Anita Mitchell (pictured) cracked some of Australia’s biggest sustainable development challenges. Now, as CEO of Placemaking NSW, Mitchell is using her problem-solving skills to refresh some of Australia’s most iconic places.
It’s a year since Mitchell joined Placemaking NSW after more than a decade with Lendlease. Mitchell wasn’t looking to leave the developer, but the opportunity to oversee placemaking for places like The Rocks, Darling Harbour and the new Bays West precinct was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Mitchell left a huge legacy behind at Lendlease, but arguably her biggest achievement was helping Lendlease – and indeed Australia’s property industry – untangle the complexity of climate positive precincts. In doing so, she laid the foundations for Australia’s first carbon neutral precinct at Barangaroo South.
“My personal motivation has always been to help solve the world’s problems. I am most attracted to the really hard, intractable issues,” Mitchell says.
Currently, one big issue is keeping her up at night: how our places can bounce back from COVID-19. The role of the property industry in this bounce back can’t be understated, she says. “There are so many ways our industry touches people’s lives. It’s important we think through our opportunities as an industry.”
Placemaking NSW was established as a “safe pair of hands with a consistent approach” to the creation and care of special places in New South Wales, and Mitchell’s first piece of work presented to the board was a revitalisation strategy for The Rocks. The work was the culmination of 12 months of planning on how to improve the performance and image of the area.
Rich in Indigenous heritage and Australia’s oldest colonial neighbourhood, The Rocks is the “front door of Sydney”. But, even before the pandemic, it was “over-reliant on tourism and wasn’t resilient”. With little to lure locals beyond duty free stores and tourist trinkets, foot traffic in 2020 was just two per cent of its 15 million annual visitors.
How do you turn around an underperforming destination during a pandemic? Mitchell says her response – one honed after years working with Lendlease – is always to do her homework.
“Our research showed that 76 cents in every dollar spent at The Rocks is on food and beverage – and we were under-weight in that area in terms of GFA.
“In addition, some of the F&B in the precinct had pretty poor offerings, and was reliant on tourist trade, not repeat visits. Opening up al fresco dining on George Street has become a well-referenced example of how to better utilise public space to help respond to the challenges of the pandemic. Sydneysiders love al fresco dining, but it also has to be high quality to get them to first visit and then to come back.”
Since then, Placemaking NSW has added numerous pop-ups with a focus on F&B to use vacated spaces. Creative director Joanna Savill, the former presenter of the Food Lovers’ Guide to Australia, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald's Good Food Guide and festival director, was hired to enhance the precinct’s visitor experience and night-time economy. "Her particular focus is on helping people to fall back in love with the place beyond the regular events calendar," Mitchell says.
Retail curation – something Lendlease did so well at Barangaroo – is another essential ingredient. “The lack of retail curation at The Rocks is why we had great tenants in the wrong location and other tenants that didn’t fit our brief for an area loved by locals and tourists alike,” Mitchell notes. This is improving, with high profile deals being struck for a new gin distillery and several small bars as well as new restaurants at Campbells Stores.
This $15 million revitalisation program has been deliberately curated to offer retail and restaurants that appeal to Sydneysiders. “If you opened up the Qantas magazine over the Christmas break, you’d see The Rocks is now one of the cool spots to visit in Sydney. In 12 months, we’ve achieved a turnaround, both economically and in perception.”
COVID-19 has changed the way people interact with their cities, and nowhere is this more evident than at Sydney Olympic Park, which enjoyed its highest visitation in 2020 during COVID-19 lockdowns – and that includes the Olympic year.
“Two thirds of Sydney Olympic Park is dedicated to parklands – and became a place of respite and green space during the pandemic.”
But the Park, which can attract 100,000 people to large sporting events, is often characterised by its vast emptiness. “The Park shouldn’t be known as the safest place to take an L-plater on the roads."
With a new Sydney Metro Station on the cards, Mitchell and her team spent 12 months developing a vision to inform a 2050 masterplan that aims to bring new life into the 430-hectare park, “we want to attract people beyond what it is currently known for, which is hosting sporting and entertainment events, we are that, but can be, and must be so much more."
“Usually, the masterplan would be handed over to the architects to solve the problem technically. We started by talking to the community – to the landlords and tenants, residents and visitors – to find out what they want first and to put that into a crisp Vision that will inform the Masterplan."
It turns out what people want from Sydney Olympic Park isn’t so special. They want places with character, life and good coffee. “Great food and beverage make precincts sticky. It’s the lifeblood of why people go out, why businesses are attracted to any area. Without that, it will be hard to get people to return time and again. Introducing more fine grain street scapes will help, as will getting a genuine mix of uses to ensure 24-hour activation".
The masterplan will activate an additional 10,700 homes for 23,500 residents. “Canary Wharf in London or Victoria Harbour in Melbourne struggled in the past because they have one dominant land use – offices. Sydney Olympic Park will unlock a huge amount of housing, and this can help to solve Sydney’s housing crisis, especially as we will build density with great transport connectivity, surrounded by green space."
Places for people
Placemaking NSW has recently moved to The Cities and Active Transport team under Minister Rob Stokes and Mitchell’s remit has evolved to focus on Sydney Harbourside precincts, or the “cultural ribbon” along the foreshore. While she is very sad to be leaving great precincts like Sydney Olympic Park and exciting projects such as Honeysuckle, Cockle Creek and Hunter Park with the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation, she is philosophical about the need to adapt to changing political landscapes.
“Our remit now includes Barangaroo precinct management and developing Bays West, which includes a new metro station, mixed-use development and the adaptive reuse of the 1912 power station,” she says.
“Bays West will be three-and-a-half times the size of Barangaroo. It’s the most exciting project happening in Sydney, in an area that has been underutilised for decades. I am incredibly proud of Barangaroo and what was achieved there.”
Despite the multitude of tasks on her plate, Mitchell is focused on the big picture. “Unlocking government land for high-quality places that deliver value to the people of New South Wales… that’s solving some of society’s biggest challenges – like affordability, connectivity, places for respite and places to live, work and play. That’s what gets me out of bed. When we get it right, that’s how the property industry can create value for everyone.”