Saving Double Bay: the future for our bayside suburb

It has a successful new open-air mall, a collection of cool bars and restaurants, six developments and a cinema complex in the pipeline. But can Double Bay really rediscover its glory days?

Words by Elizabeth Meryment. Images by Louise Hawson

It’s mid-morning on a Tuesday in Double Bay. Sunny, slightly breezy; about as good a spring day as you get in Sydney. Australian jewellery legend Jan Logan is walking me down Cross Street towards her store that will shortly celebrate 30 years in the suburb. As we walk, Logan points out the row of cars parked in front of the hulking Intercontinental Hotel, where we have just had coffee.

First on the street is an enormous Bentley, so huge it might have come straight from the set of a Marvel movie. Behind it a low-slung Audi R8, a string of Mercedes-Benzes and a Porsche. “We see it all down here,” says Logan mildly, crossing the road to let me into her store, where she wants to show me some new pieces, most notably an exquisite necklace of sapphires and diamonds so heavy and perfect it has taken years to create.

We are in the midst of admiring this extraordinary object when there’s a tap on the glass door (entry is strictly regulated from within). A celebrity most Australians would recognise is standing there. “I just saw something in the window and I’m coming back to buy it,” she says, breezing in and handing over her credit card. “I’m in the five-minute parking spot so have to rush.”

It seems entirely normal that this woman, a household name with five minutes’ worth of parking, should be here on an otherwise unremarkable Tuesday morning, buying jewels. It’s Double Bay, and that’s what happens here.

That’s what happens here, except when it didn’t.

“About 2013 was the low point,” says former Woollahra Council deputy mayor Katherine O’Regan, who runs the Double Bay Chamber of Commerce and recently ran for preselection as the Liberal Party candidate for Wentworth. “Then the retail vacancy rates were pretty high, about 18 per cent. Double Bay is the commercial and structural heart of Woollahra Municipal Council. It’s where people come to get their newspaper, have their coffee, buy a gift, catch up with friends, and it really is a place that needs to be a community (hub).”

Like many villages and high streets across the Western world — Paddington’s Oxford Street is another — Double Bay fell into decline as the new century ticked over and people began expressing a preference for mall shopping over street shopping.

The Kiaora complex. IMAGE: LOUISE HAWSON

The Kiaora complex. IMAGE: LOUISE HAWSON

Double Bay — once one of the capital of style, fashion and society not just in the East, but all of Australia — was hit by a series of catastrophes that propelled it into sharp decline, if not decay. The biggest hit came with the opening of Westfield Bondi Junction in 2004, an event that decimated high-street shopping throughout the Eastern Suburbs and resulted almost immediately in the much-lamented closure of the Double Bay cinema. Then came the GFC and the property collapse. Long-established shops abandoned the village for the mall, property prices fell, restaurants, hotels and cafes closed and the population stagnated.

“This is not just an ongoing issue for Double Bay,” says Allan Coker, director of planning and development at Woollahra Council. “This is an ongoing issue for traditional retail centres across the world.

“In the UK and the US, the high street is under pressure. I don’t think anyone would say we’re seeing the death of the high street, but high streets are doing it tough and having to reinvent themselves. We have had similar issues in Paddington, with even higher vacancy rates on Oxford Street of 20 per cent.”

Double Bay is a suburb of superb natural beauty, bordered by a pair of stunning and under-utilised coves that overlook gleaming Sydney Harbour. Its geography is unique, with a flat village centre based on an unusual (for Sydney) grid-like street pattern. There are wide and airy roads, pretty parks, avenues lined with grandiose Art Deco apartment buildings and sloping hills with views across the bay. There’s a ferry stop, bus routes, and train station at Edgecliff. But for all of its advantages, between 2003 and 2013, the atmosphere became so stilted and desolate nobody wanted to go there.

Its big advantage was that the council owned a number of properties in the area and decided these should become vehicles to help revive Double Bay. Principally, they worked with Woolworths on the Kiaora Lands development, now wholly owned by council, to create what has become a stunningly successful mixture of undercover car park, supermarket, open-air mall, cafes, mixed retail and library.

This piece of urban renewal was matched on the other side of New South Head Rd by the reopening of the Intercontinental Hotel — known as the Ritz-Carlton in its heyday, then the Stamford Plaza. The hotel, which casts a huge physical shadow over the suburb, had been more or less abandoned and in squalor (some reported that by 2012 squatters and a huge colony of rats had taken up residence) since its closure in 2009. Its reopening in 2014 brought not only tourists, but restaurants and bars back into the suburb, among them Sake, within the Intercontinental, plus Mrs Sippy, Bibo Wine Bar, Pelicano and Matteo all on Bay St, and cafes including Little Jean and Bake Bar in the Kiaora precinct.

“We have been in Double Bay now for almost four years,” says Thomas Pash, whose Rockpool Dining Group owns Sake. “It has been an amazing restaurant for us, phenomenally consistent. The Eastern Suburbs market is very strong for us and this is a great location.”

Following the food operators have been the retailers, with high-end fashion and retail brands opening, including Lee Mathews, Mecca Cosmetica, Scanlan Theodore and MUD, as well as one-off boutiques such as Alinka Jewels and Mode Sportif.

And now developers are moving in, with no less than six developments either ongoing or awaiting approval in council.

The latest developer to arrive is Eduard Litver, who overhauled Bondi’s decrepit Swiss Grand into the gleaming new The Pacific. In July Litver spent $40 million on the retail component of the famous Cosmopolitan Centre, and has plans that could alter Double Bay’s future altogether.

Steyne Park.

Steyne Park.

“I lived in Double Bay for a long, long time, 17 to 20 years and it’s an area I’m passionate about and find unique,” Litver says. “What is so incredible about Double Bay is that the are certain aspects of Double Bay that you can’t find elsewhere. It is one of the few villages in a basin and everything is within close proximity. And what Double Bay has that Bondi doesn’t have is that it doesn’t have the infrastructure problems that Bondi has.”

Like many people, Litver is both puzzled and concerned that Double Bay has fallen so far since its heyday in the 1980s.

“Look, 25 years ago, Double Bay was the premier food and fashion centre in the city and around Australia. The Cosmo was probably the most desirable property in the country. You’d go to the cafe there and you’d see Kerry Packer at one table and Rene Rivkin at another. All the high fashion brands were in Double Bay and Woollahra. Unfortunately since then it has completely lost its way.”

For Litver, however, this fall represents opportunity. His vision is to rehabilitate the village as a centre for quality national and international fashion labels and high-quality food operators, a Sydney version of Rodeo Drive.

“What we do there on the retail front is going to influence every other developer,” he says. “It’s such an incredible moment in time for Double Bay. In the next six to seven years, we’re not going to recognise the Double Bay that’s there now. We are going to bring back the glitz and glamour. I believe that if you build it they will come. We want to do something very high quality in Double Bay.”

Fans of Double Bay, people including Jan Logan and Katherine O’Regan, agree the village for so long scarred by the moniker “Double Pay” has a long way to go before it will be back to full health.

“Double Bay is in a transformation stage,” says O’Regan. “But smart developers and smart retailers and even smart residents can see its potential. Which is why they are moving in.”

For now retailers on the bay side of New South Head Road are anxiously looking forward to the completion of the 1788 development on Cross St, which is damaging street trade, and for work to begin on the redevelopment of the council carpark, also on Cross St, which is slated to become a Palace Cinema complex and retail centre in the next five years.

“People want to invest in Double Bay because they recognise its special place in the district,” says O’Regan. “People are starting to move away from the big Westfield environments back to the local area and Double Bay can take advantage of that if done well.”

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