Interim Use: Interview with Marcus Westbury

Marcus Westbury is a self-taught urbanist, prolific festival director, and writer. He is also the founder of Renew Newcastle, a not-for-profit organisation that he established in 2009 in an effort to revive Newcastle’s ‘main drag’ – Hunter Street – that was left desolate after a series of economic setbacks and an earthquake. Westbury recognised the opportunity to borrow vacant spaces from the property owners to enable creative entrepreneurs to set up shop rent free on a rolling 30 day basis. Since then, Renew has been adopted as a strategy in a number of shrinking towns and failing commercial precincts Australia-wide, including Melbourne’s struggling Docklands development. 

 

March 6, 2014

19-Hunter mall_21-01-2013_image by Boony Loahajaroenyot-_mono

 

POST: Could you start by telling us what Newcastle was like when you initiated Renew Newcastle, and how those conditions came about?

MW: We’re talking about late 2007 to early 2008 – I’d been in Melbourne for about five years, and I was going back and forth, and it was like a time lapse – half a block would disappear between last time I’d been there and when I’d go back. There was a bunch of factors: someone built a shopping centre and it killed the main street, except the main street in Newcastle is two-and-a-half kilometres long, and there are about seven shopping centres. Geographically the city centre grew out from the port triangularly, so the city centre’s up in the corner, and people don’t pass through it… It’s a big city, but it’s not a capital city – in a capital when it becomes very run down, the business of government holds the centre, and (Newcastle) doesn’t really have that. So there was a two-and-a-half kilometre strip, about 150 empty shops and offices.

POST: Was that a result of the collapse of the mining industry?

MW: Yeah, there were other economic things. BHP in the early ‘80s had employed about 20,000 people, and they closed their steelworks by the late ‘90s…There was (also) an earthquake in 1989 that broke the back of the city, so it was a real tipping point because prior to that, people still shopped in town, even though the tram network and the other infrastructure had started to disappear. A lot of the significant buildings in the city were either closed or difficult to get to for a long period… Some of them were demolished, some of them were eventually fixed up, but only after five or ten years of being a dead spot on the street. It left behind some interesting dynamics.

Our approach is about…trying to improve the ability of people who live in a space to own what happens or be responsible for doing what happens in that place”

POST: In establishing the Renew project, you’ve said in the past that you ‘went around’ the council – does that mean you were dealing directly with the building owners?

MW: The main thing I wanted to encourage was to get interesting things into spaces, but the logic of how you do that had to involve the consent of the property owners… so what I had to do was convince the people who owned and controlled the buildings it was worth their while to lend them to us.

So we set up a not-for-profit company, strategically tried to get key stakeholders in the community involved – the Business Chamber, the city centre traders, and to a certain extent the council – but we recognised that going through those organisations wasn’t what we needed to do. What we did instead was go to private property owners and put a proposition to them, based on the idea that we would borrow their spaces on a rolling 30-day basis while they were empty, and when they wanted them back they could have them back. It would be cost neutral right now, and in the medium-term they would benefit from having their buildings well cared for, and having people brought back to the area. We were fortunate that one company had consolidated a large site in the city centre… with a lot of vacancies on it, so they were the first partner to sign up, and then I think we worked with about 14 more in Newcastle. To date we’ve used 55 buildings, or 55 separate tenancies (separate shops or offices) and 120-something projects.

POST: What was involved in establishing the project? 

MW: One of our first really good collaborators was a lawyer – he’s now the Chair of the Board of Renew Newcastle. He helped us devise the legal structures and the contracts. We had to do things like get insurance – everyone who uses the property has their insurance covered under us… A lot of (what we do) is about us being the entity that takes the complexity out of it for the people on either side, so we don’t want it to be difficult for the property owner, and we don’t want it to be difficult for the participant.

POST: And the owners of the properties get to choose ultimately what sort of program is installed?

MW: Some of them care a lot, some of them don’t care at all… our goal is to match someone for whom that space is appropriate. We deliberately try and avoid doing Development Applications… because that process takes longer than the 30 days we know we’ll have the building for. So you’ve just got to use it while you’ve got it.

POST: How has that shifted now that you’re ‘renewing’ places like Docklands – a highly regulated and privatised environment?

