Cover Story

Narellan Town Centre

As we go to press, another Big Gun comes on stream. Narellan Town Centre, in Sydney’s South-west opened as a Mini Gun in 1995 and was expanded to Little Gun status in 1999. The centre has a unique distinction in its new category; it’s the only  Big Gun in Australia that is totally privately owned.  It was finished on budget, ahead of time and 100% leased months before opening.

This, in the true sense of the word, is an ‘extraordinary’ story. It begins a long time ago, but for our purposes we need to go back less than a couple of decades, to the late 1990s.

Imagine this scene: a handyman is touching up a bit of paintwork in a shopping centre car park. His car is parked fairly close to the entrance, not in a designated bay, when a police car drives in. The policeman tells him to move the car as he’s not allowed to park there. The handyman disagrees, telling the policeman he can park where he likes as he owns the car park and the centre as well!

It’s a true story. The name of the ‘handyman’ is Domenic Vitocco, an Italian immigrant who came to Australia in 1955 with nothing more than a suitcase and the clothes he wore. The centre is Narellan Town Centre in Sydney’s south-west.

Narellan Town Centre principals Arnold Vitocco and Tony Perich

Domenic Vitocco did well and his son, Arnold, took over the reins of the family business, building a huge development company mainly focusing on residential subdivisions and housing construction. In 1989, Arnold was offered a two-hectare block of land housing some shops off Somerset Avenue in central Narellan, and he thought it was a good opportunity for a shopping centre development. Shortly afterwards, while mending a fence at the family home in Bringelly, he met an old friend, Tony Perich, head of one of Australia’s largest dairy conglomerates. He suggested a partnership to develop the centre; the pair shook hands across the bonnet of a car, and the deal was sealed.

The relevance of these tales above is that they are examples of ‘hands-on’ involvement. Owners of major shopping centres don’t, as a rule, involve themselves in the day-to-day maintenance of the asset – and developers of major shopping centres don’t, as a rule, transact a 50/50 deal via a handshake over the bonnet of a car!

Dart West Retail Pty Ltd, the partnership vehicle, developed Narellan Town Centre and the two families – the Vitoccos and the Perichs – opened it in 1995.

Early pictures of the centre, 1995
Early picture of the centre, 1995

It was a Mini Gun anchored by a Woolworths supermarket with about 20 specialties. It was developed, constructed, leased, managed and marketed by the owners and their employees – a totally ‘in-house’ operation. Arnold Vitocco and Tony Perich ran the business in a totally ‘hands-on’ owner/management structure.

Narellan Town Centre traded well from the very beginning and the next logical extension – Stage 2 – incorporated Big W and more specialties, which transformed Narellan Town Centre into a Little Gun in 1999. Other extensions followed, a Coles supermarket was added; cinemas and a food court came later and, by 2010, the centre had a GLA of some 35,000m2. But there was no end in sight. It wasn’t just the centre that continued to transform itself; the region as a whole was changing dramatically. Both families – the Vitoccos and the Perichs – were highly active in the field of residential development.

When Narellan Town Centre was originally developed, dairy farmsseparated Narellan from Campbelltown. Over the two decades to today, the farms have gone, replaced by housing in one of the fastest population growth regions in Australia. Campbelltown and Macarthur Square shopping centre sit about 10 kilometres to the south-east of Narellan, however the M31 (extension of the M5) motorway is a natural barrier between the two centres. Although the centre had more than doubled in size from its original, the owners were convinced that the real game hadn’t really started.

This ‘hands-on’ involvement and day-to-day familiarity with the centre convinced the owners that Narellan’s Primary Trade Area, which incorporates the suburbs of Camden, Narellan, Mt Annan, Elderslie, Spring Farm, extending to the rural areas surrounding Camden as well as the growth precincts of Gregory Hills and Oran Park, demanded a better retail offering.

These owners live in the area, with both families totally involved in the growth of the region; they shop in the centre, know all the retailers personally and, quite frankly, couldn’t get any closer to it than they now are.

And so this extraordinary story unfolds. It’s extraordinary in many ways: a ‘Mini Gun’ only two decades ago is about to become a Big Gun, and a Big Gun managed by its owners. Extraordinary too is its financing: no major institutions with equity, just two families and their relationship with the Commonwealth Bank. It is obviously a very solid relationship, with the result that the bank backed the project.

