marcus westbury

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Can arcades fire? (or are old arcades the new laneways?)

May 18th, 2013 by marcus

Arcades Fire

A strange obsession of mine of late is the fate of old suburban shopping arcades. I am, as far as i can tell, pretty much alone in believing they’re a rich vein of untapped urban and suburban gold. Or, to put it in language that hipsters, planners and local politicians can reflexively and instinctively respond to they’re kind of like lane-ways. (You know the kind that made Melbourne interesting and everyone wants to artificially reproduce while missing the point about them entirely).

Arcades are cheap, small scale, low barrier to entry, slightly off the grid spaces capable of sustaining the rich ecology of niche uses that every city and suburban centre needs but struggles to make economic. Or at least they have the potential to be. Unfortunately in most cases they aren’t and no one is thinking about how to get them there.

Shopping arcades are, for the most part, a dead form. Typically they are a design that creates small tenancies on a larger block. In larger cities the best and most successful ones that are still around are thoroughfares leading between streets or along high traffic areas such as the entrance to railway stations. But across Australia there are literally hundreds of suburban ones — often they go nowhere, or once connected a mainstreet through to a car park that is no longer there, or a destination that has become a dead end point.

They were once buzzing hubs when shiny and new. Recently though that form and functions that supported it have mostly been dying since the 70s and 80s. While you can still find grand ones that are more than 100 year old, there are still some amazing ones around from the 50s and some horribly renovated ones from the 80s, but you are going to struggle to find any that have been built in the last decade or two.

The short version of the history, as far as i can tell, is that the rise of the suburban shopping centre and consolidation of national retail chains gradually made the arcade model redundant. They lacked the anchor tenants, the scale, the parking, the variety or the “destination” pull to compete with the big shopping centres. They weren’t suitable in scale or footfall to chain stores. As people started to drive straight into car parks their role as foot traffic thoroughfares dwindled. Some in the inner cities survived as connectors but in the suburbs and smaller regional centres they were either demolished, made over and converted into large scale shopping centres, or have been spiralling into disuse and disrepair.

In my travels around the country I’ve seen seen dozens of these places. They almost always seem to be half empty. In some cases they are closed off — literally shuttered up at one end or other. Often they are full of spaces that seem to be being used for storage and offices rather than retail. Often they are peppered with tenancies who seem to do everything but activate the place: local clubs and societies that meet once a month, an accountant (the only one in the town without a computer) who never seems to be there, a travel agent with fading signs for defunct airlines in the window, and often mixed in with the single quirky shop (they seem to be the last bastion of vinyl record shops in a lot of towns) that you need to persevere past half a dozen dusty “closing down” signs to find.

Frankston

 

The return of the arcade? 

So, why on earth am I fascinated by them then? Well, in the immortal words of Bob Roberts the times are changing back.  Some of the very factors that once counted against them: the scale of their spaces, their relatively low foot-traffic (and hence low cost), and the fact that they require some effort to discover are actually features not bugs in the brave new world where mass markets are shattering into hundreds of niches. Indeed among the fastest growing segments of business and creativity is small, home based, mixed online and offline businesses and arcades are logical places for these rapidly growing businesses to grow into. I could probably go off into a segue about the changing dynamics of suburban and decentralised creativity but if you want to follow that logic through think i’ve got that reasonably well covered elsewhere.

The form is actually a good one. So many of my favourite spaces share the basic configuration of a shopping arcade. At one point early in the process of Renew Newcastle, I described the approach I wanted to seed in Newcastle as  like a long horizontal Nicholas Building. The Nicholas building is probably Melbourne’s best living small scale cultural and creative enterprise laboratory — it’s bottom few floors are a literal arcade while it’s upper floors follow the same basic eclectic-mix-of-small-tenants pattern. So many of the city’s artists, small creative enterprises and artisans have had studios in there that has become almost impossible to keep track of them. So many successful makers and retailers got their start there.

It’s not an inner city Melbourne thing though, both the raw ABS statistics and my own experience with Renew Newcastle and Renew Australia demonstrate that there is a massive amount of pent up demand for entry level space for niche, creative, distinctive businesses and enterprises. Many of them don’t actually need or want high foot traffic. Many cant afford it because they are makers or specialising in a niche where at least part of their business online. Many don’t want or particularly need to pay the premium that goes with being a major shopping centre of having a thousand people an hour (only a tiny fraction of whom are likely to be interested in their niche product) walking by. What they do have is interesting ideas, creative approaches to business and the capacity to make a place interesting by their presence.

