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Greyfields

At this point annual sales have slumped below $200 a square metre. The centre slowly hollows, tenants are given notice and town planners swoop with schedules for demolition. The centre will stay open until a third of the tenants find other lodgings. The empty shops close their roller-doors and the arcades shut down in dark rows, one by one. The centre is sealed, locks are placed on the doors and the car park buckles at the edges, weeds pushing up the bitumen in anticipation.  

This will happen to one in every four shopping centres. Shopping centres die in stages: like retail lepers, they lose limbs. Anchors are what keep them alive. They are the heart – a popular franchise, supermarket or department store that directs traffic past the smaller stores. Anchors such as food halls and cinema complexes are placed at the end of long stretches of glazed windows. The industry standard states that the maximum distance shoppers are prepared to walk between anchors is three hundred metres. This is called anchor drag.

Competing centres will often anchor-steal in an attempt to attract tenants and shoppers alike. When an anchor leaves, dead zones appear. Pedestrian traffic diverts like a dammed river. Blank corridors. Roller-doors. To survive, the weak gather around the strong.

Shopping centres die in stages: like retail lepers, they lose limbs.

Joe Raffino owns a café next to what was a large department store in Perth’s Bentley Plaza, selling breakfast, lunch and snacks to the anchor’s employees and passing shoppers. The day after the anchor closed its doors for good, Joe’s business halved. ‘We used to put on twenty-five ham and cheese croissants in the morning,’ he says. ‘Now I put on two.’ This is the third anchor to set him adrift.

Shopping centres die every year. Rising land prices revalue a centre’s worth, and property owners have no emotional attachment to an ageing complex. Closure is sometimes quick and painless: demolition can take as little as ten days. But the cost of evicting tenants often drives an ugly alternative. Property owners let maintenance fall by the wayside. Arcades become sallow and bleak; leaks are left dripping, the roof blisters; shoppers leave, street urchins move in. The corridors reek of urine and mould. Roller-doors signal the end.

The Heart of Victoria Park was a maze of brown-tiled shopping arcades hidden behind the street. Not far from Perth’s central business district, it was an area brimming with business potential covered by an ageing facade. For three years I worked in an office overlooking the centre’s rear entrance.

The anchor was a dilapidated supermarket whose workers seemed to be teenagers skipping school for the day. The floors were streaked with trolley rubber; the lights – dimmed, to save energy – cast an unhealthy pallor on the sullen faces of the staff. If you stayed long enough you could hear the merry-go-round music grind to a halt, the clunk of the tape-flip over the PA system. Renovations doubled the number of registers, the cost of which halved the number of checkout staff. This was the heart of Victoria Park.

As overseas investor-owners waited for the right price to sell, the centre was left to decay. Drains overflowed after heavy rain. Electrical fittings were left bare, arcades caught in a flickering, fluorescent seizure. Two and a half years before the walls eventually came down, only eighteen of the centre’s forty-two shops were occupied.

The local newspaper followed the shopping centre’s demise. ‘The only people that shop here are our loyal customers,’ the owner of the centre’s café is reported to have said. ‘But it is dangerous. One lady recently fell and broke her leg.’ He and his wife had been operating their shop for fourteen years. ‘We stay because we have to. Nobody will buy us out.’