26/03/2008 - 22:00

Northbridge develops a new vibe

26/03/2008 - 22:00

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As the first stage of Northbridge Link gets under way, small retailers in the fashion and restaurant industries are lifting the area.

Northbridge develops a new vibe
GROWTH: Keith & Lottieā€™s Aimee Johns says the growing number of new stores opening during the past 18 months has made a big difference to the William Street area. Photos: Grant Currall

Northbridge has been undergoing gradual change for some time now, and it’s not the government’s multi-million dollar infrastructure plans that are driving it.

William Street, previously run down and home to an eclectic collection of retailers and restaurants, has slowly been colonised by a group of trendy fashion designers in their mid-20s.

Aimee Johns, owner of Keith & Lottie, was one of the first to arrive, in October 2004, having studied fashion design at the nearby Tafe.

“Within the fashion industry, it was pretty obvious early on that there weren’t many opportunities in Perth,” Ms Johns said.

“What I wanted to do was very art based, so it didn’t suit standard retail areas like Subiaco.

Northbridge already had the galleries and Tafe, and I could see the planning by the City of Perth as to where it was headed.” It also helped that the property was government owned, and about half the price of rental rates in Fremantle or Mount Lawley.

Since then, Keith & Lottie has grown to include an art gallery and a specialist art supplies store, in addition to its clothing line, supporting one full-time and four casual staff.

“It’s become a lot more sustainable, particularly in the past year and a half.

You really do notice the difference with the other stores opening,” Ms Johns told WA Business News.

Including Keith & Lottie, there are eight fashion boutiques on and around William Street – Harry Highpants, Fi & Co and Lala Orange among them.

The group has reached such a critical mass that it recently formed an official association – the William Street Collective Incorporated – to create a joint marketing vehicle.

Its achievements to date include a shopping map for the area and a magazine called The Loop, with plans to host an event at this year’s Northbridge festival in November.

“We were all really keen to do this because we could see the advantage of working together and having interaction between industries,” said Ms Johns, who chairs the association.

According to several established Northbridge businesses, the arrival of these boutique retailers has brought a new vibrancy to the area.

Yet it’s an undercurrent of change that needs the support of some bigger developments, according to Ian Marchesi, whose clothing store Marchesi Menswear was established in 1939.

“A lot of new businesses have come into the area and it certainly is going through a resurgence, but there are a few things that need to happen to make it more expedient,” Mr Marchesi said.

“A lot hinges on whether the government sinks the railway.” The Northbridge Link is just one of several projects the Business Improvement Group of Northbridge, otherwise known as the BIG N, aims to keep high on the government’s agenda.

Created four and a half years ago, the group’s mission is to make the precinct of Northbridge more acceptable as an entertainment area for tourists and the wider community.

Chairman Paul Afkos said progress had been made on that front, citing the City of Perth’s piazza plan, which is due to go to tender soon, as a significant achievement.

He said there had also been a broader change in the community’s perception of Northbridge.

“I’m mindful of the problems Northbridge had, but I can say many of them have disappeared – it’s more family oriented.

There’s always going to be a small kerfuffle at two or three in the morning, but the police presence is good,” he said.

According to surveys of BIG N business members, there has been an average increase in trade of 18 per cent over the past three years, and a 13 per cent rise in the volume of people visiting Northbridge, year on year, for the same period.

“You have to look at the confidence in Northbridge when you consider all these new developments – Tafe, the arts centre, the apartments,” Mr Afkos said.

“People would not be doing that if they had a bad perception of Northbridge.” Member for Perth John Hyde, whose office is located at the top end of William Street, believes this positive change can be partly attributed to several law and order intervention strategies for the area.

He said crime was down 35 per cent in real terms, which, combined with the investment made by the Town of Vincent, EPRA and the City of Perth into William Street, had given businesses greater confidence to set up shop in the area.

“A number of restaurant owners, long-term ones, keep telling me how much better it is,” he told WA Business News.

Mr Hyde believes the changes to the residential population have been a key driver, with the influx of residential apartment developments bringing in a younger demographic.

“A huge number of people working on mines and in Asia are basing themselves in the city, and spending their time off here.

There’s been a big influx of that demographic,” he said.

“They [young people] don’t want to move into a place that’s quiet...

they want to live in a place that’s got life.” Mr Hyde said the area now needed a diverse range of businesses, such as bookstores and clothing stores, to live up to the parallels being drawn between William Street and similar precincts, such as Brunswick Street in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, or Leederville’s Oxford Street.

“On a Sunday, Northbridge is as vibrant as Hong Kong or Kuala Lumpur, predominantly with families going for yum cha,” he said.

“Only when you have that diversity in retail will you get that inner-city, funky feel.” But as new developments change the face of Northbridge, the very diversity that attracted young fashion designers and art galleries, along with the affordable commercial rents, may be at risk.

Keith & Lottie’s Aimee Johns said the evolution of the area as a hub for artistic businesses needed to be protected.

“It depends on a number of key stakeholders like EPRA, who’ve said they’re keen to keep the creative industries, but it could quickly tip the other way.

Brunswick Street in Melbourne has already gone past what it was – it’s pretty much chain fashion stores now,” Ms Johns said.

“But I think Northbridge could go a lot further before that happens.” EPRA is currently making plans to refurbish 15 properties it owns on the eastern side of William Street, between Roe and Newcastle streets, which Ms Johns said should set an example for other property owners.

“(EPRA’s projects) might hopefully encourage other developers to create a lot of studio spaces, rather than a lot of offices,” she said.

   

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