Marketing too has changed and it is changing the viability of spaces and places. Social and online media means small retailers, makers, and enterprises can build successful businesses with a dedicated following who will go out of their way to seek them out either physically or virtually. Etsy stores are spilling over into design markets and design market stalls want to morph into shops.

This is where the arcade form really starts to make sense. Successful places in other communities have taught me  that the while a small jeweller, a talented photographer, a purveyor of specialist records or hand made toys, or kids clothes might be capable of sustaining a small niche business in a variety of locations, something really interesting starts to happen if you bring them into proximity with each other. The clustering effect takes what would otherwise be a bunch of individual businesses and turns them into a destination. The downside of the low-profile location becomes the excitement of discovery and all the little niches start to cross pollinate. As Renew Newcastle has been rolling out more than a hundred such projects in and around the centre of Newcastle, i’ve looked enviously at empty arcades in various cities and suburbs and wondered just how much easier it would be to do something similar there.

arcade II

The problem of curation

So why isn’t it happening more? The more I’ve looked into the decline and fall of old arcades (and why there seems to be so few successful attempts at rebooting them) one factor more than any other has jumped out at me: with very few exceptions no one is curating them. No one is thinking about them as destinations or trying to work with them as a whole.

Big monolithic shopping centres for all their faults invariably have an entire team of people whose job it is to make sure they don’t look crap, to ensure that empty shops don’t look empty, to hunt down the brands or “offers” that they need and to invest in marketing and keeping them interesting. By contrast you’re average half-empty arcade seems to have almost no thought going into the mix, is willing to accept uses that actually deter other tenants and drive people away (storage anyone?) and have almost given up on the idea that property in its current form is anything more than a development play.

For arcades to fire again they need to become eclectic, engaging, active destinational places. Activity will generate activity while decay begets decay. There are no lack of small businesses, online enterprises, hole-in-the-wall cafe or bar proprietors and others for whom the actual configuration of space is potentially tempting and it’s not that hard to find them. In some cases a straight up Renew-type empty space activation model could be the simple catalyst to get to that critical mass quickly  but  more generally owners and agents need to start from the premise that an arcade must be made interesting before it can be made economic. For as long as half the shops sit, partially decaying, with the public facing spaces being left empty or used for storage owners need to realise that they are deterring not growing future value.

In that alternate universe — the one where i’m well capitalised enough to indulge my pet theories  – i’d set up an investment fund and start swooping in and livening up any old half empty shopping arcades with a decent location and ideally a bit of character. I can think of few areas where so much value could be unlocked so cheaply and quickly. In this universe i’ll content myself simply float the idea out there and remind anyone who is sitting on a half empty shopping that they’re welcome to drop me a line.

The photos above are from arcades i’ve visited in Ringwood (Vic), Frankston (Vic) and Wollongong (NSW) in my recent travels. 

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55 responses so far ↓

  • 1 unsungsongs May 18, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/lqKNikl6tB

  • 2 Esther Anatolitis May 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm

    It’d be fantastic if Renew began a focus on arcades. The arcade is of course the original laneway, and if Walter Benjamin had not inconveniently died but rather finished The Arcades Project we’d have quite the guidebook (as well as a detailed Flâneur ancestry for today’s hipster).

    Ever since Mr Close opened in Melbourne’s Midtown Plaza I’ve been watching the city arcades as the last frontier of Melbourne place-making design; our regional centres too harbour many forgotten arcades built as a poorly-thought-out, never-curated attempts at creating density that yields critical-mass shopper/community behaviour (though I’ve found that such faded attempts are more prevalent in NSW than Victoria).

    Allan’s Walk ARI in Bendigo was a great example of a gallery moving into pre-loved but long-forgotten arcade space – especially evocative as its arcade is the prototypical Benjamin arcade of the Parisian heyday, as interpreted by the post- Gold Rush Bendigo sensibilities. In this photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/joelbramley/8461155434/ you can see how the vaulted, stained-glass ceiling (cf Nicholas Building ground floor arcades and lift lobby) has been infilled with cheap ceiling tiles and fluoros. And yet, the copper and brass still glisten – it’s just that there’s nobody there.

    Keen to see your thoughts and work develop on this.

  • 3 GoldCoastIdeas May 18, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 4 vanbadham May 18, 2013 at 3:00 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 5 yolandenorris May 18, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 6 fmarked May 18, 2013 at 3:08 pm

    @unsungsongs @yolandenorris The Haussmannisation of urban Australia or time for a new Passagenwerk?