MW: We had no clients for Newcastle, the client was me… so it is a different set of constraints and stakeholders that need to be happy, and different issues that need to be managed. But it’s still just dealing with property owners to borrow vacant property, more or less working within the same model. There are some new issues  – our clients are Places Victoria and the City of Melbourne – they’re far more concerned about managing media and communications – but on the whole, the core process of what we’re doing isn’t that different. What makes sense to do down there is different, and what stage that process is at is quite different.  The first people only opened up there five months ago. There’s lots of layers of iteration that (the Docklands) project will go through before it finds some kind of equilibrium.

POST: Have Places Victoria and Melbourne City Council been open to the organic trial-and-error process, or do they want results?

MW: I’d say it’s halfway between the two. They’ve asked us to work there because we do what we do, and every now and then, they forget that we do what we do. It’s not about throwing resources into the short term, it’s about accumulating layers of activity over time that add up to something more interesting. Probably their initial expectations were higher in comparison to what’s happened in the first few months, but I think everyone has to be patient in terms of allowing that process to play itself out.

POST: Is the primary ambition for the project to provide an opportunity for creative people to kick-start their own business, or about urban renewal, as the name suggests? 

MW: I have a reluctance to put the program into a box. It’s actually in the interplay between the different elements that it starts to get interesting. Rather than us being prescriptive about what needs to happen, the whole point of the exercise is lowering the barriers of entry, lowering the cost of failure so people can try things that might not work, and getting people to act on ideas or imagination that they might have, but might not be acting on because they can’t afford the space, they can’t find the place, or the risk or the complexity is too high for them. At the end of the day, if something doesn’t work, no-one mortgaged their house, no-one’s life ended, nothing was destroyed, but you’ve got a chance to find out cheaply and effectively whether an idea works.

We have a rule that is ‘you need to make what you do’ – it’s pretty broadly interpreted, but it can cover everything from architecture to film and photography, or visual arts… whatever – you need to make it. That’s got two obvious benefits. One is a very pragmatic benefit in terms of our relationships with other traders in the precinct – it doesn’t scare them. We’re not competing with existing businesses – we’re adding to the pie, not slicing the pie. The other aspect is that the presence of original things you cannot find anywhere else are the things that make a place most interesting, so that’s specifically what we’re seeking out.

POST: How do you measure the success of Renew?

MW: We have really obvious measures that you can count – in Newcastle two people have bought buildings that started out with a temporary space. There are half a dozen to ten that have commercial leases, and two businesses that employ nine people each as a result of Renew giving them a space initially. Vacancy rates are a pretty obvious indication: how many shops are empty now compared to before, how many shops are commercially tenanted… most of the spaces we’ve ever had are commercially tenanted. We had SGS do an economic impact report a year or two ago, they ran a standard cost-benefit analysis and looked at things like vandalism, reduced crime rates, jobs created, all that sort of stuff and by their metric there was about an 11-to-1 cost benefit ratio, so every dollar going in was coming back eleven-fold.

POST: Do you ever have a situation where the landlord starts thinking, “Hang on, shouldn’t I be collecting rent?”

MW: Yeah, a little bit… at the end of the day, it’s the owner’s prerogative to take a better offer if they get one. My argument to owners is always “don’t throw someone out to make it empty again” – that’s stupid. More projects find out (on their own) that they can’t do it anymore; someone who’s a great fashion designer might realise after six months they’re just not cut out to sit in a shop all day, they’d much rather be making  and let other people do the selling, so it’s about giving people a test bed, not guaranteeing them security.

We’ve created a reality to which [the master plan] has to respond. It’s much easier to change reality by way of example.”

POST: What are the limitations for adapting Renew as a strategy for other post-industrial cities? 

MW: I think you have to go back to the first principles of what we’re doing. Part of what we do is managing things like the compliance – it’s actively seeking and matching people to spaces, and so that process may have applications in places where it’s not necessarily the price of space that’s a problem, but the inefficiencies of the right people finding the right spaces. You’ve got to recognise what the nature of the problem is in any given place. My first argument is, “how easy is it for people to act on their ideas here?” And if the answer is “not very”, then our models suddenly start to make a lot of sense. If the answer is “very”, then that’s not the problem we deal with, but in most places, the answer’s actually “a lot harder than you think”.

