At the moment, you can’t walk 10 paces down Marrickville Road without seeing one of these:
They were paid for by the Marrickville Chamber of Commerce. I hope they didn’t pay too much, because they are just crudely stencilled signs on torn pieces of left-over fabric. There’s more than a hundred of them along the shopping strip, plus some bigger ones in prominent places. They are referring to the proposed development of the Marrickville Metro shopping centre near Edgeware Rd and Enmore Park. The owners want to essentially double the size of the aging complex, double the height, and if possible purchase half a side street to turn into a pedestrian mall. It has generated considerable opposition in the surrounding suburbs, and the banners pictured above are just the latest in a series of actions by local residents and businesses to try and stop the development. 4,500 people have signed a petition against it, local shops have had small signs in their windows, and the Council is among several groups voicing their concerns. These mainly relate to the size of the buildings, traffic congestion, and the commercial impact on local shopping strips. Interestingly, it is the last of those which is the focus of the protests. It stands to reason – if people think their profits or livelihoods are at risk, they are more likely to be vocal about that than the more diffuse problem of increased traffic.
Unfortunately for the development’s opponents, this primary concern of theirs has the least basis in fact and the weakest social-amenity argument. If you go to Metro Watch, the council-supported grassroots organisation that is spearheading the struggle, or look at comments on local media forums, there is an oft-repeated assertion that small shops will be “devastated”, “annihilated”, there will be “mass closures” and so on. When I first started seeing those claims, I wondered how they knew the impact would be so bad. The handful of shop owners that I asked thought it was self-evident. Searching around for evidence one way or another turned up very little. The developers, AMP Capital Investors, cite “an independent economic impact analysis” but without any details or link. Assuming they’re not spinning the result, AMP claims the analysis predicted only a 3% impact on local shops. Presumably that means a 3% drop in customers. Even if one is sceptical about the veracity of that figure, and prudently doubles or quadruples it to be on the safe side, it hardly constitutes devastation or annihilation. Joe Khoury from the Marrickville Chamber of Commerce has claimed that “the shops on Marrickville Road currently operate at about 50% of what they did prior to the initial opening of the Marrickville Metro in the 1980s.” He offered no evidence this was the case, and I find it hard to believe when walking down the vibrant, well-patronised shopping strip.
Metro Watch and the other groups like to trumpet how many people* are objecting to the development. If that is so, and a majority of residents want to “support small business” as per the banners, then won’t these people continue to buy from the smaller shops? Why would they stop? If the strips have such strong backing, then surely they’re not going to have any worries about losing business. This is the democratic essence of the free market – you can shop where you like, and if enough people agree with you, the shops will survive and prosper. All one has to do is put one’s money where one’s mouth is.
If, on the other hand, the dire predictions are true and not enough people want to buy from the smaller shops, that is sad for the proprietors. But if the popular support isn’t there, why should they have the right to deny someone else the chance to try their luck in the marketplace? Essentially, they are seeking to use the power of government to protect their profits from competition because they are afraid that people would go elsewhere if given the option. If people are choosing to go elsewhere, it’s because they prefer it. That means they are better off by making that choice, and worse off when unable to make that choice. So if the shop owners on the local strips win their demand for no more development, they will in effect privatise the benefits and socialise the losses.
* There are conflicting surveys, unsurprising when they are conducted by the developers and interest groups themselves.