  • 7 lisahelps May 18, 2013 at 3:09 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #craft #design #shops http://t.co/BQDKGybxNj

  • 8 retailmentoring May 18, 2013 at 3:11 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 9 retailmentoring May 18, 2013 at 3:15 pm

    #EmptyShops and #Arcades. A rich vein of untapped urban gold? Join #retaichat on Thursday http://t.co/n6CBRppZYA

  • 10 retailmentoring May 18, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: Can arcades fire? (or are old arcades the new laneways?) : A strange obsession of mine is the fate of old arcades… http…

  • 11 Payne_Matt May 18, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 12 theurbanprefect May 18, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 13 retailmentoring May 18, 2013 at 4:02 pm

    #EmptyShops and #Arcades. A rich vein of untapped urban gold? Join #retaichat on Thursday @unsungsongs http://t.co/n6CBRppZYA

  • 14 indieices May 18, 2013 at 4:19 pm

    RT @retailmentoring: #EmptyShops and #Arcades. A rich vein of untapped urban gold? Join #retaichat on Thursday @unsungsongs http://t.co/n6C…

  • 15 MarilynBoardman May 18, 2013 at 4:30 pm

    RT @retailmentoring: #EmptyShops and #Arcades. A rich vein of untapped urban gold? Join #retaichat on Thursday @unsungsongs http://t.co/n6C…

  • 16 Dave May 18, 2013 at 5:08 pm

    Agreed. Nicky written. I think there is a parallel with their abandonment and drug culture adapting to their low profile but as you say, curators may play an important part in keeping the safe as well as appealing.

  • 17 unsungsongs May 18, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    I’m ignorant but US, UK, Canada #popup #EmptyShops #placemaking #maker ppl: Is the suburban arcade a thing where u r? http://t.co/lqKNikl6tB

  • 18 yolandenorris May 18, 2013 at 8:40 pm

    Might be of interest! @KatyGMLA @ABarrMLA @JoyBurchMLA @ShaneRattenbury @CanberraCBD @YouAreHere_Fest http://t.co/so5GAeK2uE

  • 19 marcus May 18, 2013 at 8:41 pm

    Esther, i do remember Allan’s Walk in Bendigo — we did projects with them back in the next wave days and visited a couple of times. That arcade is a great example although i haven’t been there for years.

  • 20 YouAreHere_Fest May 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 21 BronwynHinz May 18, 2013 at 10:37 pm

    @unsungsongs I liked your laneways line

  • 22 artistsmakers May 19, 2013 at 1:11 am

    How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsungsongs

  • 23 RealStephenMay May 19, 2013 at 1:12 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 24 Boidus May 19, 2013 at 1:14 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 25 mymarketstartup May 19, 2013 at 1:16 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 26 TimSwift May 19, 2013 at 1:17 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 27 Ed_Jennings May 19, 2013 at 1:18 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 28 mymarketstartup May 19, 2013 at 1:21 am

    #LYLM2013 @artistsmakers RT How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/OUspSeB92C

  • 29 unsungsongs May 19, 2013 at 8:53 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 30 kotsialos May 19, 2013 at 9:34 am

    RT @artistsmakers: How can we use small arcades and covered markets? The #emptyshops view from Australia http://t.co/oCFzEuhcUo via @unsung…

  • 31 Mixed_Use May 19, 2013 at 11:32 am

    Will Arcades Fire, asks @unsungsongs http://t.co/AtwwF3P4Ia Suburban revitalization opportunities challenged by commuter options, I say.

  • 32 reurbanist May 20, 2013 at 1:39 am

    @unsungsongs this is a great article!

  • 33 reurbanist May 20, 2013 at 1:41 am

    Recommended reading.. RT @unsungsongs The lost potential of empty shopping arcades http://t.co/UmZ9843wCS #icsc

  • 34 3D_windowdress May 20, 2013 at 1:51 am

    RT @reurbanist: Recommended reading.. RT @unsungsongs The lost potential of empty shopping arcades http://t.co/UmZ9843wCS #icsc

  • 35 DavidMcKayMHBC May 20, 2013 at 2:29 am

    RT @reurbanist: Recommended reading.. RT @unsungsongs The lost potential of empty shopping arcades http://t.co/UmZ9843wCS #icsc

  • 36 kylieboyd May 20, 2013 at 6:14 am

    RT @unsungsongs: The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. #cities #retail #urbanism #etsy #craft #design #suburbs #shops http://t.co/l…

