Regional shopping centres with the big city department stores decentralising into the suburbs, following the American model, emerged in the post war consumer market.
The first such centre to be built in NSW, and only the second in Australia was the Top Ryde regional shopping centre, opened by the premier JJ Cahill in November 1957. This centre was the dream of Peter Benjamin from the retailing family A.J. Benjamin’s of Chatswood.
Peter Benjamin travelled to the USA in 1953 where he visited about 20 shopping centres in the new American style and met up with friend Peter
Yeoman who was completing postgraduate studies in Detroit on the subject of American shopping centres. Together they devised a design for such a shopping centre in Sydney. While Yeomans came up with the idea of the apricot brick and the windowless building with vertical divisions, Benjamin sketched the plan layout for retailing.
After returning to Sydney, the firm began to look for a suitable site to construct the new concept and the Ryde site was chosen, being large enough to allow for the necessary car parking, having easy accessibility, and in an area with a growing population.
A new company, Regional Centres Limited, was formed specifically to purchase the land which was obtained direct from the Council in the early 1950s. The Council had been gradually acquiring the site with the intention of building a village centre there. At the time of purchase most of the land was open ground with a few cottages and the corner area of the playground for Ryde Primary School. The land covered almost an entire city block bounded by Blaxland Road, Pope, Tucker and Devlin Street.
In 1955 the directors of A.J.Benjamin asked Yeomans to return to Sydney to help with the design of their new avant-garde shopping centre and architects Whitehead and Payne were engaged to document the work. A.H Dwyer, company architect for A.J. Benjamin & Co, was also involved with the whole project.
The concept included a department store, A.J. Benjamin & Co, a supermarket, a chain variety store and 45 other shops grouped around a pedestrian mall, with 400 parking spaces. In effect it was a glorified shopping street with no cars. The concept also included a modern sculpture as a central focal point designed by artist Gordon Andrews, a personal friend of Peter Yeoman, who would later design Australia’s new decimal currency.
Initially the ownership of the Benjamin’s Department Store was in a separate title to that of the rest of the shopping centre.
From the start the centre demonstrated new trends in shopping and made news. It was opened on the 14th November 1957 in time for the Christmas rush and was highly publicised in the Sydney Press. It offered for the first time shopping amenity such as drive through parcel pick up, a child minding facility, a baby health centre, courtesy strollers and invalid chairs.
The shopping centre was established with the motto “come as you are…shop in comfort” offering a new experience for the shopper who until this time would have needed to travel to Sydney or Parramatta to gain access to a major department store and such a wide range of variety shopping.
In its initial concept, the centre sought to integrate with the existing high street shopping and retained the corner cinema as a fulcrum. However subsequent changes have now alienated the site from Ryde town centre.
A combination of the 1961 credit squeeze and the arrival of Grace Bros to Chatswood as a competitor to Benjamin’s main Chatswood store, led to the closure of Benjamins as a retail entity, though they continued to operate hardware and gardening business under the name BBC Hardware. The Centre at Top Ryde was proposed to be expanded by the demolition of the Ryde Baby Health Centre, the public toilets, The Rialto Cinema and shops on Devlin Street, and a number of houses in Pope Street and Tucker Street.
The Top Ryde shopping centre was sold in 1962 to Lend Lease and a centre manager appointed. The space vacated by Benjamin’s Department Store was taken over by Grace Bros who at this time were dominating regional shopping.
In 1963 Lend Lease undertook considerable extensions to the centre including the addition of a Woolworths Supermarket and variety store, several speciality shops and another 200 car parking spaces.
By 1969, it was decided that there was scope for further development and a $2 million extension was planned. The centre was expended to provide new shops including those on the lower concourse; a seven level covered parking area and escalators linking the two retail levels.
Regional shopping centres became the focus of community activities and often were also generators of other town centre developments and associated recreational activities such as Ten Pin Bowling, which opened at Top Ryde in the 1970s.
In 1985 Grace Bros vacated their premises and Top Ryde shopping centre was given a $9 million refurbishment. This included completely new tiling and lighting, the installation of moving walkways and the roofing of the mall area. Venture then moved into the space vacated by Grace Bros. In 1986 the centre was renamed Top Ryde Shopping Square.
Further remodelling was undertaken in 1991 with the reorganisation of the shops into service areas such as banking to the south west of the mall and the food hall on the lower concourse.
Grosvenor Top Ryde Pty Limited purchased the centre in 1989 in conjunction with IFP. (NSW) Pty Limited and in December 2000 the centre was purchased by Bevillesta Pty Limited.
Pressure on Top Ryde as a regional centre commenced with the opening of Macquarie Centre in the 1970s and has been exacerbated by the continual growth of centres such as Hornsby, Parramatta, and Birkenhead Point to some extent, and most recently Rhodes. This has affected the customer base level and reduced the significance of Top Ryde as regional Centre.
The centre is still owned by Bevillesta Pty Limited who also owns Harbourside shopping centre, Darling Harbour, and the Gosford Town Centre.