Opportunities for people to connect have been limited since work, school, holidays, and all other usual activities ground to a halt over the past year, write Hames Sharley’s Rebecca Spencer and Harold Perks.

Little did we realise that walking down the street, exercising, shopping, or going out to eat (even if alone) involved so many chance interactions with others that benefited our mental health and overall well-being. For many of us, a severely limited roster of activities has also involved masking up, restricting our usual smiles and chats with friends, neighbours and acquaintances.

In this new world we are facing, the value and opportunity retail and town centre developments contribute to a wide cross-section of our community to interact, many times a week (and even daily, such as at a regular coffee spot) becomes abundantly clear.

Inclusive design
Inclusive designs that welcome all and generate community buy in, lead to better asset performance for clients

Hames Sharley’s design process for centres and precincts focuses on responding firstly to local and the broader context, socially and physically. We then layer the considerations of maximising the built form potential with what the customer base needs and wants, together with owner/operator aspirations. This approach involves inputs, iterations and design reviews with professionals across our research and analysis, planning, interior design and architecture portfolios.

We work nationally to address challenges and devise solutions for our clients. For example, Director Harold Perks in Hames Sharley’s Melbourne studio, collaborates with Strategic Research Planner Rebecca Spencer in Perth within the practice’s Retail and Town Centres Portfolio.

With Hames Sharley’s multi-decade retail design pedigree on a broad spectrum of centres – new and redeveloping – from local to super-regional, it would be easy to lose sight of what creates successful outcomes. But for the team, it begins simply by being passionate and personable.

“Our special ingredient is we love doing what we do and have fun crafting remarkable spaces and places with our in-depth understanding of each community’s nuances and needs,” said Spencer.

“This enthusiasm and collaboration shines through and is blended with a respect and seriousness about the risks borne by our clients in developing retail-based or mixed-use developments,” added Perks.

The Mezz laneway

Keeping it local

An empty calendar, not a single commitment or activity on the horizon, nothing to juggle and squash into an already busy week – this is a COVID lockdown induced feeling that we have all experienced in the past year. And for many of us, led to a re-organisation and evaluation of our post-pandemic lives. Both social and work patterns altered greatly, with recently released ABS statistics highlighting the large and sustained swing towards working from home. In February 2021, two-fifths (41%) of people were working from home at least once a week, while in contrast less than a quarter of us (24%) were doing so, pre-COVID.

This means increased localism with patronage of centres and facilities closer to home now more intensive and frequent, contrasting to our previous dependence on CBD shopping or regional centres, visited in lunch breaks or on our commute. This shift in the importance and greater utilisation of neighbourhood centres may be tempered by a tendency to return to our habit of rushing around from place to place, over-booking ourselves and leaving little time to enjoy local places with the people we know and love.

However, Hames Sharley contends that a thoughtfully designed, locally responsive centre that delights in providing a convenient (often walkable) shopping, services and food and beverage experience, has become the jewel in a neighbourhood’s crown.

The Mezz laneway
Convenience, public places and meaningful human connection opportunities represent three of the most important keys to a thriving, successful centre

Understanding community drivers

So, we ask ourselves, why is this so? A visit to such a place is simple, enjoyable and, importantly, repeatable. Hames Sharley’s process of highlighting and showcasing the competitive advantages of each site we reimagine or create begins with a thorough investigation. The Urban Development and Retail portfolios undertake in-depth investigations and analysis to fundamentally understand client objectives, drivers and performance indicators.

This foundation permits full understanding and, when appropriate, the ability to challenge assumptions or responses to retail trends. For instance, in its December 2020 report on the impacts of COVID, Infrastructure Australia noted that online-only retailers share price performance last year saw growth in the 300 to 450% range. In contrast, results for bricks-and-mortar operators contracted. Further, Australia’s prior downward household waste trends were bucked by a 20% spike during the pandemic. However, we believe that post-vaccination, the human longing for connection through time outside the confines of home, plus a desire to minimise waste from home-delivered takeaways/shopping packaging, will diminish this home delivery dominance – and nimble, tailored centres will retain their appeal.

The Mezz laneway
The Mezz laneway was programmed to cater to diverse demographics

Delivering a ‘third place’

Thirdly, in denser urban environments and a society where more people are living alone, in smaller family units or where home has also morphed into their workplace, centres are increasingly performing a ‘third place’ role. This means a pivot in thinking, challenging a purely transactional role of centres, encouraging a welcoming public realm alongside commercialised spaces. Hames Sharley’s recent work on the Mezz Shopping Centre in Mount Hawthorn, is a prime example of a redevelopment outcome that delivers a third place, that is exceptional by being true to local lifestyles and needs, and to local character.

“The reimagining of a car park/laneway to the rear of The Mezz extended the retail environment, opened up internalised spaces, blended it with public space, better linked with the parking and the best part is it has been welcomed and extensively enjoyed by the locals,” said Perks.

Kids play area at The Mezz
Kids play area, The Mezz

“It makes the spaces in between work harder, extends the length of a typical shopping visit by offering a comfortable, identifiable place to meet and relax,” he added. “Hames Sharley believes these sorts of moves towards inclusive designs that welcome all and generate community buy-in, are also leading to better asset performance for clients.”

The Mezz laneway was programmed to cater to diverse demographics along its length. This meant kid’s play and vegetable gardens at one end (through a mixed-zone for families and parents) and a licensed seating area, serving alcohol for younger adults and couples down the other.

“The contextual appropriateness of the design has encouraged visitation back into Mt Hawthorn,” explained Perks.

The Mezz Laneway, Mount Hawthorn
The Mezz

Easily accessible and locally resonant centres that promoted multiple visits per week shone through during the past 12 months. This expedient approach is nothing new, though it is becoming a more evident pillar of robustness for retail-based assets moving forward. Convenience, public places and meaningful human connection opportunities represent three of the most important keys to a thriving, successful centre that reflects the uniqueness of its customers and supports its community.

“Hames Sharley takes pride in revitalising and extending centres to meet and exceed client’s expectations – the passion and commitment we demonstrate and fun we have along the way are bonuses,” concluded Perks.

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