The western end of the CBD shopping precinct has been transformed into a pedestrian boulevard and is now open, as retailers move into the last few weeks before Christmas.
The new light rail will run down George Street, extending from Circular Quay to Central Station before finishing at Randwick and Kingsford. Real estate firm Colliers recently said the new infrastructure and cheaper rent is increasing George Street’s appeal to retailers. According to Colliers, the rent is nearly 40 per cent cheaper than destinations such as nearby Pitt Street Mall. According to the real estate firm, current average rents in George Street start from $3,750sqm – $6,750 sqm compared to $9,750 – $21,250 per sqm in Pitt Street Mall. Rents for King Street, between George and Castlereagh Street start from $5,500 – $12,750 sqm.
“The replacement of the hoardings and construction activity with Christmas lights and decorations between King and Park streets complements the significant investment the city of Sydney and local retailers have made in ensuring Sydney CBD is a must-visit destination in the weeks prior to Christmas,” said Patricia Forsythe, executive director of the Sydney Business Chamber.
“The paving, new street poles and planter boxes give a peek into what George Street will look like once the light rail project is complete and show why over $3 billion of private sector development is planned or underway along George Street.”
When finished, Forsythe said George Street will be a retail destination alongside Pitt and Castlereagh streets and will lift Sydney’s reputation as a shopping destination.
“Sydney will soon have its version of prominent international shopping strips, like Bond Street in London or Ginza in Tokyo with the strong likelihood of new luxury brands seeking out the precinct.”
Retailers expect uptick
Forsythe added the opening “comes as a Christmas gift for businesses” who have been impacted by the light rail construction work. She said consultation with businesses and stakeholders on the progress of the CBD and South East Light Rail project “had been thorough” with regular briefings for representatives of key business groups.
However, despite construction crews and barriers now being replaced with six gigantic wreaths and over 5000 lights, some businesses have voiced their displeasure at the process.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Minister for Transport and Infrastructure Andrew Constance held a media conference to announcing the reopening and were interrupted repeatedly by local retail owners Mark and Jennifer Duff, who said their jewellery stores had been impacted significantly by the construction activity.
Minister Constance said George Street has been one of the most challenging sections of the project.
“Digging up one of Australia’s oldest streets has certainly had its challenges, but it’s clear to see it has all been worth it,” Constance said. “We thank those businesses who have been patient as construction has continued along George Street.”
A spokesperson from Transport for NSW told Inside Retail that the CBD and South East Light Rail will transform public transport in Sydney, providing high capacity and reliable services.
“We acknowledge that as with any major construction there is some short term disruption caused and we always work to minimise the inconvenience caused, however, we are building a $2.1 billion infrastructure project which when complete will significantly benefit Sydney, including businesses and the community.
“As well as light rail, the CBD is transforming with more than 100 public and private development projects costing $10m or more in the CBD over the next four years.”
Speaking to Inside Retail, Steve Cox, Dymocks managing director said Christmas trade is now well underway and although the books retailer “would have liked for George Street to open earlier”, its focus is now centred on creating the best experience for customers in the lead up to Christmas.
“The Christmas lights are stunning and the boulevard atmosphere is definitely a big draw for people to visit the city. George Street is buzzing and feedback from our customers has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said.
Commenting on the lengthy construction process, Cox affirmed “there’s no doubt that the prolonged construction severely impacted trade for George Street retailers and the experience worsened the longer it went on”.
“We were disappointed and frustrated at the delays, given that two Christmases had already been adversely impacted by the works,” he said.
“Since construction began three years ago, performance at Dymocks Sydney has suffered when compared to other CBD stores in our network. We feel that the whole project could have been better managed.”
The spokesperson said Transport for NSW had worked hard to maintain foot traffic and vibrancy around the construction areas.
“We do this by door knocking to check in on businesses, ensuring they have information on construction activities, delivering business signage and directories along route, rolling out precinct based shopping guides and videos, activating target areas to increase foot traffic and coordinating off-set parking plans with councils.”
“There are up to 10,000 people walking down George Street in the afternoon peak (3-8pm), which has increased since buses were removed on George Street for light rail construction in October 2015.
“We’ve been upfront about providing assistance for small businesses along the light rail route that are experiencing some financial hardship where occupation of construction zones has taken longer than initially published timeframes.
“The business rent assistance program is available to businesses located where construction has taken longer to complete that originally planned. There have been 51 applications for assistance along the entire light rail route and 34 have been approved for rent assistance.”
Looking ahead, Cox said he is optimistic that the light rail will bring people back to the city, particularly with the inclusion of more high end retailers to George Street.
In August, Brant Hirst, Nike marketing director told Inside Retail that the vast amount of construction works had not been a concern in the development of its recently launched three-level flagship on George Street.
Finishing work, including small areas of paving, intersections, smart poles and systems will continue in the New Year as well as construction of the QVB light rail stop.
Devonshire Street between Chalmers and Elizabeth Streets will also be substantially completed before the end of the year, with barriers removed and street furniture and art installed.
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