“Disastrous”: Construction on Oxford & Foley project halts, Oxford Street businesses suffer

“Disastrous”: Construction on Oxford & Foley project halts, Oxford Street businesses suffer
Image: Map of the Oxford & Foley project.

by GRACE JOHNSON

 

Local businesses and shopfronts on Oxford Street are set to take another hit after construction on the Oxford & Foley project halted last week, with contractors locked out of the sites on Wednesday evening – security guards were seen cutting the locks off and replacing them.

Construction works have already severely impacted the vibrancy of the iconic strip, the original heart of Sydney’s gay community, on top of the devastating effects of the 2014 lockout laws and the pandemic.

Originally slated to be completed by mid-2023, and in time for the 2024 Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, the project is nowhere close to finished, and is now guarded by around-the-clock security.

24-hour security at construction sites on Oxford Street.

Robert Tait, a local resident and former retail shop owner, told City Hub that the local council, City of Sydney, had a lot to answer for.

“Development is already at least a year overdue. You’ve got three blocks that are boarded up for a very long period of time,” he said.

“It’s massively impacted the vibrancy and commercial viability of Oxford Street. Just look at all the empty shops and businesses.”

More than one in ten stores on Oxford Street between Darlinghurst and Paddington are empty.

Out of 190 shopfronts from 1 Oxford Street to just before Glenmore Road, 22 were not in business, representing a 11.5 per cent vacancy.

He also pointed to the council neglecting much of fundamental development on Oxford Street in favour of cosmetic improvements.

Council neglect 

Several sources told City Hub that contractors have repeatedly faced significant difficulties in progressing on the heritage sites, which date back to the 1900s – walls collapsed, asbestos was uncovered, and then there was the questioning of adding an extra two storeys.

Obviously, the developers didn’t realise how bad the three blocks are, one said.

Ken Holmes, owner of Aussie Boy, a two-storey store selling men’s swimwear and undergarments, told City Hub that there was only one word for what’s going on.

“Disastrous,” he said. “If it goes on for another two years, we just won’t be here.”

“We don’t get anybody that walks past that construction since it started, maybe one or two people a day. They’ve been out there for the last three years, you realise that?”

Three years ago, Ken was told to move out of his old shop within three weeks. Neither he, nor other businesses on the street, have heard from Council or building developers about progress on the construction site.

Years later, he estimates that construction works are about 30 per cent completed.

The delayed construction has had a serious impact on businesses at the northern end of Oxford Street.

Ken Holmes from Aussie Boys. Image: Aussie Boys website.

Nick Nistazos, co-owner of Corkscrew Cellars at 108 Oxford Street, told City Hub that business has never been so tough.

“It’s been a nightmare,” he said. “It really hurts financially and it’s been a hard grind since the lockout laws. It’s just been a steady decline.”

The business is down 20 per cent, he told City Hub. 

“We used to do something like 1300 customers a week,” he said. “Now we’re doing close to 700.”

“There’s the traffic and parking issues and just the disorder of the place. Oxford Street isn’t going well anyway.”

Nick Nistazos from Corkscrew Cellars on Oxford Street. Image: Supplied

Revitalisation efforts

In response to City Hub enquires, a City of Sydney spokesperson confirmed that Ashemorgan and Toga had recently changed contractual arrangements, but reaffirmed that the council is “committed to the revitalisation of Oxford Street.”

“From the introduction of planning rules to encourage a vibrant mix of new development and protecting important heritage, to grants for cultural projects like the recently opened Qtopia, we are continuing to breathe new life into the iconic strip,” they said.

Regarding delays on the project, the spokesperson said, “City officers have visited the site and sought assurances from the developers to ensure the construction site is secure, heritage is protected and all fire safety standards are complied with during the handover period.”

“We look forward to Toga and Ashe Morgan completing the project,” they continued, without specifying a completion date.

Independent councillor Adam Worling told City Hub, “We’re hopeful this transition happens quickly and that any potential delay to the project being completed is minimised.”

“We thank the community for their patience through this development, which will ensure the precinct combines the best of the past with a unique new retail and business offering sure to reignite the glittering mile.”

“It’d be like walking down York Street”

Oxford Street, the 46-year home of Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, is widely acknowledged as a pale version of its former self, despite efforts to reinvigorate the strip.

In 2018, in an effort to revitalise the area, City of Sydney began a campaign seeking interest in a 99-year lease for three commercial Oxford Street buildings.

The bid aimed to repeat the success the city had had in getting private operators for assets such as Queen Victoria Building on George Street and Haymarket’s Capitol Theatre.

At the time, Lord Mayor Clover Moore said, “Oxford Street is one of Australia’s most renowned retail and entertainment strips and is home to independent businesses that attract visitors from across the city and overseas.”

“The potential redevelopment of these properties is an exciting opportunity that will improve opportunities for local residents, attract greater numbers of visitors and help boost the local economy.”

A reimagining of 60-120 Oxford Street, where Oxford & Foley is located

Developer TOGA Group is behind the project, in partnership with commercial investors AsheMorgan, who signed on 99-year leases on the buildings in 2019.

The project aims to create a parallel street behind Oxford Street (Foley Street) in a Melbourne-style laneway that offers outdoor dining and entertainment.

The three properties are situated at the northern end of Oxford Street, numbers 56-76, 82-106 and 110-122, and occupy more than 40 per cent of the street frontage between Oxford Square and Taylor Square. That’s a combined 14,500 square metres of gross floor area.

The project also includes major commercial office and retail development in the precinct, adding to the heritage sites a stepped-back rooftop extension. This will provide 9200 square metres of commercial space for creative, tech and new businesses, 2300 square metres of retail and a 75-room boutique hotel.

Toga managing director Allan Vidor previously said, “The quality of the commercial and retail spaces will really make this a success, and we hope the transformation of these buildings will be a catalyst for other developments along the street.”

However, Robert says that it seemed like the council’s goal was to corporatise the whole street, “which is what the building industry has wanted for the last 30 years. They wanted to have Oxford Street just as another city street.”

“It’d be like walking down York Street rather than Oxford Street.”

City Hub is currently awaiting comment from Toga and Ashemorgan on interruptions to the project. This story will be updated when comment is received.

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One response to ““Disastrous”: Construction on Oxford & Foley project halts, Oxford Street businesses suffer”

  1. Sadly, the likelihood of Oxford St returning to being a dynamic retail strip is very low. Easy access to parking is an essential ingredient for healthy retail. The current street traffic changes underway will remove what little parking there is. Whilst the Toga visuals of the development are aesthetically pleasing, centres of this scale most often favour nationally franchised retailers. Hence, we will quite likely see a Westfield look-alike with very few independent businesses like Aussie Boys or The Bookshop. Sad.

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