19 May 2023

Crown St Mall showing new signs of life but still 'alarming' number of empty shops

| Keeli Royle
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Cow & the Moon co-owner Sam Crowl holding ice-cream

Cow & the Moon co-owner Sam Crowl is excited about the new venture’s future in Crown St Mall. Photos: Keeli Royle.

Wollongong’s Crown Street Mall is showing welcome signs of new life, even as debate continues about how to boost its appeal and fill vacant shops.

The recent redevelopment of the iconic Lang’s Corner at the eastern end of the mall has boosted central Wollongong’s hospitality sector, with restaurants like Meat and Grain Co and Lux Bistro Bar finding success in and around the new building.

Award-winning gelateria Cow & the Moon has been inundated with customers since opening its doors in Wollongong five weeks ago, also helping to reinvigorate the area.

Co-owner Sam Crowl said it was an exciting time for the mall. “All it takes sometimes is a couple of good operators,” he said. “I think now there are a few good operators coming in offering a nice variety of things and when that happens, everyone ends up complementing each other.”

He’s optimistic the momentum and interest will continue, even as the weather is cooling down. “We offer a whole range of different things to keep people coming to us through the winter,” he explained. “We make a beautiful coffee, we have fresh pastries made on site every day [and] cakes. So, we have a variety of things, not just gelato.”

High rise building development in Wollongong CBD

The historic Lang’s Corner development has reinvigorated the lower end of Crown St Mall.

Business Illawarra executive director Adam Zarth said it was positive to see more businesses pop up now that there are better economic conditions, utilising new policies implemented in recent years.

“We’ve done some good work at a council level on things like the outdoor dining policy, which obviously we didn’t have prior to the pandemic,” he said.

As the region bounces back from COVID, there is a shift in the type of businesses gaining momentum around the mall.

“The story for that precinct and many CBDs in general is that while retail is certainly coming back, hospitality is far stronger because of the demand built up during the pandemic for people to get out and about and experience all the exciting offerings that we’re starting to see happen across Wollongong,” Adam said.

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Popular spots in Globe Lane are driving activity to the area, and the major WIN Grand development proposal to redevelop several blocks in the middle of the Wollongong CBD with residential towers, office space, health facilities and retailers is also expected to attract exciting new opportunities.

However, between these pockets of vibrancy, there are still many closed doors and empty shop fronts. MMJ director Travis Machan said that while new A-grade spaces like Lang’s Corner were attracting A-grade tenants, there was still an alarming amount of vacancies along the stretch and more needs to be done to optimise the use of the entire mall.

“There’s no silver bullet to the solution,” he said. “There is a list of things that need to occur for everything to start flowing, so one or two tenants on their own are not going to be able to sustain it long term.”

Vacant David Jones building in Wollongong.

The former David Jones building is still standing empty after the Mass Vaccination Hub moved out last year.

One area for potential is the former David Jones building, which served as the Mass Vaccination Hub during the pandemic but has now been vacant again for months.

“The DJs building is a catalyst for the greatest potential for improvement,” Travis said. “If we really want to see the best out of that building rather than it just be a mediocre refurbishment and we want the bells and whistles, we need to give that precinct everything, and that means activation, that means connectivity.”

One potential solution to the connectivity crisis is the reintroduction of slow-moving traffic through the mall. The idea of managed multi-modal access, with various transport and parking options able to be altered for various events, was most recently pitched in an urban development report and received mixed reviews from locals.

But the safety of a completely vehicle-free area attracted at least one incoming business, with Sam Crowl saying the outdoor area of the mall with publicly accessible seats and rocks was part of the reason Cow & the Moon chose to set up in the area.

“It’s not a busy road going through where the parents are worried about traffic so they can relax a little bit and that’s part of the attraction initially because I could envision people sitting out the front with their gelatos.”

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Wollongong City Council is also focusing on supporting opportunities for outdoor dining in the CBD with the recent installation of tables and chairs along lower Crown Street set to stay. Following recent community engagement, council is investigating other locations for similar settings.

A council spokesperson said outdoor dining fees in the city would continue to be waived throughout the winter. Council is using the reduced activity during the season to complete improvement works along lower Crown St.

“This involves the removal and replacement of existing kerb and gutter, new paving on the northern side of the road, and construction of a raised pedestrian crossing point,” the spokesperson said.

“Once this project is completed, the vision for a bustling, pedestrian-friendly area will be better defined by a formal crossing point, there will be almost 10 times the space dedicated to outdoor dining and 10 more planter boxes to add vibrant splashes of colour.”

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