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24 responses to “The coming death of the “high street” – and does it matter?”

  1. wilful

    Our high street is alive and well, I expect because the two supermarkets are quit integrated into the whole deal, it is a pedestrian experience, there are four or five butchers, a number of greengrocers (including new businesses), clothing shops, a cinema, cafes all seem to be doing quite well, it’s overall a fairly charming scene.

    This is Warragul, West Gippsland.

    There is a call for some of the vacant land on the edge of the CAD to be infilled with big box retailers, because for certain things you have to go to (*gag*) Fountain gate, Narre Warren, and I guess that it is inevitable that big box retailers will move in (we’re about to get a Masters which will do bad things for the hardware stores), but I think the centre of Warragul is pretty resilient in the next decade or two.

    When we lived in Footscray however, it was clear to me that it had been hollowed out by Knifepoint shopping centre. There are only so many $2 shops selling utter crap that a person could possibly need. But the supermarket (atrociously managed) was integrated, people would go to the Coles and to the Footscray market and to the fairly extensive restaurants.

  2. Katz

    My local strip is Smith St (ex-Smack St) Collingwood/Fitzroy.

    The drivers of gentrification and on-line retailing have whip-sawed shop front tenantry. Restaurants have vastly improved. Clothing stores are increasingly nichy, including some genuinely upmarket boutiques. Businesses catering to the old, settled working class are fast disappearing. Hairdressers proliferate. Interestingly, a green grocer flourishes next door to Safeway. Second-hand dealers attempt to cater to rapidly changing zeitgeists.

    In general, Smith St retailing appears to be going simultaneously upmarket and downmarket, hollowing out the middle.

  3. GregA

    Sections of Oxford Street in Sydney have been dying for a while now, and Parramatta Road was killed off ages ago, aside from car lots and big-box stores. The problem seems to be that these have become or were arterial roads, and making them more amenable to mass transit, i.e., bus lanes, means no on-street parking, at least not during normal operating hours. Since the areas they pass through have been heavily built up with residences immediately behind them, there’s no way to introduce parking.

    Rent keeps going up, too, so it gets tough to make a buck, relying on walk-in street trade. How many shoes do you need to sell to meet your operating costs each month? How many can you sell, when there are three other shoe stores within walking distance, and the Westfield offers even more choice, including heavily discounted options, along with consolidating your shopping trips into a single excursion.

    My home town in the US saw its high street die off over many years. It became empty store fronts and pr0no theatres and strip joints and discount stores full of trash. There was nothing to replace them, other than tearing them down in blocks and building housing or new retail with parking structures.

    Maybe it can be an opportunity, instead of just something to mourn.

  4. Nick

    Katz, you’re probably aware this finally went through after how many years:


    New apartment building complexes smack on high streets have to be one of my least faves…

  5. Paul Burns

    Well, I only go to book stores and DVD stores. Both the good bookstores in Armidale are in the Mall which I suppose is part of a high street. The main DVD store is in the Woolies complex, which is an extension of what I suppose is the high street.

  6. mikey


    A beautiful location, burgeoning population, local cultural & multicultural communities, an energising university, a bustling port. At the epicentre is a dead heart of a mall. The birdcage design is trapped in the 1980s and it killed off investment in the city’s commerce to the west. By day it is the home of bored teenagers and at night (all its shops are closed) it acts as a corridor for drunks to traverse on their way to the nightclubs & pubs in the east. It’s on the side of a hill so everybody tries to park as close as possible, creating a perceived parking shortage (despite 3 large parking stations… our real high street, Church Street, was rezoned as residential years ago and features a kilometre of straight, flat, unused parking!) They’ve been debating for maybe a decade on how to “revive” the mall/CBD but it is impervious to all attempts to undermine its stranglehold on the city’s commerce.

    Meanwhile restaurant & cafe strips have sprung up on the northern and eastern peripheries of the city centre. They attract decent patronage and keep the city respectable at night.

    The geniuses in charge have come up with a solution. They’ve decided to extend the mall… with an enormous foodcourt. No major chains, just speciality shops and food (kind of like recreating a high street but inside their mall?) To me it appears they are trying to kill off or absorb the restaurants – the only successful group of shops outside the control of the mall.

    Oh and a rival mall development was drained of money through endless court battles. There is now a proudly vacant cyclone-fenced wasteland on the corner of the city’s major eastern intersection, with the city’s only live original music pub closed across the road.

    They’re so proud of themselves.

  7. Chris

    Is a mall just a high street with a roof? I don’t see much difference really.

    The healthy high streets near me have a mix of restaurants, cafes and boutique clothing stores. Book, electronic and every day type stores are disappearing. Increasingly stores are opening much later too. Used to be rare to see a hairdresser open past 6. Now it’s not unusual.

