Local retail strips – with a mix of goods and services within walking distance – are the heart and soul of sustainability. But when they fail – such as in the case of Melbourne’s Bridge Road, Richmond, or Oxford Street in Sydney – it can be a challenge to work out what went wrong and how to fix it. In the case of Bridge Road case, local business Tract Consultants recently initiated a two-day forum with the City of Yarra and a range of experts and stakeholders to identify the key issues for this once vibrant retail strip and how to re-imagine its future.
Local business Tract Consultants recently initiated a two-day forum with the City of Yarra and a range of consultants to re-think the approach to one of inner Melbourne’s languishing retail strips, Bridge Road in Richmond, with Tract staff from around the country, together with local stakeholders, the council, the real estate sector, Retail Traders Association, academics, students, architects and economists.
Managing director of Tract Deiter Lim says the biggest consensus to arise from the discussion was that “strips need a vision” and that Bridge Road’s vision is currently lacking, unlike Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, Acland Street in St Kilda, Lygon Street in Carlton or Victoria Street in Richmond, each of which has a distinctive cultural identity and a mix of services, retailers, cafes and restaurants.
“A strip needs to think about what it is offering, and what is the feel and experience. It can’t be a singular focused strip, and it possibly needs a much more local feeling. The public realm needs to be of a high quality, to encourage people to stay and to linger. And it needs to have a reason people go there – is it the butchers, the bakers, grocery or newsagency?”
One of the ideas that emerged is that the Epworth Hospital could “turn its face to the street” and be the anchor for a health and wellness precinct. Lim said this brought out other issues, such as how to attract complementary medicine providers, and what planning changes would be required for such a precinct. There is also the ever-vexing question of car parking – where and how much to provide?
Lim says traffic planners generally are in favour of reducing traffic volumes and slowing traffic down to make an area more pedestrian friendly, however making it happen requires councils to buy in to the idea.
Currently, adding trees to Bridge Road to add shade and reduce ambient temperatures is not possible due to the on-street parking arrangements. Plants in pots on the footpath outside shops and cafes are also not permitted due to concerns around public safety, something Lim suggests could be reconsidered in the interests of amenity.
Generally, it is the walkable nature of a retail shopping strip and the proximity of public transport – in the case of Bridge Road the tram runs down the centre of the road itself – that enables it to add to the sustainability of the urban fabric.
City of Yarra Councillor and former mayor Jackie Fristacky agrees.
“The sustainability of Bridge Road will be built on its location, its accessibility, using sustainable transport modes; its role as an activity centre serving the growing inner city population; and the scope to provide more housing in the area,” Fristacky says.
Vertical living has in the past few years become a feature of the road, with Hickory’s 10-storey mixed use Ark development among the first of a new wave of higher density dwellings. Fristacky says that in the past six months, council has received planning permit applications for residential developments totalling 465 new apartments on or near Bridge Road.
“Council supports mixed-use developments along our activity strips where appropriate, so that the commercial integrity of our historic high streets can be maintained at ground level while providing opportunities for people to live above shops and bring more activity to those streets,” she says.
“It is clear that people are coming to live on Bridge Road because it is a place where people can live without the need for a car, have good access to jobs and are able to shop and access services locally.
“The retail mix along the strip and associated local services will inevitably change to meet the needs of those new residents.”
Lim says there is no certainty that simply adding more people to the area will revitalise the strip.
“You can put more people in the area but will they come to Bridge Road?” Lim says.
For any retail strip in decline, the key question is, “Where is the local community, and why are they not going to the strip?”
Currently, Bridge Road has vacancy rate of over 25 per cent and climbing for retail properties.
Lim says the successful strips in Melbourne all have a community that services them and gives them life, but so far Bridge Road perhaps suffers from a split personality, with fashion dominating one end – the end that is languishing and has the highest shop vacancy rates – and at the other end a cafe precinct that is doing comparatively well. Perhaps one of the solutions, he suggests, is to mix the two together throughout the strip.
“Rents play a big role [in vacancy rates] also, and the degree of incentives which exist for owners to do things,” Lim says.
Shop top living
Shop-top living is another solution that has been proposed, also that shop owners rent out their top floors as airbnb accommodation. This idea, Lim says, is one the council is not so keen on.
“Councils don’t want to think about enabling policy; they want to think about regulating policy,” he says.
