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What makes a great city? That is one of the questions occupying the mind of architect Madeleine Hug, who has joined Woods Bagot in Perth as Studio Leader – Major Projects after a six-year stint in London.
During her time in the United Kingdom, she worked on several major urban regeneration schemes including Fourth Mile in Chiswick, a dense mixed-use project of more than one million square feet and is excited to bring those learnings back to her home city.
“Covid has shaken things up quite a lot for the design, construction and property industry and in many ways that’s really exciting,” says Hug.
“We’re thinking for the first time about the blurring of sectors, how to use space in a smarter way and what the future of our cities looks like.
“Everyone around the world is grappling with these challenges, which also present opportunities.”
Hug believes a major priority is to get the buzz back into Perth’s CBD – less vibrant than it was before COVID-19 arrived in early 2020.
Even though Perth and Western Australia had exceptionally low COVID infection rates compared with the rest of Australia because of hard border closures, the pandemic’s impact has been substantial.
But it’s bouncing back.
Office occupancy, measured as workers in the office, is now at 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels in Perth, the highest in Australia, according to a recent Property Council of Australia landlord survey.
Meanwhile, Perth’s overall office leasing vacancy rates held steady at 15.6 per cent in the second half of 2022, an encouraging result considering that 13,000 square metres of new space was added to the letting pool over the period.
A high proportion of the leasing vacancies are in the older, lower-grade buildings of Perth’s CBD, the long-term future of which remains unclear – is it economically feasible for them to remain offices or does their use change?
By contrast, new and high-quality workplace developments are in high demand as tenants move to upgrade their offices to ensure they are an attractive destination for staff.
Property Council WA Executive Director Sandra Brewer says several new office towers due to compete before 2024 have already secured pre-commitments equivalent to 53 per cent of the space.
“Contrary to many predictions, flexibility does not appear to be reducing demand for space,” Ms Brewer says.
Instead, tenants are reconfiguring their space, losing some desks, and adding features such as wellness rooms, collaboration areas, social lounges, coffee machines and hospitality add-ons.
Hug says this provides an excellent platform to reinvigorate the Perth CBD.
“Perth has the elements of a great city; majestic Kings Park, the melting pot of Northbridge, a great climate and the river on the doorstep,” says Hug.
“City enhancing projects and plans have also emerged: Elizabeth Quay, Perth City Link, METRONET and cultural activation.
“But as with many global cities since the pandemic, vibrancy has dimmed through high office vacancy rates, cost of living pressures, housing affordability and slowing retail.”
She says hybrid work practices are entrenched, implying CBD worker numbers may never return to pre-COVID levels.
“Priorities changed, the way we work changed and cities now need to redefine themselves, Hug says.
“This evolution forces us to consider more carefully what makes a great city. Does human contact and the contest of ideas stimulate growth, vibrancy, connection?
“If so, how can we draw people back and entice the best global talent to join us?
“Achieving this will create an identity for Perth beyond mining, infuse resilience and provide quality of lifestyle with opportunity and community.
“As designers and architects, we see the huge opportunities for Perth CBD, unlocking growth whilst maintaining livability and sustainability. It’s an exciting time to shape the built environment.”
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