Canberra Transformed

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How a developer is turning an old industrial area of Canberra into one of the country’s hippest retail strips.

Nik Bulum didn’t take long to recognise the potential of Lonsdale Street, in Braddon, when he returned to his hometown of Canberra to do some work for his father’s company.

The 42-year-old director of Bulum Group had escaped Canberra after completing school, studied fashion in Melbourne and then worked as a freelance graphic designer in Sydney before his return, which was supposed to be temporary.

The office of his father’s company, B&T Homes, was on Lonsdale Street, a street bookended by a park on one end and the city centre at the other. As Canberra’s first light industrial area, the street had hit a rough patch with many vacant stores alongside its traditional mix of car yards and panel beaters.

The younger Bulum formed his own development company six years ago, and its first development on Lonsdale Street, Mode3, became one of Canberra’s first mixed-use developments with shops downstairs and apartments upstairs.

It attracted some controversy, Bulum admits.

“There’s a group of people that want to see Canberra turn into a city and a group that still want it to be a country town,” he says. “But I think you can compromise and do a nice mix in between.”

It was a sophisticated entry into a city with decentralisation in its DNA. Meanwhile, Bulum’s second foray – the Ori building, which features an origami-inspired design and a small boutique arcade – was even more daring.

The third and fourth buildings, the Egyptian inspired Nibu and the Scandinavian inspired Palko, are due to be completed across the road in August on the site of the Lonsdale Street Traders, a two-year project where Bulum gave pop-up businesses “dirty cheap rent” in the existing warehouse before building started.

The traders paid between $200 and $400 a month for their spaces and several have subsequently made the leap into Ori’s arcade or elsewhere – where Bulum continues to offer them “below-market rates” so that the local creative scene will grow.

Likewise, a new arcade that will run between the Nibu and Palko buildings will feature small retail spaces that lease for $400 to $450 a square metre a month. “I’m trying to create little alcoves with small 20 to 30-metre spaces so smaller businesses can afford the rents,” says Bulum.

Bulum’s creativity is also key to the precinct as a whole. He designs the apartment blocks with his Canberra-based architects – he refuses to let the work go interstate – and he’s working on his own range of perfumes and accessories for a future venture.

And while he doesn’t have an office for the Bulum Group – he lives in a house nearby and conducts his meetings in cafes on Lonsdale Street – he will soon be in command of about 30 to 40 per cent of the strip’s commercial spaces.

His strategy is “some upmarket, some lower end, some street food, some fine dining – that’s what I think works.” In Nibu/Palko, he has signed on a wholefoods organic supermarket, an Asian cocktail bar, a local ceramics producer and “a botox day spa/laser lounge kinda thing”.

A block down the street, The Hamlet is a food truck village that Bulum started in 2015. Its operators have also paid peppercorn rent on the site while they wait for another development to start – the New York-style Branx – which is due to commence construction soon.

But ever wary of killing the golden goose, Bulum plans to relocate the village to a site nearby. “It will be like a pop-up village on steroids,” he says. Along with the food vans, he also plans a permanent Lonsdale Street Traders site there (“to allow fresh blood to come in”), maybe a small concept hotel and even a garage. “I want to bring back some of those services that were on the street, in a reinvented way,” he says.

This article appeared in Commercial Real Estate (Domain) in June 2017.

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