On opening in August, just a short time after we go to press, Narellan Town Centre will have doubled in size to over 70,000m2. It will be the only privately owned Big Gun in Australia.

It’s extraordinary for a proprietary limited company to own a Big Gun and, in this case, it’s testimony to the extraordinary relationships the owners have with their retailers.

The retail flanking the new town square is totally food and beverage and the entire run features alfresco seating. Narellan Town Centre

To compile the material for this Cover Story, SCN visits Narellan Town Centre on a Tuesday. The boardroom in the management office is fairly small. Around the wall are plans and artist’s impressions of the finished centre. Lucy Chalmers, NTC’s Senior Marketing Manager is our contact; she has coordinated the meeting. Lucy introduces us to Arnold Vitocco and his son Domenic, named after his grandfather. Development Manager Rhys Brotherton is there, as is Dart West Retail General Manager, Brad Page. The coffee arrives and simultaneously, Brent Trumble who is the centre’s Leasing Manager.

We sit around a table and we’re introduced to the development. There’s no real structure to this meeting, nor agenda. It’s casual, friendly, relaxed; they’re all here to just talk about the centre. Yet as relaxed and casual as it is, what’s clearly obvious is that everyone is fully informed on all aspects of the development. In terms of what’s going on – the leasing, the construction program, the opening promotion, the marketing, the precincts, the demographics, the development timeline, the history – they all know everything. There’s no such thing here as demarcation. And then you realise that this is the senior team; it’s these few people who make all the decisions. In a small boardroom the Development Manager sits at the table, the marketing head is there as is the man who leases the shops. At the end of the table sits the General Manager and, not to forget, two of the family members who own it.

Artist’s impression of the new fashion mall.

Of course there’s a hierarchy, but it’s in no way discernible. Pyramid management structures don’t exist here – it’s as flat as a pancake! And then you notice something else that’s extraordinary; they’re all locals! Both the Vitocco and Perich families are prominent Narellan lifetime residents. Brad Page is a Bringelly man, Brent Trumble is the seventh generation of a local dairy farming family and Lucy Chalmers grew up a little further west in the Blue Mountains. They don’t just know the region and its people, they’re integral parts of it.

They’re part of what is, in recent times in Australia, unprecedented growth. They’ve seen their own turf transform from farmland to urban sprawl, and their Town Centre grow from a few shops either side of a quiet crossroad, to what could be the downtown epicentre of a small city. And they haven’t just seen it either; they’ve been instrumental in the transformation with some of them (the Vitocco and Perich families) having had a leading role.

Yes, they might well be locals but, in terms of career and experience, they’re seasoned travellers! Centre management and leasing staff have a wealth of experience gained from Westfield, Stockland, AMP, Lendlease, Mirvac and JLL. They’ve ‘come home’, bringing their talents and expertise with them. The staff at Narellan Town Centre and in the development arm are as professional as they come.

Bringing Narellan Town Centre from a Mini Gun – a supermarket with about 20 specialties – to a Big Gun, one of the largest centres in Australia in just two decades, has produced some extraordinary numbers.

Narellan Town Centre

Narellan Town Centre entered the ‘Little Gun’ category in 2004. At that time, it had just reached the 30,000m2 mark and ranked number 22 on the MAT list with a turnover of some $168 million; with an MAT/m2 of $6,940, it ranked 23rd on the Little Gun table. By 2010 it had grown to 35,000m2; the MAT had risen to $211 million, placing it at number 20 in Australia. In the same year its MAT/m2 had increased to $8,056, up a place to 21; its Specialty MAT, at $8,433, ranked it at 36 on that table.

The 2015 Little Gun rankings saw Narellan Town Centre at number 19 on the MAT ladder with $239 million; its MAT/m2 figure of $8,787 had moved it up again to 17th place and its Specialty MAT/m2 ranked it at 16th with $9,916. Last year the upward climb continued.

Narellan Town Centre’s MAT in 2016 was $267 million, the 11th highest Little Gun in Australia. MAT/m2 at $9,339 placed it at number 14 and its Specialty MAT/m2 performance of $11,181 gave it the 11th spot.

So, in a field with about 100 Little Gun centres owned and managed by the most powerful and most professional shopping centre corporations in the world, the likes of Scentre Group, GPT, AMP, Lendlease, Stockland, Mirvac, QIC, Vicinity et al, Narellan Town Centre’s rankings placed it 11th, 14th and 11th. Some achievement for a privately owned outfit!