Lim says the traditional high street used to have people living above and below, however currently on strips like Bridge Road landlords are generally leaving these residential parts of the properties vacant, and this is compromising the potential for sustainability gains.
What people want
Ideally, Lim says, “People can live in [the street], off the street or above the street. They can go to the baker, butcher, greengrocer all within walking distance – that’s what people want. People want to live and work with other facilities around them.
“You take into account all of the embodied energy [of those buildings], and reduce car congestion, reduce pollution and the use of fossil fuels. And all the infrastructure is already in place – [unlike a high density apartment project] – the water, the sewerage, and you don’t need a new high voltage transfer station for electricity,” Lim says.
“Sustainability is also about indirect opportunities. There is a great opportunity there, looking at what the high street was once, and what it can become.”
Some possibilities, such as reconfiguring those spaces to become studios for designers and other creative entrepreneurs to live and work in a space of collaboration, are not possible under the current building regulations.
Messy zoning – it might work
The current zoning of retail, Lim says, does not reflect the deeper character of living in this context.
“Life is messy, so [the high street] should be zoned messy – zoned for a mix of 20 different things,” he says.
Lim says the growing popularity of the pop-up market, local, organic and artisanal food and consumer goods is a trend the retail strip or high street can capitalise on. These areas also offer a sense of safety and community in an age of conflict, war and segregation.
“The high street brings people together,” Lim says.
“The place-makers talk about the third place, the one that is not the first place of home and the second place of work. We deal in that public realm and the leftover places. Coffee shops became the third place, but the cafe can’t survive without the high street; a viable cafe requires people being able to see other people. It’s that melting pot.
“We are all seeking community, and on a buzzing high street people see life going on. The question is, how do you get a high street to survive? For the planners and designers in our company it’s not just a matter of pavements, a seat and lighting.”
One of the major opportunities that place-making and urban design experts at the forum ,including director of the University of Melbourne’s School of Design Dr Alan Pert, identified is integrating the hinterland behind the shops, between the rear of the buildings and the laneways.
“The shops don’t activate the laneways,” Lim says.
“Linkages could provide that activation for that dead space at the rear [of the shops]. The question is, how do you green up those spaces and create linkages? These are the slower, quieter spaces, maybe the opportunity is for them to become spaces where people have ‘stop’ time.
“Planning is more than just a bit of place-making, it covers the whole gamut of things. Alan Pert pointed out there are 10,000 little spaces in and around the shops that could spark something and create linkages.
“It requires a collaborative approach – council can’t do it alone, and the traders can’t do it alone.”
Fristacky says that council appreciates the initiative that Tract, as a local business, took to spark discussion about the future of strip centres, particularly Bridge Road.
“Council is keen to see the outcomes of this initiative and officers are having further discussions with Tract and the University of Melbourne to understand how their understandings can inform Council’s work,” she says.
Fristacky says one of the challenges for City of Yarra is to make sure it continues to provide opportunities for new residents in the area that have been drawn by the new apartment developments to “let their voices be heard when it comes to the things Council can influence, such as urban design, heritage protection and local amenity”.
“However, as Council is just one player in these fields, it needs to continue to be a voice for the community on how Bridge Road develops,” she says.
Lim says the issues Bridge Road is facing are mirrored in other strips, such as Sydney’s Oxford Street, and the main street of Geelong, with a Geelong contingent attending the forum to gather ideas for activating an urban precinct that has lost ground to major retail shopping centres in the city. The issues are also being discussed within the real estate sector, the retail sector and within the community wherever retail strips are going into decline.
“The sessions generated more questions than answers, and a lot of ideas,” Lim says. “As with all things, the implementation is the hard thing.
“For the City of Yarra, the big question is how to change the policy settings to an enabling policy. Even the real estate [sector] is saying we still need regulation. Maybe they need to put the centreline [more] towards free-market, so they are not over-regulating and [planning policy] is enabling entrepreneurs to do their thing.
“There is no silver bullet – there is no one thing that is going to turn it around.
“You have got to have an idea of what success looks like and then look at what policies will move [the strip] there. There is an outcome available, and there is a lot of work to be done on many levels, everything from public policy, through to meeting with the Metropolitan Planning Authority.
“The forum catalysed a conversation that wasn’t happening before.”