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.
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.
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.