The original two-hectare block on Somerset Avenue was extended to include the land fronting Camden Valley Way. For the latest development stages, the land opposite – on the other side of Camden Valley Way – was acquired.

The new Narellan Town Centre will see an expansion across Camden Valley Way with the two sides linked by an elevated and enclosed retail bridge in the form of a brand new mall, seamlessly connecting both sides.

Narellan Town Centre

It’s obvious when you look at the mix, the quality of the tenants and the high proportion of national chains, why the ‘Little Gun’ traded so well. In overview, it’s a straight mall linking Woolworths with Big W. At the Woolworths end are the usual suspects: BWS has a 200m2 outlet, plus there’s Empire Burger, Donut King and Michel’s Patisserie, a large Shepherd’s Artisan Bakehouse, Joe’s Meats and so on. It’s a mix of fast and fresh food that trades strongly with every square meter fully utilised. Moving up through the mall, the merchandise changes and one recognises familiar, solid traders. There’s Noni B, Jeanswest, Williams, Millers, Dusk, Sussan and Best & Less. House has a large corner outlet with Rockmans opposite followed by Suzanne Grae, MyHouse, Priceline – they’re all there.

Move beyond the Big W entrance and, on the way to the food court, you pass Sanity, Cotton On, and Katies before the ubiquitous McDonald’s and KFC come into view.

While it’s very strong, the ‘Little Gun’ offering, with few exceptions, was geared towards the lower price point. Today the demographic is very different; over the years since the centre was first developed, the trade area, in retail terms, has moved upwards, and measured against the Sydney average the difference is quite marked. Whereas ‘lower household income’ – less than $41,700 – accounts for 28% for Sydney, in Narellan’s Primary Trade Area it’s only 19% (23% for the Total Trade Area). Move to the upper income levels, for example $78,200-$156,400, and the difference is even greater – 33% for Sydney yet 42% for Narellan’s Primary (39% for the TTA).

But of course there’s much more to Narellan Town Centre’s conversion into a Big Gun than simply a maturing demographic.

The main story of course is population growth and, as the centre sits in the midst of one of Australia’s fastest growing regions, the numbers are staggering.

From 2011 to 2015, an average of more than 4,000 people a year moved into the catchment area, increasing the population to 110,117 with 67,136 or 61% of them living in the primary sector.
In 2015, the NSW government created the Western Sydney Priority Growth Area (SWPGA) to “guide new infrastructure investment, identify new homes and jobs close to transport and co-ordinate services in the area”. This was in response to the planned Badgerys Creek Airport, which is just 15 minutes from Narellan Town Centre.

The SWPGA is developing rapidly with activity focused on its southern and eastern parts, with eight major projects totalling 22,900 housing lots in full production mode. These projects are selling at approximately 2,500 lots per annum and are located within a five-minute drive of Narellan Town Centre.

With the Badgerys Creek Airport and the rapid growth of the region, both NSW and Federal governments are investing in significant infrastructure. Camden Valley Way, which runs right through the middle of Narellan Town Centre (the retail bridge linking both sides of the centre crosses it), has recently been upgraded to a divided four-lane carriageway, and work is also well advanced on the upgrade to Narellan Road. Work on the $2-billion South West Rail Link is continuing and is now open to Leppington; a further extension to Oran Park, Narellan and Badgerys Creek has also been announced with preliminary works already underway.

All this means that, by 2018, Narellan Town Centre’s first full year of trading, population in the Trade Area will exceed 131,000. In 2021, well before the expiration of the first five-year leases, that figure will increase to over 153,000.

And it doesn’t stop there either.

By 2026, only eight years after Narellan Town Centre’s full opening, Total Trade Area population will rise to 186,309. To put this into perspective, this means that from 2015 to 2026, the Trade Area population will increase by 76,192 – equivalent to the addition of a city the size of Coffs Harbour, Bundaberg or Rockhampton, or half the population of Darwin or Cairns!

In terms of retail spend, Total Trade Area dollars will increase from $2.1 billion in 2018 to $3.5 billion in 2025/26.

So what’s Dart West Retail Pty Ltd’s response to all this? What is the new Narellan Town Centre all about? What does Australia’s latest Big Gun have to offer and will they pull it off? The easiest of those questions to answer is the last one, and it’s the best lead-in to the others.

Will they pull it off? They already have.