  8. Moz

    Or we could just not subsidise the big box retailers quite as much. Make them pay local government fees on exactly the same scale as everyone else, rather than the negotiating special deals. If they want special facilities, they can build them. If there’s a developer levy to fund infrastructure, they should pay it. The rates on each shop inside the mall should reflect the increased value of the shop compared to one in the street nearby, not the discounted “the mall is one big shop”.

    Extract some of the profits form the mall operators, so it’s not such a high-profit industry and you’ll see the wind go out of that game.

  9. Sam

    My local strip is Smith St (ex-Smack St) Collingwood/Fitzroy

    Katz, I would have thought you’d be more High St Armadale.

  10. Iain

    Brisbane is fairly lacking in high streets for historical reasons and has ruined many potential areas by putting freeway style traffic through them. Not sure they are any deader than previously though, coffee shops and restaurants are still probably gradually increasing if anything and as there is such a limited amount of suitable spaces for small enterprises this is probably enough to keep the few high street type areas ticking over. I don’t agree that a mall is a high street with a roof, malls are so much more closed and controlled they always have a different feel.

  11. Guy

    I should probably clarify that when I referred to “mall” I was using it in the American sense (e.g. “shopping centre”) rather than the Australian sense (e.g. paved street). The latter kind probably encourages activity and a sense of community, at least in “high streets” that aren’t already dead and buried.

  12. Katz

    Katz, I would have thought you’d be more High St Armadale.

    Live south of the Yarra?

    I’d sooner dig my own eye out with a spoon.

  13. Roberto

    Nice piece and highly relevant. The retailers’ lobby argues that current competition laws are adequate for the Tescos and Aldies et al; but Prof Fels was happy for malls to murder mainstreets (as happened in Newcastle). It is vital that the small-scale entrepreneurship, the accessible facilities, the public transport and walking cultures, and the safety and emanity, of mainstreets continue happily

  14. pablo

    Two relatively modern malls in Newcastle have close by intercity railway tracks but no corresponding stations. I find that absolutely incredible at a planning level but really a measure of car dominance.
    Parking charges and gas prices might prompt a re-think one day.

  15. hannah's dad

    My local regional town has a ‘high’ street [ actually not quite high enough in the ’56 floods] which is in the middle of undergoing the process described in the post.
    For about 3 years there has been spasmodic activity on the multi-hectare block of vacant ground on the edge of town about 2 kms from the high street. A large sign proudly announces that a magnificent shopping centre with umpteen shops will be erected on the site, complete, of course, with obligatory artist’s impression of ample parking and leisurely shoppers.
    After lots of hiccups its now back on full steam ahead.

    As weekly shoppers in the town our immediate reaction was “Why?”

    The project has a mixed reaction among the locals [I know cos I gossip a lot when I visit].
    Shoppers are generally happy because its so hard to get a park in the high street particularly straight after work, school, days before/after holidays etc..
    High street shop owners are right pissed off. Partly because of the changeover costs IF they transfer to the new centre as invited. One shoppy told me it would cost them at least $100,000 to shift. Partly because of the perceived exorbitant rents proposed by the new centre management.
    So, mixed reactions.

    But the high street at present relies heavily on the tourist trade.
    Even the butcher, baker, supermarket, newsagent get a large chunk of their trade from tourists and then there are the specifically tourist oriented shops eg the chocolate place, art gallery, curio shop, cafes and so on. If they shift they will probably lose those customers, if they stay they will probably lose the locals who will use replacement business in the new centre.
    Both the pubs are on the high street [with their own parking].

    Now the catch is that a lot of the tourists don’t have cars.
    Many, maybe most, use buses and boats and they are on or next to the high street and kms away from the shopping centre site. So I suspect many are never even going to see the new shopping centre.
    And the locals aren’t going to go to the high street as much cos they will, probably, use the new centre …and that I suspect is going to badly, critically, wound several businesses that tell me they are not going to transfer.

    I predict a lose lose situation and a slow decine of both precincts within the next few years.
    If so it will be sad, unnecessary and wasteful.

  16. Moz

    Hannah’s Dad: the way malls are supposed to work is that the extra money comes in from the good fairy. But all too often (as you surmise) it doesn’t, so what you get is the surviving big box retailer(s) in the mall, a corner shop to sell wildly overpriced groceries to the carless tourists, and the remaining small shops dithering between the two locations.

    What I’m seeing in Melbun at the moment is the slow arrival of big-box grocery shops the way NZ has had for 20 years. Rather than “supermarket in mall” you get Bunnings-scale supermarket all by itself. Using the same model, and with correspondingly lower overheads than their mall-based competition. I am almost amused to see the mall-owners getting a taste of their own medicine. But it’s not happening often enough to be useful, so instead we get things like Chadstone metastising into clusters distributed around Melbourne, as the malls compete to best leverage economies of scale.

