Why is it that we so often hear Brisbane’s James Street being referred to like a product or brand, as opposed to a humble inner city street? Why are our perceptions challenged to think of this location as something much bigger than just a place to shop and eat?
Rivalled by the likes of Sydney’s Oxford Street and Melbourne’s Chapel Street, it has become part of the urban vernacular, particularly for property and development professionals.
How many times has the City Council heard developers and architects looking to create a ‘James Street’ style retail precinct as part of their suburban retail centre? Many, we predict.
Whilst measuring the success of James Street as a district or precinct is significantly different to how you’d measure it as a brand, the area’s ultimate success should be determined by the precinct’s owners’ ability to inspire other brands and in turn become an urban taste-maker.
In a retail context, we are now seeing many of the larger retail groups double down their efforts to create memorable brand experiences.
But this is no trend or fad for the owners behind the precinct. For the creators of James Street, an obsession with developing a branded precinct has been almost two decades in the making.
Like every great brand, James Street started with a vision that then morphed into a strategy that has ultimately delivered an end product.
In a recent interview with The Urban Developer, Michael Malouf, an integral part of the many who re-imagined new life into the area, spoke to us about the evolution of James Street; from its very humble beginnings as a marketplace through to the next phase of its exciting journey as one of Brisbane’s premier retail and food hubs.
‘Certainly Nothing Like That in Brisbane…’ The Inspiration Behind The James Street Marketplace
TUD: Where did the original inspiration for the James Street precinct come from and how did it become more than an idea?
MM: I lived in Manhattan for a short period in the late 90’s. A chance visit to the original Dean & Deluca on Broadway was inspirational. I still remember the excitement of stumbling upon such an enticing array of beautiful ingredients in one imposing room. From fresh cut flowers and produce, to meats and artisan breads. The range was comprehensive, including kitchenware and cookbooks, with French patisserie items and espresso coffee out front. I’d seen many traditional food markets, but this concept was far more urban and retail focussed – it obviously impressed me. There was certainly nothing like that in Brisbane.
The Original Strategy: Passion Meets Opportunity.
TUD: How did you go about putting reality around an idea that was merely an inspiration acquired whilst traveling?
MM: When I returned home, I kicked around the idea of a food-based concept with my brother, Cal. We were running a restaurant at that time and our restaurant manager was a New Yorker named James who knew Dean & Deluca well – our banter was enthusiastic. As restaurant owners, we could get amazing fresh seafood, produce and other specialty products delivered to the back door of the restaurant from wholesalers and providores. Brisbane however didn’t have a forum where locals could purchase these items on a retail basis. The supermarkets were getting this trade by default and doing a terrible job of it. This presented a hole in the market that we wanted to fill.
Reimagining The Reality And Revisiting The Drawing Board.
TUD: There was a gap in the market and an overarching vision, how did you bring these two together to inspire what now exists?
MM: The thought of running a large scale operation like Dean & Deluca was daunting. We’d need to run (and master) a dozen smaller businesses to create the whole concept. We soon changed strategy. We thought it more prudent (not to mention easier) to assemble a talented set of providores and establish a retail centre from which they would operate. A greengrocer, fishmonger, baker, butcher, wine merchant and more. Experts in their respective fields would provide great service and the best product to their customers. The collective appeal of all being in one space would surely generate interest. Our concept was to create a ‘market-like’ retail forum where lease lines were blurred and each of the purveyors could operate in an open plan arrangement. Our initial aim was to transform a beautiful old warehouse for this purpose and we set off in search.
If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them.
TUD: How did you go about finding the perfect location for that marketplace vision?
MM: The inner-city was logical but grand old warehouses were scarce in Brisbane. James Street soon became our focus – the former Coca-Cola bottling sites were being redeveloped. It was one of the first precincts targeted by Brisbane’s Urban Renewal Task Force, with Property Solutions (Kevin Miller) instrumental in the initial stages of the Centro developments in the area. After a failed attempt to acquire the former Foodbank site (now Baby Bunting) in James Street, we turned our focus on the adjoining greenfield site (now James Street Market).