The former Little Gun sat one block up from the southern side of Camden Valley Way. The Big Gun extends the existing centre so it now flanks this major road; it then develops another site bordering the northern side of Camden Valley Way, linking the two components via a ‘retail bridge’ across the dual carriageway.

It’s a two-stage development. Stage 1, the northern side of Camden Valley Way, opened last September; Stage 2, the extension on the southern (existing) side plus the retail bridge linking the two, opens on August 4, almost coinciding with our publication. Construction is about a month ahead of schedule; as we write, the structure is complete, final touches to the interior decor are being made and several stores have commenced fit-out. Retailers have been informed that, because program is ahead of schedule, they may extend their ‘rent-free’ fit-out period. The new Narellan Town Centre is already 100% leased!
How is that done these days – constructed ahead of schedule and 100% leased a couple of months prior to opening? Mainbrace, a leading retail construction company that built the centre, told SCN that relationships played a major part.

Project Director Michael Witts said: “this project was a collaborative effort between Mainbrace and all stakeholders to create an outstanding retail destination. We’ve had a relationship with Dart West for many years and this project is a prime example of owner, manager and contractor all working together.”

On completion, Narellan Town Centre will incorporate five majors: both Woolworths and Coles full-line supermarkets, Big W, Target and Kmart along with a host of mini majors including H&M, JB Hi Fi, City Beach, Best & Less along with a whole host of other mini-majors and specialty stores. There’s a cinema complex as well.

Coles and Kmart anchor the northern side, and outside the supermarket the mix is superb. Pryde Meats has a frontage of some 20 metres and the display is awesome; the fresh fish shop (Fish Feast) commands around the same frontage, and together the offering is as good as in any major regional. The Town Grocer is a local operator with a theatrical display of fruit and vegetables supported by an offering of the most sumptuous salamis, ravioli, antipasto, pastizzi, mozzarella, prosciutto, olives, feta, mortadella, pancetta… an almost overwhelming assault on the senses. Magnificent.

The fresh food cleverly gives way to a variety of specialties in the realm of homewares. Bed Bath N Table is there as is Habitania, a smart kitchenware shop, services, and cafes. It’s a great mix; they are quality tenants, and fit-outs are state of the art.

Towards Kmart, the mall widens and begins to curve. The proportions are generous, the mall is wide, ceiling height lofty and the shopfronts are full height. The curve of the mall is sweeping; on our visit, it’s still behind the hoardings but we go backstage.

It’s this section – the retail bridge across Camden Valley Way and the south side extension – that will open in August and, in a word, it’s simply stunning. This is the predominantly new fashion mall with the Coles and Kmart component at one end and the Woolworths and Big W at the other. In the middle is Target, and the new specialties are devoid of any suggestion of compromise. H&M has a 2,200m2 store and City Beach is there in over 500m2. Just Jeans is in the run as is Swarovski, Sportsgirl, RM Williams, General Pants, Strandbags, Sheike, Dotti… the list goes on.

The architecture is not just grand– it’s clever. The curving mall is enticing; one is drawn along with the anticipation of what’s beyond. Some of the specialties’ rear walls are full-height glass as the views from this elevated bridge are stimulating. In parts there’s more natural light, not from the usual glass roof, but from bulkhead openings above the shops. The cleverness comes from good retail architecture – slick and modern yet warm and inviting. (see Design Philosophy above).

Parking at Narellan Town Centre is mostly on grade of course; the centre sits above at the same level as the retail bridge over Camden Valley Way. For the most part, therefore, it’s a single-level centre. The exception is at the point where the northern side fronts Camden Valley Way; here there’s a ground floor, open retail area facing outward but it’s far more than a shopping centre development. It’s an exercise in urban planning and it’s brilliant.

Facing Camden Valley Way, they’ve created a true town centre for the region and it’s not just iconic, representative or conceptual; it’s real, alive, thumping and a true community gathering place. They’ve done it with clever design, with novel architectural features combined with retail and they’ve pulled it off in spades!

A curved and wavy line of shopfronts faces out to a huge public space. This retail is divided into two sections with an entry to the upper centre in the middle. The less prominent section is a banking and services precinct – Commonwealth Bank, ANZ, St George, First National, the local credit union and so on – all heavy hitters and crowd pullers.

Seven major restaurants flank the most prominent section and, since opening, they haven’t looked back. They hit the mark for the region, very well leased.

