The Sydney Morning Herald

By Michael Koziol

Outdoor malls have long fought a war on two fronts, against the behemoth of Westfield and the appeal of online shopping.

But local governments, determined to see their commercial strips survive, are pouring in money and embracing new ideas to make them competitive again.

Parramatta City Council is spending $5 million to upgrade the northern end of its Church Street Mall and is offering grants of up to $10,000 for businesses to set up in the Parramatta CBD.

Among others, it has lured the upmarket Bourke Street Bakery and the 3D Printing Studio, where enthusiasts can print their own sculptures, tools and gifts. Preference is being given to late-trading businesses that will help ''activate'' the precinct at night.

"We’re willing to back people that want to be innovative," Lord mayor John Chedid said. He said the adjacent Westfield shopping centre was "complementary" because it brings visitors into the CBD. The mall's redesign, focused on outdoor dining, is about giving people an alternative choice, he said.

Edward Blakely, honorary professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre and an adviser to Parramatta and Liverpool councils, said the era of car-dependent shopping megaplexes was over. In the US more than 100 indoor malls have closed, most of them replaced by a combination of housing and outdoor shopping.

"Younger people and older people want to walk the street," Professor Blakely said. "And now shopping is entertainment. So the plaza or mall first has to be an entertainment place."

While most Sydney malls "leave a lot to be desired", he said they could be turned around with quality live entertainment, unique merchandise and a clean, consistent design.

Sutherland Shire Council is turning away from its town hall planners and offering $18,000 in prizes for the public’s best ideas to revamp the fading Cronulla Mall. The winning designer will receive $10,000 and an invitation to join in the planning process, which will still be subject to council approval.

Mayor Steve Simpson said locals’ ideas were often more imaginative than those produced by the boffins.

“If we had just government workers designing the building that’s now the Sydney Opera House, we would have had a square building right on that point, not sails,” he said.

Landscape architect David Vago, born and bred in the shire, said the Cronulla strip was a relic of bicentenary era design and was deserted after sunset. His plan aims to “bring the beach to the mall”, complete with big beach umbrellas, a sunken lawn area and two six-metre water features shaped like giant jellyfish.

Mr Vago is optimistic about the future of outdoor shopping and pointed to Rouse Hill Town Centre and Manly Corso as modern, innovative examples. He said malls should deliver what indoor megaplexes could not; alfresco dining, children's play equipment, grass areas, trees and good lighting.

"Combining a park with a shopping strip is probably the only way to combat the onslaught of online shopping and the corporate domination of Westfield and other shopping magnates," he said.

"There’s going to be a renaissance in the malls, but only if they are designed accordingly."

This article was originally published at The Sydney Morning Herald