19 January 2019
The disintegration of major retail and entertainment drawcards in Subiaco (Pavilion Markets, Subiaco Stadium) has had a snowball effect, resulting in the loss of smaller businesses on the Rokeby Road commercial strip. Observing this historic street over the course of 2018, the mass exodus is reified by an ever-growing number of “For Lease” signs in shopfront windows (a quick search online shows 426 commercial properties available for lease in Subiaco at the time of writing). The Federation style building at 87-89 Rokeby Road, a recent addition to this list of vacant venues, has been home to the iconic Witch’s Cauldron Restaurant for nearly five decades and is due for a fresh perspective. As Benson Studio has been commissioned to give new life to this historic gem, we look to Subiaco’s rich past to find sustainable solutions for its future.
University of Melbourne research into urban place identity asserts that
The commercial, retail and entertainment opportunities offered on the main strip has been central to the vibrant character of Subiaco. The character of a small village meets cosmopolitan city. In maintaining a strong sense of place and local identity, new developments should focus on promoting diversity, community spirit, and commercial enterprise at a range of scales. What follows is a study into how shared responsibility and sustainable development can shape future development.
“Old Subiaco’s identity was […] based more in a set of social, cultural, historical and experiential associations than it was in physical form or appearance. The city was characterized by a rich social and cultural mix, social progressiveness and a strong sense of community.”
The role of attracting interesting enterprise back to the streets of Subiaco doesn’t fall on the shoulders of any one group, it requires collaboration. Property owners and tenants, local council and the state government each have a role to play to revive the suburb.
Tax incentives form the state government could help draw vibrant tenants to Rokeby Road. If landlords were charged with a Vacancy Tax when their properties were unoccupied for an extended period of time, they would be motivated to either drop the rental rate or offer shared lease opportunities to fill the space. This should be supplemented with transparency regarding property values. Publicly accessible rental rates across the suburb for commercial properties would allow new tenants to be better informed when making a decision to occupy a property (Shield, 2018), landlords know what is a reasonable rate to charge, and tenants can assess costs and opportunities for their business.
Flexible rental agreements that allow tenants to exit the lease could save the tenant losing capital in the event that their business fails. It will also then make the venue available for a new enterprise to move in, thus keeping the street active. Opportunities for shared rentals will allow small businesses to occupy prime real estate that they could otherwise not afford. If two or three tenants were to share the cost of one vacancy among them, not only does it benefit the tenants who only have to pay a fraction of the rent, but it benefits the street by fostering a sense of community and collaboration. It means that in the event of one tenant moving out of a shared space, the venue continues to operate, it does not leave a void in the streetscape. It offers stability.
Larger tenancies can also be broken down into shared meeting rooms or co-working spaces. A study conducted by Griffith University’s Associate Professor Matthew Burke reveals that people are increasingly choosing hubs and shared workplaces as they recognise the importance of sharing knowledge in growing business. (Hinchliffe, 2018) Burke’s study shows that business can be stimulated by conducting business activity in non-traditional office environments. (Hinchliffe, 2018) Given this, the ability for employers to work autonomously by researching in a library, meeting a client in a café, or discussing a business proposal over lunch, is indicative of a healthy business model with room for growth. This new approach to business may be a key to reviving Subiaco – if new venues are established from the outset to accommodate dynamic employees in flexible workspaces, it could stimulate the growth
of other venues. The vacant venues that currently line Rokeby Road could be brought out of their state of torpor if new small start-ups and sole practitioners were to share a shop front. Co-working spaces have the economic benefit of a lower rent price than a traditional commercial office, but it also has the social benefit of instilling a community spirit among those who share it.
Results from the ABS 2016 survey shows that most Subiaco denizens are educated, single, full-time professionals aged 25-39 who earn significantly more than the average West Australian. This demographic is just the right type to be receptive of new places to start and grow a business venture, especially when coupled with the frustration of watching their home Suburb slowly slip over the last decade since the close of the Pavilion Markets. But a new high school slated to open place of the stadium in 2020, will throw into the mix a new demographic (Hamlyn, 2018) and with it, a demand for new offerings catered to younger age-groups and families. The key is to harness the added diversity to the demographic in fostering the ‘Urban Village’ quality of Subiaco.
“a distinctive local palette, which contributes to a strong sense of place, can engender a correspondingly strong sense of belonging for members of a community.”
(Cugley and Green-Armytage, 2015)
A place like Subiaco which is characterised by buildings of moderate to significant heritage value provides a unique opportunity for new architectural endeavours to capitalise on the past and promote sustainable development(1). The truism claiming that “the most sustainable building is the one already built” continues to garner more supporting evidence in the form of statistics around the prodigious environmental damage caused by the construction industry - building construction was responsible for a staggering 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2010. Architects and other members of the building industry carry a responsibility to combat this figure. The insertion of a new venue into an extant building that has become redundant is one means of achieving this.
But the argument for retaining existing buildings extends beyond economic and environmental considerations to social and cultural reasons. Researchers at Curtin University of Technology argue that
The retention of 87-89 Rokeby (and others similar) is a means of preserving local memory of place, the form and material palette of this building will be ever reminiscent of the Witch’s Cauldron era and earlier by the physical properties that bridge the gap created by the passing of time. It tells the passer-by at a glance the age and purpose of the building and helps one to place it within its surrounds. At a closer look, one can read at the change of material and floor level, that this venue is the amalgamation of two narrower lots, with a newer addition on top. These stories, as told through the construction, give rise to collective memory and the sense of place described above.
This sense of place can be reinforced by links between a given location and its broader context, to that which lies beyond it. (Cugley and Green-Armytage, 2015) This new venue on Rokeby then, can be enriched by connections to Kings Park which skirts the South-Eastern boundary of Subiaco and the many other smaller patches of greenery scattered throughout the suburb. The incorporation of parks and gardens has historically played a large part in the development of Subiaco, with a tradition for lining streets with trees that continues to give the place its distinctive character today.
The insertion of new small businesses in Subiaco in the current climate of decline, provides an opportunity to revive the suburb. New venues such as Dilly Dally are designed to bring the community together. Through a celebration of its immediate and more distant history, by fostering a community spirit and sense of place through collaboration, and embracing the diverse landscape that makes it unique; Subiaco can grow into a new era without losing sight of its past.
At the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, the United Nations defined Sustainable Development” as: “Development that meets the need of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” (Karol and Brunner, 2009)
A biodiversity hotspot is identified as a place both with many endemic species, and significant environmental threats to their conservation. They have a high diversity of endemic species, unlikely to be found anywhere else in the world. (Department of the Environment and Energy, Biodiversity Hotspots).