The tenancies are large, 300-600m2, with additional and substantial alfresco seating. There’s The Village Narellan, Hurricanes Grill & Bar, Max Brenner, Nando’s, Guzman y Gomez, Sasuki Teppanyaki Bar and Sushi on Fire, all facing out to what has become an iconic representation of Narellan Town Centre, a dazzling water feature imported by the owners which provides a show, every hour on the hour. When it’s passive it’s still attractive as a fountain in the centre of a circular pool, but on the hour it comes alive with a spectacular dance from myriad jets. At night it’s lit, spectacular, riveting, alive.

The area surrounding this feature is common space; there’s landscaping, seating and a host of attractive embellishments. It’s a winner that’s been embraced by the locals and travellers alike. The seven outlets have a combined turnover in excess of $21 million; that says it all!

So come the beginning of August, Narellan Town Centre is about to assert itself as the Big Gun powerhouse for its region. With the restaurant and banking precinct, the public space and the water feature, Narellan Town Centre is far more than a shopping centre; it’s the centre of Narellan and, as such, it’s become the downtown of the region.

This ‘family-owned’ company has excelled itself, and this small team – in comparison to those of other Big Gun development companies – has achieved the ultimate: a state-of-the-art, powerful regional shopping centre with a tailored retail mix as good as it gets, totally focused on its market. To top it all off, it’s finished it with a new town centre which already has achieved the number one community gathering place for leisure and entertainment in the region.

The 100% leasing achievement doesn’t tell the whole story; it was leased with more than two months to spare and, since then, a waiting list has already emerged. As we go to press, plans are already being worked on to expand the centre in the future to over 90,000m2.

Estimates are that some $400 million of retail expenditure escapes the catchment area. Narellan Town Centre is targeting to capture up to half of that which will produce an MAT of somewhere just under $500 million. SCN estimates they’ll do better than that; our forecast is close to $600 million within three years. Watch this space!

DESIGN PHILOSOPHY
by Anthony Palamara, Design and Project Director, The Buchan Group Sydney

There was very little to draw inspiration from when we first looked at Narellan Town Centre: a previous railway, a scattering of heritage buildings and a new council library. In contrast, the neighbouring township of Camden holds a rich historic architectural fabric. While the urban fabric of Narellan is dominated by a few good buildings, industrial zones and a large shopping centre, it was void of a town centre or ‘heart’ and the basic focus was Camden Valley Way – a main arterial road and quick way through Narellan and on to the south.

Our design narrative was to create a heart for Narellan; a new urban fabric with emphasis on quality public space and true pedestrian connectivity to the proposed elevated shopping precinct. We also wanted to emphasise the experiential aspects of the new town square/restaurant precinct and increase dwell time within the street zones or, put simply, to reactivate Narellan’s Main Street and centre with people, not just vehicles.

The town square is embraced by a sweeping upper-level façade, set back from the busy roadway. It’s refreshing to see the pedestrian links being used as we anticipated, with people walking inboard along the new town square’s edge flanked by restaurants, shops, landscaping and water features. The square also links up to the main centre via the two towering glass box elements, anchoring each side of the new retail bridge.

Narellan Town Centre’s external sky bridge, two entrance lobbies and sweeping retail façade have been designed to create a gateway landmark that embraces the restaurant precinct and civic space. Materials are simple and colours neutral and restrained, to allow an element of longevity to the palate. There is a push toward large zones of glass to create permeability to zones where there is a pedestrian focus. Significant corners of the building are also emphasised with webbed artwork façades that hold signage and identification markers for the centre.

The interiors are divided into varying precincts such as the fresh-food zone, high fashion, bridge, etc, with expressive individual characteristics that still form part of the same family in terms of the finishes and elements, to give the centre a coherent language throughout.

Narellan has enormous potential and we feel this is a small beginning in what will become a major Town Centre in Sydney’s south-west.

Narellan Town Centre

About the author

Shopping Centre News

Shopping Centre News is the leading publication for the shopping centre industry in Australia and New Zealand.

SCN is one of the most authoritative publications in the world for the shopping centre industry. Each issue contains articles on Design, Legal issues, Marketing, Leasing, Centre Management and Development. It features contributions by industry experts from around the globe. Shopping Centre News is the only publication in the world that features centre statistics on Turnover, Turnover per square meter and Specialty Shop turnover per square meter for every major centre in Australia.

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