years the Council has been the subject of much criticism for failing to fill the streets shopfronts. In 2014 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “89 store or restaurant fronts, from Oxford Street’s beginning to end, are closed, empty, for lease or closing soon.”

In a statement Cr. Christine Forster said: “It’s great that the DBP is being pro-active about engaging with the local community to see what’s needed to revive Oxford Street, because the Lord Mayor’s strategy has clearly failed. Millions of dollars have been spent upgrading Foley Street, and yet it is still a ghost town and still shop after shop stands empty on Oxford Street.”

“The Lord Mayor has refused to consider many ideas that have been put forward over recent years, but hopefully she will finally listen when the people have their say this time.”
Christian Olea, is the owner of Spunky Bruiser, one of the businesses picked by the City of Sydney’s Creative Spaces program to fill Foley Street. He said “[On Oxford Street] at the moment it’s not very busy, it’s not what it used to be, who knows why? There are so many factors – lockouts, prices on shops increasing, traffic with the bus lanes which stop people from parking on the street,” he said.

The City of Sydney is reported to have spent around $3 million paving Foley Street in September, last year but the laneway sat empty for several months before the Creative Spaces tenants moved in.

Council moved Spunky Bruiser and four other tenants onto Foley Street three months ago. Mr Olea is hoping the DBP and DeepLine initiative will attract more businesses (and shoppers) to the area.

Mr Olea said: “The fact is that things take too long. What’s happening in Foley Street- I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in Sydney. This creative strip in the city, we’d love more of it and there’s lots of different things for council to think about.”

“Being able to be there with other creatives, everybody helps each other compared to before that when I was by myself… it just feels more secure now.”

Mr Gyory said the Council’s adherence to time frames was lacklustre.
“The plan was always to relocate them to Foley Street, it’s just that it took the council 8 years to do Foley Street,” he said.

The Council is the largest stakeholder in Oxford Street and owns most of the property on the north side between Hyde Park and Taylor Square.

Since opening in 2005 the Westfield Bondi Junction shopping centre has been blamed by Oxford Street businesses for the consistent downturn in trade. Only four months after the centre first opened, retailers in Oxford Street noticed a 30% drop in trade with the trend continuing over the past decade.

Mr Gyory said “For all they’re [Council] saying about the lockouts they’re not really doing very much about them, they don’t manage their villages, they have no sense of management or sense of strategy like Westfield, which has a centre management team – they do all sorts of things to ensure their shops are full.

“They’ve got the right business mix, they ensure that customers are going past people’s doors, unlike here on Oxford Street where we’ve seen foot traffic drop at least 25% since the lockouts.”

The DBP and DeepLine have installed a pilot display screen on Oxford Street adjacent to local clothing designer Spunky Bruiser, which asks the local community and visitors in Darlinghurst to use the DBP social media channels accompanied by the hashtag #IWishThisWas to help identify what is needed to curb the shop vacancies in the area.

Following the launch of the pilot display the DBP is hoping to install more screens along Oxford Street should the initial campaign prove successful.