  • 37 unsungsongs May 20, 2013 at 7:32 am

    RT @reurbanist: Recommended reading.. RT @unsungsongs The lost potential of empty shopping arcades http://t.co/UmZ9843wCS #icsc

  • 38 planettreasures May 20, 2013 at 8:04 am

    RT @renewaustralia: Are old, empty, suburban shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/3aSyChSEeY

  • 39 TheNookLeura May 20, 2013 at 8:04 am

    RT @renewaustralia: Are old, empty, suburban shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/tW97ObcrHv

  • 40 The_Git May 20, 2013 at 8:12 am

    RT @RenewAustralia: Are old, empty, suburban shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/whS8sADQPS

  • 41 dennisprice May 20, 2013 at 8:22 am

    RT @The_Git: RT @RenewAustralia: Are old, empty, suburban shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/whS8sADQPS

  • 42 MarkKentwell May 20, 2013 at 8:23 am

    RT @The_Git: RT @RenewAustralia: Are old, empty, suburban shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/whS8sADQPS

  • 43 _tractorgirl_ May 20, 2013 at 9:01 am

    artists, GET ONTO IT! RT @RenewAustralia: Are old, empty, shopping arcades an idea whose time has come (again)? http://t.co/bS0mtINZnX

  • 44 julie gibbons May 20, 2013 at 9:05 am

    What an excellent initiative! Yes and in Wagga too please

  • 45 _tractorgirl_ May 20, 2013 at 9:09 am

    What an excellent idea from Marcus Westbury – artists unite & reinvigorate those empty suburban arcades! (I’m… http://t.co/HhRvrN4XTi

  • 46 HSTours May 20, 2013 at 10:29 pm

    Currently Reading http://t.co/HhR1Uru2y2 – Always have time for thinking stimulated, or stretched by Marcus! We know about arcades…

  • 47 dellarucker May 21, 2013 at 4:46 am

    Very good RT @unsungsongs The lost potential of empty shopping arcades. http://t.co/UZiuBPKZw5

  • 48 localexperience May 21, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Are old arcades the new laneways? From Marcus of Renew Australia http://t.co/6SBmNucK3e

  • 49 lucinda_windsky May 21, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Food for thought. Are arcades the new laneways? http://t.co/KCN6Up86gq via @unsungsongs

  • 50 Nic May 22, 2013 at 12:25 am

    Would have loved to see the civic arcade rebooted now it lies as a pile of rubble on hunter street

  • 51 Kim Good May 22, 2013 at 9:46 am

    Having just done a Fair Trade Popup Shop in Paddington NSW an area that has many empty shops at the moment, your idea about shopping arcades is fantastic and enlightened. It only takes a few interesting spaces to enliven an area. The cost of retail space is often so prohibitive for small creatives and when you do get a few interesting creative people in one space not only does the space become alive but they learn from each other and new projects are born. Old arcades are perfect for this. Please if anyone out there is doing this let me know.
    Cheers,
    Kim

  • 52 sim1jade May 22, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    Currently Reading = http://t.co/77s7NZvQhm #arcades #laneways #hipsters – I like where you are going with this @unsungsongs

  • 53 unsungsongs May 22, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    RT @sim1jade: Currently Reading = http://t.co/77s7NZvQhm #arcades #laneways #hipsters – I like where you are going with this @unsungsongs

  • 54 Karen Jun 6, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more Marcus. Not only are many of these arcades abandoned or underutilised they can often be dangerous places to encounter. I have one just like in the next suburb in Heidelberg West. Last year I took trip to this run down arcade to pick up a DVD. On this day I encountered two youth attacking a shop keeper, while others stood and watched, afraid there was nothing they could do or if it would make a difference. Finally the police arrived and arrests were made. I have never returned. This arcade is crying out for a new life and if it was “renewed” not only would it benefit creatives and local culture, it would improve a sense of ownership and belonging and progressively tackle the pit-falls of urbanisation.

  • 55 luke May 13, 2014 at 12:00 am

    This is a great insight.

    Both sides of this are born out in the Sydney CBD (where there is a critical mass that supports both sufficient specialisation and concentration).

    There are three major arcades connecting high volume pedestrian thoroughfares: QVB, the Strand and the old Dymocks building, and the newer Mid City and Galleries Victoria development. The newer developments are mostly chain retail, but the older buildings house a range of boutique/bespoke retail – jewellers, wedding dress designers etc

    However within a 500m radius there’s also the usual assortment of dilapidated arcades that are so common throughout the rest of Australia.