By ELIZA SPENCER
For decades, the south end of King Street in Newtown has been a space for Sydney’s artists and outcasts. However, years of gentrification and council knock-backs have hit the small businesses of South King.
Too far from the station for the comfort of tourists, and too obscure for even the hippest influencers, South King’s residents have meandered along on a steady diet of fresh pastizzi and anarchist posters plastered to the windows of now-empty shop fronts. Twenty-nine stores remain unoccupied, with that number expected to rise to 30 as local institution Pastizzi Café, opposite the New Theatre near Alice Street, prepares to move after fourteen years on South King.
Owners Lenny and Debbie Ross are considering relocating their popular home-made Maltese pastries to the northern end of King Street after their fourth consecutive development approval was knocked back by the Inner West Council (IWC). The approvals were denied due to what a spokesperson for IWC described as a ‘substantially lacking’ report of acoustic and accessibility plans.
The latest rejection included deeming a mobile cool-room, currently in the backyard of the family-run business, unsuitable for use. “The crazy thing is,” said Ms Ross, “they tell us that we’ve got to get rid of our mobile cool-room, but we can’t build a [indoor] cool-room. What are we supposed to do? The Council came out and they said, ‘you can’t have that,’ and I said, ‘Well, you won’t let me build a cool-room!’.”
Two years and over $30,000 out of pocket, Ms Ross said they had no choice but to leave. “We paid for a town planner but there are also acoustic reports, and an environmental report, and they turned back the DA anyway! Two years of trying, and each time being knocked back. The reasons were just ridiculous. Everything was in limbo,” sighed Ms Ross. “We didn’t want to move, but we needed more seating. I went straight on the internet and thought, “I’m just going to see what’s available out there.”
Their new location, on the northern end of King Street, close to the RPA Hospital and University of Sydney, is nearly triple the size of their current premise. It’s also situated in the City of Sydney Council, away from the difficulties dealing with the IWC. Despite its perfect size, Ms Ross is heartbroken about the move.
“Once we’re gone, I think it will leave a gap… It’s very community-oriented down here [in South King], that’s why I’m going to miss it,” she said.
Gentrification edging out small businesses
South King St has borne the brunt of gentrification in Erskineville and Newtown, divided down the middle of the street into two of Sydney’s largest councils, the City of Sydney on the Erskineville side to the east, and the Inner West Council in Newtown on the west. Commercial rental prices range from a minimum of $18,000 p.a. for a small retail space described as: ‘perfect for a pop-up store’, up to $98,000 p.a. to lease a larger commercial unit, such as Lou Jack’s Café at 420 King Street, which, sadly, closed its doors after 21 years trading on October 27.
Combined with what IWC has described as a ‘retail recession’, finding the funding to expand a business or keep one afloat has been a struggle on both sides of the street. Small business owners are being edged out of the property market before they can even begin.
Lenny and Debbie Ross continue to pay rent for both locations while the final touches on their new café are finished, but Ms Ross considers herself lucky to be expanding. “We’re very nervous,” she admitted, “It’s a whole different ball game for us. It’s a bigger space, it’s huge rent, so we’re nervous, but we’re going to give it a go.”
A spokesperson for IWC acknowledged the struggle that business owners and residents have in the face of rising costs in the Inner West and said, “there is still a place for small business on King Street. Newtown has been undergoing gentrification for many, many years… Thus far, Newtown has managed to retain a blend of eccentricity and quality.”
Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore, agreed that King Street “does of course face its own challenges” but believes that with the right support from government and locals, King Street can thrive again. “I love King Street,” she said. “It’s one of our best-known high streets and has plenty going for it. The rise of online shopping has hurt its retailers. The lockouts have threatened to change the dynamic of Newtown’s nightlife and increased traffic has made it a sometimes unpleasant place to sit or walk. Newtown, as with every other suburb in Sydney, is slowly changing but we’ll continue to do everything we can to support business across the suburb.”
The opening date for the new Pastizzi Café isn’t set yet, and the Ross’s are weighing up the option whether they can afford to retain two premises simultaneously, at both the north and south ends of King Street. However, the ‘For Lease’ sign hanging above their South King café seems to suggest the writing is on the wall, while Ms Ross can only promise, “We’ll let you know..”