Last week Lord Mayor Clover Moore refused a request to meet with local business leaders to discuss revitalising the Oxford Street economy. Seven years into her dual role as Sydney’s Lord Mayor and the local State Member, Oxford Street’s fortunes are waning. What was once a vibrant retail strip has turned into a wasteland before 10 pm. The stretch of Oxford Street that runs through Darlinghurst from Hyde Park to Taylor Square is one of Sydney’s most famous and iconic streets. On any given Friday or Saturday night after ten o’clock thousands of gays and lesbians are joined by a diverse range of young people all of whom flock to dozens of venues on or near Oxford Street. There can be little doubt that Oxford Street’s night time economy is booming.
When the sun rises, Oxford Street is far from pretty. Drunk and drugged revelers stumble out of day clubs onto an otherwise desolate strip. After 8am, no one goes to Oxford Street, unless they are scurrying past on their way to somewhere. And why would they? Oxford Street’s culinary offering is cheap and tawdry: burritos, burgers, pizza and falafels abound. And the retail offering is sliding down market quickly: two dollar shops, convenience stores and a cavalcade of pop up shops have now been joined by two pawn shops that have recently opened on the strip. A vibrant, international city thrives 24 hours a day. Like Frank Sinatra once crooned: “I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps.” In the world’s best urban precincts, night time partiers are replaced by breakfast and brunch diners, followed by daytime shoppers spending their hard earned cash in unique, local shops offering authentic, locally crafted, goods.
The City of Sydney is one of the largest land owners on the strip. Many of the buildings on the north side of the block are managed by Council’s property department, who has fueled the late night concentration of trade by filling its premises with cheap takeaway shops. A number of gay arts and community services were evicted years ago to prepare for the fit out of a grocery store, which has subsequently been put on hold. While government bureaucrats have moved at a snail’s pace, the market has opened several grocery stores in new developments in the area. A few blocks south on Crown Street, the old Water Board building was sold off to private developers who have opened a fashionable wine bar and a Thomas Dux grocery store, which has helped transform Crown Street into a thriving retail hub. Now it seems Council has literally turned its back on Oxford Street, giving up on its multi-million dollar plans for 56 to 76 Oxford Street, focusing first on the backside of the building in Foley Street instead.
Meanwhile, Clover Moore’s much vaunted plans to brand Oxford Street as Sydney’s Cultural Quarter have stumbled and faltered. Way back in 2006 the City brought out an internationally renowned expert, John Montgomery who found that the area had all of the elements necessary to function as an arts precinct: a concentration of cultural institutions, late night trade, cafés, outdoor markets, footpath activity and a diverse range of retail offerings. Other global cities have used their cultural precincts to revitalize their urban areas. But here in Sydney, footpath activity has been stifled by an army of overzealous Council rangers and retail activity has packed up and moved elsewhere. Council’s own plans for an Oxford Street Cultural Quarter appear to focus more on the large arts institutions at the other end of the strip away from the gay ghetto. Up the road, between the National Art School on Taylor Square and the College of Fine Arts in Paddington, Oxford Street is undisputedly Sydney’s visual arts precinct. But as Cate Blanchett has demonstrated up at the Wharf, Sydney has many Cultural Quarters and frankly trying to fit lower Oxford Street into a Cultural Quarter slipper is like trying to shove a drag queen’s foot into a size six pump.
Council is in a unique position to turn around the fortunes of Oxford Street. As the largest landowner on the strip and the consent authority for small business approvals and footpath useage in the City of Sydney, local government could easily take the tarnish off the old Golden Mile if it wanted to. If the City had the passion and commitment to activate Oxford Street that it has dedicated in the Central Business District to activating laneways and revitalizing George Street, where the City has unveiled plans for a $180 million upgrade, Oxford Street would eventually be restored to its former glory. Since ratepayers own much of the northern half of Oxford Street between Taylor and Whitlam Squares, it is in all of our interests to see that Council succeeds in resuscitating lower Oxford Street as soon as possible. The sad fact is that under Clover Moore, the City of Sydney has spent more time and energy worrying about the commercial vitality of the big end of town than it has invested in local, small business in what has been misleadingly branded “the City of Villages.”
Lawrence Gibbons is the President of the 2010 Darlinghurst Surry Hills Business Partnership and the Publisher of the City Hub.