Monday, 28 March 2016

1987: Underground Sydney

When the redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Building into a shopping complex was completed in 1986, it would change Sydney retailing. Sydney ended up with a major shopping destination in the city centre, but the focus is on something else that might appear minor on paper, but did have major ramifications for retailing in central Sydney. It's underground level would link the retail around Town Hall with the soon to be completed Pitt Street Mall.

Underground Sydney July 6 1987 daily telegraph 10

Source: Roberts, R. 1987. "Underground Sydney: From Town Hall to Hyde Park, it's now possible to walk without ever seeing daylight". The Daily Telegraph, July 6: 10. 

The report claims that it is possible to walk from Town Hall to Elizabeth Street at Hyde Park without seeing daylight. This is not possible, even today. You would have to cross Pitt Street (now a mall) to reach Centrepoint from Grace Bros, even if it meant using the skybridge. It is possible however to do the trek without physically going outside. 

As for the move towards underground retailing, it had been in the council's agenda for at least two decades beforehand. It was not until the 1980's when this had begun to take off. It was the redevelopment of the Queen Victoria Building that would cement underground retailing in Sydney.

The redevelopment of Centrepoint into Westfield Sydney in 2010 then made it possible to walk to Martin Place without having to cross any streets. Links were built into the Glasshouse retail complex which was linked by skybridge to the MLC Centre and Martin Place train station. I do remember though pre-redevelopment that it could be done through the former Imperial Arcade and Skygarden. This required going through Lincraft in the Imperial Arcade to make a direct walk to Martin Place possible.

Not long after the QVB redevelopment, the retail podium of 586 George Street also included a direct link between the George Street cinema strip and Town Hall Station. There were plans even to link Regent Place to Town Hall in plans, but never happened. Even the proposals for Fraser Residences examined it  but sadly didn't happen. A lost opportunity for retailers there. In 2000, The Galeries Victoria also joined the underground retail network helped by its location almost directly above Town Hall Station.

While the underground retail complexes and walkways have been of benefit to city retailing, its main weakness is that it takes away foot traffic at street level. Sydney streets aren't teaming with people as say Melbourne which largely focuses on retailing at street level and drawing on its network of laneways and historic arcades to lure shoppers.

It has been fifteen years since the Galeries Victoria was built and since then, there have been no new major retail developments built below street level in Sydney's CBD. It has shifted back towards street level. With the success of the Pitt Street Mall in attracting city shoppers, the city retailing precinct has expanded east into Castlereagh and Elizabeth Streets, north towards Martin Place and west onto George Street which over the past decade has attracted major retailers, spearheaded by Apple who opened a flagship store at the corner of George Street and King Street in 2008. UK clothing giant Topshop opened in the former Gowings Building in 2013. The new light rail line snaking its way down George Street could unleash further growth in street level retailing in central Sydney with traffic forced off the city's main throughfare, creating a shopping environment that will be safe for visitors to our city.