The First Piece Of The Puzzle…And The Fish Monger.
TUD: You’d located the site, so how did the James Street Markets then evolve and become the precedent for the precinct?
MM: In 2000, we were fortunate to purchase our James Street holding (bounded by James, Doggett and Wandoo Streets). The site carried Stage I of Property Solution’s Centro development, with the James Street Market site then hoarded and vacant. After many setbacks and a lot of hard work and perseverance, James Street Market opened in December 2002. Leasing of the project was difficult to say the least with very few people willing to invest in an untried and unconventional concept. In fact, we (with partners) branded and opened the fish shop (Fresh Fish Co) as we were unsuccessful in getting a fishmonger to pre-commit to the centre.
Since opening, James St Market has enjoyed unprecedented trade. In 2003, the centre won the Institute of Architects national award for commercial buildings. 15 years on, James Street Market has firmly established itself as a community hub and is still relevant today with bustling trade on a daily basis.
A Team Initiative, Bringing Together Placemakers And Tastemakers To Create A Brand.
TUD: Over time, the area has been sculpted by many hands to take its current form, who and what was involved in transforming the markets into a precinct and ultimately a brand?
MM: We are fortunate in being close friends with other landowners in the James Street precinct (Patrick George, John James and Scott Hutchinson), with whom we share a common vision for the street. We all understand the important role that high streets play in forming the fabric of a city. Regrettably, Brisbane has lost many interesting retail pockets due to the proliferation of the behemoth regional centres.
We are acutely aware of the need to keep James Street relevant and interesting. We resist the temptation of filling the street with retailers who have multiple shops nationwide. Once James Street becomes homogenous, we have failed at our jobs. We need to celebrate the differences and we strive to make the experience of visiting James St something fundamentally different from other precincts and centres.
We see the importance of greenery in the street and pay close attention to the architectural elements within the strip. Design, landscaping and public art have always been a priority.
In 2010, together with the other landowners in the street (previously mentioned) we established James Street Initiative (JSI) – a marketing office to formalise the James Street brand and strengthen it through an annual calendar of events and other activities.
Headed by Marie-Louise Thiele, JSI now acts as the ‘town team’ and has successfully linked James Street with local and national organisations and collaborative partners.
-THE CALILE, designed by Richards & Spence Architects, will reach a height of seven storeys and comprise 178 luxury hotel rooms and suites together with over 2,600 square meters of new retail and hospitality space. The development will have a mix of ground floor boutiques, restaurants and cafés which will give way to the podium level designed to be a raised urban landscape – complete with pool, cabanas, a poolside restaurant, day spa, fitness centre and business centre. The podium level will also house a function room with capacity to host banquets for up to 300 seated guests. Basement parking will be provided for 220 vehicles which is much needed for the area. The mixed-use project is due for completion in the first half of 2018.
The Future Of James Street
TUD: So what does the future hold for the precinct and what is to come?
MM: Our future vision for James Street is for the street to remain relevant by providing colourful interesting places for people to meet, shop and gather. We want to support locally owned businesses where shop owners and managers develop close relationships with their customers. This offers shoppers a true village experience, in stark contrast to the faceless shopping mall experience.
We want our visitors to the precinct to remember the unique experience of shopping in a leafy Brisbane high street with local charm and character. We are conscious of falling into the trap of over-gentrifying the area and need to make our decisions carefully in this regard.
The Calile will hopefully have a positive impact on the street by providing an injection of new life and customer into the precinct (together with some much needed parking).
It will also fuel the night-time economy, allowing the activity to continue into the evenings with new and exciting restaurant options.
The James Street precinct, as a street (as opposed to a centre) will organically develop and already permeates down adjacent laneways and streets, blending into different levels of retail accommodation and interesting fine-grain shops and food concepts.