POST: Locally we’ve started to see versions of ‘place making’, where interesting entrepreneurs and artists are engaged by developers to stimulate activity on the site of a new development as a sort of marketing tool…

MW: Yeah, I see that a fair bit now… I’m not necessarily against that stuff, but it’s not what we do.

POST:  It does raise questions about gentrification processes…

MW: I think there are a lot of things bound up in the term ‘gentrification’, and there are cyclical processes in any area… there was a gentrification in Fitzroy in the 20’s, another one in the 50’s – it’s a thing that happens every 30 years in a cycle. The question that interests me is ‘what is the capacity of a community to own what happens there?’ And that’s what I think our approach is about… trying to improve the ability of people who live in a place to own what happens or be responsible for doing what happens in that place. One of the factors is that they might eventually get priced out of doing that, but there are about 30 factors that stop them from doing that in the first place.

In the core area that we’ve been working on in Newcastle, the value of the properties has gone down, not up… because the developer paid a premium to consolidate the site in the lead-up to the Financial Crisis, so, as much as we’ve probably improved the ‘value’ of the area, we haven’t necessarily improved the property prices. What we’re doing is creating a framework where people can get in, and through their actions influence what the trajectory of the place is. It’s been really interesting to see the masterplans for the area – they’ve morphed. Five years ago, the masterplan was to build a giant shopping centre; nowadays the masterplan is boutique retail with some apartments on top and they’re still five years away, but what we’ve done is created a reality to which it has to respond. It’s much easier to change reality by way of example.

POST: Well that’s the inherent problem with the masterplan at Docklands -– it’s never really had a chance to develop organically or responsively. There’s a blind belief that a masterplan with restaurants at street level is going to be the answer to activating the street…

MW: It’s not designed to be adaptable… I think monocultures in general are dangerous, and resilience is in diversity, so if you look at Docklands, a huge number of the restaurants were owned by the one company. The company’s not going to adapt against itself as its own main competitor, and when it falls over, it all falls over together.

POST: You’ve worked with some large development companies, on a fee-for-service basis, providing consultancy to them. Are you undertaking research on existing sites of development? 

MW: I’ve done a project for a commercial developer that was a research project. They came to me with what I thought was a really interesting question – “we design our new greenfield communities to a formula, and then we realise five years later that everyone complains that they’re formulaic. How do we encourage some of what you get people to do in communities that don’t necessarily have empty infrastructure yet?” I wrote a short research report that they’ve got on their desk and may or may not do anything with it, but it was an interesting exercise just to go back to first principles.

POST: When a development company of that size starts listening and understanding the effects of this project it signals a pretty big shift in thinking. Are the clients at Docklands prepared to do some ‘hardware’ modifications to things like shopfronts to make them more fine grain… do you see a feedback loop occurring?

MW: Well, they don’t own the spaces, and that’s where it gets complicated. From my point of view, it’s actually about the financing and land – there are all these other factors that make it tricky, and the building stock is like the 11th order issue. You work through about ten other things then you think, “AND the building’s a bit complicated to work with”… The space determines what can be made easy there, and therefore which projects from our pool of proposals we’ll put in there. Early Docklands Spaces projects have not included a lot of retailers because there’s just no foot traffic, but that was actually similarly the case in Newcastle – the first wave of projects were galleries and things like that.

POST:  What are the biggest barriers at Docklands that you have to try and overcome in adapting the Renew Newcastle model?

MW: The simple biggest restriction we’ve had in Docklands has just been lifted, because we originally had several partners involved who were primarily concerned with one precinct. We weren’t allowed to work outside of New Quay, so there’s actually only about 20 properties we could use, and we’ve managed to get about eight of those. We’re finding that we’re getting a lot of interest from other parts of Docklands, and now we can ensure that we try to spread the program along natural routes where people would be circulating. The other really big factor with Docklands is that it’s a seasonal place, so Docklands in summer is completely different to Docklands in winter. I think summer will be a good test of how it’s starting to come together down there.

 

 

 

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