Genius Man Creates Retail Resiliency In Mount Lawley

Above: Astor Gelato, corner of Walcott Street and Beaufort Streets, Mount Lawley, Australia.

God, I love Bruno Zimmerman.

Was Zimmerman Photo Lab and like a lot of careful business owners in our community bought the commercial property he was familiar with when the opportunity arose.

Fast forward 18 years and in an A Beautiful City interview this week told us that he has a queue of tenants awaiting a vacancy in his building - The Astor Arcade. "Why?" he tells us, "Because I keep rents low. There's no point in biting the hand that feeds you."

What he means is that he takes care of his tenants with low rents. Vacancies are low or non-existent.

People like this matter in our society.  He accounts for a handful of shops in our community which are nearly never vacant and because of his low-rent attitude are more affordable to independent businesses and innovative retail uses. The retail community get to know him as a landlord and know he's a kind guy with low rents, and so don't do midnight flits, complain about their private lives instead of paying rent, set fire to the curtains and leave a dead quokka under the floorboards before vacating.

Bruno and his wife are adamant about their role in their retailers' businesses: that of a landlord who should not drown them. They were clear that some other precincts in Perth ("Subiaco", they say) had the so-called Greedy Landlord Problem: high rents, high vacancies, and ultimately for the conscientious landlord a diminished retail community and street vitality, and a poor performing retail investment.

But is this really fair? Is it really the landlord's fault they press for higher rents?  They spend $3 million on a property with 2 tenants in it.  The income is 'only' $110,000 per annum. That's not enough - the bank will want all of that or more - and if your landlord didn't buy the property then there would be no property to rent.  Someone has to bloody own it.

Or do they?

Yes, I'm afraid.  And so the principal of retail leasing is that every square metre of God's green earth that was required to furnish your mainstreet with 'a shop' appears as an expense on a ledger and Mr Tenant picks that up as rent-negotiated.  It's just that some landlords have higher expenses than others.

It's a fact that shopping centres forced to do a 'mainstreet concept' by their local governments never work because without a diversity of landlords in their 'mainstreet' there isn't a variance of rents or landlords, or building types in different states of repair.  And back to Bruno Zimmerman.

We know (he tells us) that he 'keeps rents low' and this creates a 'Happy Tenant Syndrome'.  If your mainstreet has happy tenants and a queue of more willing to get in you have chance - an actual chance - to curate vibrancy.  If you don't, and vacancies are high, your planning approval process will be criticised by 'developers' who think they're doing the world a favour because they have packaged up a bit of God's green earth and are marketing it for sale.

The upshot is we want a mainstreet with low or no vacancies and a queue of tenants lining up to get in.  We want the sitting tenants to be happy, and not to do midnight flits leaving horses heads in the wall cavities.  But we're not all lucky; some - if not, most - landlords can't afford to 'keep rents low'.  Wonderful websites like 'Who Crashed The Economy' and 'Don't Buy Now' urge us to depress the property market at all costs; and I agree with them.  You don't want to pay $1 million dollars for a townhouse near a mainstreet and you don't want that mainstreet to be filled with only empty shops, 8 national boutiques and newsagent that's just hanging on.

So whilst Bruno Zimmerman is a lovely man and should probably win an award for Community Landlord Of The Year we must acknowledge that our problems are not directly the fault of the other landlords who cannot afford to 'take anyone on at any price'. Properties are expensive; they don't exist if they're not owned; and it's landlords who have the balls to risk everything, including wearing a white shirt every day for the rest of their lives, to put their name on a title deed and be the carriageway for our mainstreets to have shops and retailers and community vitality.

Of course, no-one gives a shit when Johnny Landlord is struggling; we all go strangely silent.  Our local newspapers never printed an article of an old lady sitting at her kitchen table with a pile of unpaid invoices of her tenant.  No.  The tenant is always the good guy and the landlord is always the baddie.  But that's not true.  Landlords struggle to put 'shops on the street' for us to rent, use, occupy and visit as customers.  And because our communities are now run by the silent hand of insurance companies and the lawyers that encourage them they will get thrown in jail if any tenant or their customer trips within the premises and invokes a claim.

I think I'd like to see a leading story in my local paper, shaming the retailers:

"So-and-so Fashions Pisses Off Owing $20,000 Rent"

"Community Vigil By Candlelight at 8pm For Our Struggling Landlords" and

"Landlord Festival: Celebrating the Gods Who Put The Shops On The Street For Us".

A Beautiful City is proud to advise local governments to retain or accumulate their own buildings in their mainstreet so they can set rents where they like and facilitate the retail community they need. Vibrancy is always going to be linked to the peculiarities of the retail-offer your community sits within, and the great news is we needn't know what the retail mix will look like (today). We need only make a fertile landscape for the economic cycle (and retail ecology) to move efficiently, and so to organically attract innovative retail.

And if you're lucky you'll end up with a 'Bruno Zimmerman': A landlord who 'sets rents low', maintains a high occupancy rate and has active participation in the welfare of his tenants.

And now he's opened a small gelato store within his own building and is mucking his hand in; a retailer turned landlord turned retailer. And that's all part of the retail cycle. A good mainstreet retains those 'moves' locally and doesn't have distant landlords toying with your shops and bringing the easy flow of investment to a standstill.  (By overpaying in the first instance.)

Thank you, Bruno Zimmerman, and his beloved wife.

Above:  The sweet, painted roller shutter of Bruno Zimmerman's Astor Gelato, corner of Walcott and Beaufort Streets, Mount Lawley, Australia.

Above: The beautiful Beaufort Street, Mount Lawley - and the Astor 'Theatre' Building on the left.