The announcement signals another positive step forward for the future of Sydney retail following the appointment of Michael Rodrigues, Sydney’s first 24-hour commissioner and recent changes to retail trading hour applications, allowing shops to trade until 10pm without needing further approvals.
Here, Deputy Lord Mayor Jess Scully shares her vision for the George Street boulevard, how retailers are set to benefit and what the 24-hour economy means for businesses.
IR: Tell me about the vision behind this pedestrian project for George Street.
JS: Our vision is to turn George Street into the heart of the city – a place where you want to linger, have a coffee, meet friends and actually spend time in a more social and leisure-oriented way, rather than being strictly a transport artery. The City of Sydney took advantage of the opportunity around the light rail to invest in enhancing the public domain, to give a beautiful high-quality finish to the street, and to create lots of places and opportunities for people to spend time and money. We managed to achieve that for a significant swathe of George Street with the first phase of light rail. And now, because of that success with support from both the federal and state governments, and a major investment by the City of Sydney, we’re extending that all the way to Central [Station].
I think it’s got to be a real shot in the arm for retailers, restaurants and cafes, who have obviously had a really tough year, and hopefully now we’re going to start to see some of the benefit of that investment in public space.
IR: Is this type of transformation something that you’re seeing globally; big cities around the world coming up with new ways of bringing people back?
JS: Yes, it’s absolutely a global experience. It means that we have to rethink the city. For a long time, cities have been built as warehouses for workers and our streets and roads were funnels to get workers in and out of the city as quickly as possible. That 20th century mindset doesn’t work today and the pandemic has accelerated that shift that was already underway. That’s why we’re really focused on repurposing roadways to become spaces for the social, commercial and cultural life in the city. We’ve worked with the NSW Government to make it really easy for cafes, bars and hotels to take over footpath space and roadway and car spaces to support physical distancing and also deliver more commercial capacity to those businesses that [have to] accommodate fewer patrons inside. That’s something that’s been tried all over the world. I imagine that’s something that Sydneysiders are going to fall in love with and it’s going to become a much more common experience in our city as well.
IR: What impact do you expect this boulevard will have on the retail community?
JS: I think it’s going to have a really positive effect. One of the impacts of Covid was that a lot more people were spending time in their neighborhoods and really being selective about which days they come to work in the city and how they spend their time in the city. What we have to do at the City of Sydney is really tempt people back into the downtown area. We want them to enjoy the city in a way that they haven’t before, so we want more people dining outside, collaborating and working in spaces outside. We’ve got to offer really exceptional experiences so people want to come to the city, because they don’t always need to come to the city five days a week in the way they used to.
IR: Who do you foresee being the big winners from this redevelopment? Is it hospitality? Fresh produce retailers? Apparel?
JS: I do think hospitality is going to derive a really big benefit from it. I would love to see more fresh produce, and retailers taking advantage of the city in that way, but I think it’s going to be a slower process to take stock outside, whereas serving people outside is just a natural extension of what a lot of hospitality venues do.
There are some really interesting designers working on that idea of outdoor sales and outdoor neighborhoods, who are trying to think about that, but in a village high street context rather than in our CBD. I think as we show how well it’s working for the hospitality sector, other sectors are going to find ways to adapt their offerings as well.
IR: Now that Sydney’s lockout laws have been removed and Michael Rodrigues has been appointed Sydney’s new 24-hour economy commissioner, how do you see Sydney’s night retail offer developing and when can we expect to see some real changes around that?
JS: I think it’s so exciting that the 24-hour commissioner has been appointed. It’s a big step forward. I think now we need to make sure that our planning regulations match that intention, but we also have to bring community along.
At the City of Sydney, we changed our late night trading development control plan to make it easier for unlicensed retailers to stay open up until 10pm, so hopefully we’ll see a greater mix of nighttime offerings. It basically means that [unlicensed retailers] don’t have to get a [development application] DA or apply to change your DA to change trading hours, it’s just exempt. Part of what we have to do now is inform retailers and service businesses that this is something that they can do – hairdressers, dry cleaners, newsagents, book shops, you name it. It’s a different situation if you’re a licensed premise, you still have to go through that DA process because of the larger impact on the community.
We’ve also made it easier and created incentives for nighttime operators to trade later, particularly in the inner city. We’ve created incentives for them to get extra trading hours if they program live music, for example.
IR: Oftentimes, pedestrianised areas can cause disruption to store pickups and deliveries. Are there plans in place to alleviate any concerns around that?
JS: All the driveways on George Street will still be accessible. For the most part, the voting arrangements that are in place during the light rail operation period will continue. George Street has been ‘No Stopping’ since the light rail process began and the idea has been to shift the loading and unloading onto side streets. There are only a handful of places that have had some challenges around that. [City of Sydney] staff door knocked all of the businesses along George Street and took their feedback on board as to how they get their products in and out, and then they worked with transport in NSW through that light rail process to make sure people still had access. We are working on a business-by-business basis to make sure they can still get in and out.
IR: Some retailers have suggested that more commercial parking spaces or discounted parking could help draw people back to CBDs around Australia. Are there any plans around that for Sydney?
JS: What we’ve found is that 90 per cent of people who come to the CBD don’t drive; they’re coming by public transport, or by active modes of transport like riding or cycling. So, what we’re really talking about is 10 per cent of visitors coming by car, and the research also shows that parking stations are not at full capacity. Most [parking stations] are actually putting on deals to accommodate people who are driving.
But we really encourage people to come into the city by public transport, active transport, especially now with the light rail, and coming soon, the Metro is going to be right in the CBD. That’s going to operate 21 hours a day so it’s going to help people get in and out of the city for that night time economy activity as well.