  17. MikeM

    We live between Newtown-Enmore’s “high streets” (i.e. King Street & Enmore Road) and Erskineville’s (Erskineville Road) – NSW. These are thriving, although variety has diminished over the years. There are small supermarkets, cafes, pubs, personal services (hair, massage, even a methadone dispensary and couple of brothels). The Dendy cinema (which took over a former Coles variety store) is currently expanding from 4 screens to 10. New NSW regulations encouraging establishment of small bars have seen them mushroom.

    The only businesses that are now in decline are music retailers and video stores, although this is nothing to do with nearby malls.

    The district is serviced by two train lines and half a dozen bus routes. Use of bicycles has recently started to grow. Housing is dense, mainly terraces with a peppering of apartment blocks, usually on former business sites. Car parking is almost impossible but there is plenty of population within walking or cycling distance to nourish the high street businesses. Public transport makes it easy for people outside the area to come here. Independent butchers and most fruiterers have long gone but basic necessities are still within walking distance.

    Also there are two universities and a couple of TAFE facilities not far away, so there are many students about.

    The keys to success are walkability and density. The Paddington end of Oxford Street should have sufficient density to prosper I would have thought, but the Darlinghurst-Surry Hills end, probably not – made worse by the closing a while back of its only substantial supermarket.

    Incidentally The Economist last week had an article on the repurposing of some of the hundreds of dead shopping malls in the US, http://www.economist.com/node/21551541. It reports that “In some cities, people are returning to actual downtown shopping districts, as new urbanists always dreamed they would”.

  18. conrad

    “The domination of the grocery sector by Woolworths and Coles”

    This is at least in part because peope are just lazy, and if you’re lazy, well, you get exploited by people catering to your laziness — I live near Centre Road in Bentleigh, and there are two major supermarkets on it. However, there are also 4 greengrocers, 4 butchers, and 5 bakeries (the fifth is mainly a cake shop). Some of these take approximately 120 seconds to walk from the supermarkets (indeed you can park in the supermarket carpark if you want to go to them), and they are cheaper and have vastly better quality produce (like fruit that you can actually eat, vegetables that don’t go bad in 5 days, and bread that doesn’t taste like sawdust). But Woolworths still seems to do fine even on these items.

  19. Helen

    Why “lazy”? Why not overwhelmed and time-poor? What about the “sandwich generation” caught between the demands of child rearing and ageing parents? Why must we always assume that other people are venal, stupid and lazy? Perhaps that’s why commercially built spaces are as bad as they are – everyone thinks the public don’t deserve better?

  20. conrad

    “Perhaps that’s why commercially built spaces are as bad as they are – everyone thinks the public don’t deserve better?”

    Whether it’s lazy or just time poor, obviously most people are getting what they want in terms of commerically built shopping space, otherwise I can’t see why there wouldn’t be alternatives in many places. Is it harder to run a greengrocer in the rather expensive Centre road than many other places in Melbourne that are vastly cheaper? I don’t think so. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that these things exist in some places because people in those places want them (Centre road has a big Euro population who obviously likes to shop like you do in Euroland, and that seems to have been somewhat catching for the Aus born locals), and the fact that other places don’t have these things is presumably because people prefer Woolworths and Coles and paying more for that convenience. Whether a minority of people happen to find Woolworths pretty ugly and bland and the food they sell of poor quality isn’t reason to think that these types of shops arn’t acceptable public spaces for the majority of people in some regions.

  21. Sam

    Why must we always assume that other people are venal, stupid and lazy?

    Because it’s objectively true.

  22. Jarrah

    “So is the “high street” really worth saving through direct local and state government investment, or is it a concept that, in reality, is past its used-by-date?”

    Investment or subsidies are never the way to go. Rational design decisions are, specifically integrated public transport and medium density and less strict zoning.

    My local high street is in fact two – Illawarra Rd and Marrickville Rd. There is a high turnover of businesses in some parts, and a handful of empties, but mostly they are thriving. The cultural expectations of residents plays a role here. There is an amazingly high number of fresh food shops (fruit & veg, butchers) and mini-marts. I believe that is partly due to the large immigrant and first-gen population. There are more doctors/accountants/lawyers/chemists than you can poke a stick at, and those are professions that are all about close relationships with their clients, something of particular concern for people with limited English and a higher need for support networks.

  23. Siggy

    Managed to do most of my Christmas shopping at my local shops last year. (Eltham Vic) We have a fabulous bookshop and an interesting gift shop or two. I avoid the big shopping centres as much as possible. Hope the High St or in my case the Main Rd survives… It’s so much more pleasant.

  24. Simon

    The problem in one word: cars. The High St is not compatible with a population that travels almost exclusively by car. To save the High St you need to increase cycling, walking and public transport, savagely discourage car use, and perhaps increase population densities.