A forward step for Acland Street

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By Michael Graves

Pedestrianising St Kilda’s famous street is essential to its long-term future.

For years Acland Street has remained more or less in its present form, and I surely am not the only one to have thought this sells the iconic strip vastly short. For the sake of some parking spots, and passageway for cars between Barkly Street & The Esplanade that could just as easily be provided by Carlisle Street, Acland Street is denied its full potential. That is, less thoroughfare and more destination. A ‘Lygon-Street-of-the-south’ that still retains its distinctive St Kilda-ness.

The process of pedestrianising urban spaces once the preserve of cars, has been underway internationally for some years. New York’s Times Square and a part of London’s Trafalgar Square are two famous examples. Back home we have the Bourke Street Mall & Swanston Walk. The latter admittedly not without problems, a result of its sheer size. Closing off the entire length of a CBD street was naively optimistic, but it’s hard to believe pedestrianising the last hundred or so metres of Acland Street would result in anything other than a positive outcome in patronage & economic activity to the area. It must not be allowed to slip into the doldrums that have plagued Fitzroy Street.

The problem, as always, is parallel agendas from separate parties. In this case the council, the traders & Public Transport Victoria. Council understandably wants what is best for the City of Port Phillip, its residents & visitors. As Melbourne’s population shoots ever upwards and closer to that of the cities mentioned earlier, identifying visitor ‘hot spots’ and reclaiming them from traffic to better accommodate the people themselves is not only desirable as a city grows –it becomes essential.

The traders are right to fight to protect what they have. But they should realise that -if done right- Acland Street’s revitalisation will not only serve to protect it, but deliver them so much more.

Public Transport Victoria is concerned with neither traders’ businesses nor St Kilda tourism. Its business is running trams –and herein lies the problem. As a means of carrying more passengers without running more services, Melbourne’s trams have grown ever longer. The recently introduced E-class is the longest yet and we now have, essentially, mini-trains on our streets. Vehicles of this size have no place in Acland Street. They will completely dominate and all but overwhelm the inviting ambiance of the strip. They will cut off north side from south and reduce the area to mere disembarkation point.

PTV argues that the route 96 trams cannot terminate on the curvature of The Esplanade because of safety concerns, and it’s true: they can’t. Therefore the sensible solution that encompasses all considerations of transport safety, traders’ concerns and people-friendliness, should include the following:

-          Merge the #96 tram with the former #69 to terminate in Kew, leaving the #16 to terminate at its original destination in Acland Street.

This is the exact opposite of what was done: PTV merged the #16 & #69 while the #96 claimed Acland Street as its own. ‘Through-routing’ the #96 to the more safety-appropriate straight terminus at Kew will move them out of the way. (It furthermore makes sense to have the biggest trams plying the longest route, which the combined #96/#69 would be).

-          Close off Acland Street to cars after Shakespeare Grove.

Shakespeare Grove & the earlier Albert Street would thus be the exit points for cars. Irwell Street & Belford Street would be closed to Acland Street and joined to form a crescent.

-          Ensure trams that use Acland Street are smaller than the new E-class, or even the more recent C- & D-class.

This is essential to preserve the strip’s amenity which encourages visitors (& shoppers) in the first place. It is also an opportunity to make a route for Melbourne’s famed W-class trams –something which has been discussed at length but remains sorely lacking. Virtually all of the #16 overlaps other routes serviced by modern trams. Making it a heritage-only route would provide for tourists an intrinsically Melbourne travel experience to an intrinsically Melbourne locale –while regular Melburnians could still commute in modern comfort.

-          Reduce the number of tram tracks in Acland Street from two, to one.

It’s not necessary to have double-track for such a short stretch. Having one track, in the middle of the space currently occupied by two, will create more area for café tables, outdoor stalls & general passers-by. Terminate the track just shy of Barkly Street (around Belford Street) and use the freed-up space to create a piazza. A traffic light signal of the sort commonplace on Melbourne’s tram system would inform tram drivers when there was another tram already in Acland Street.

-          Most importantly, NO SUNKEN TRAM TRACKS OR SUPER STOP.

This is a flagrantly ridiculous proposal, ostensibly to facilitate access for the elderly & disabled (an important consideration). But the vast majority of Melbourne’s tram network does not have sunken tracks, nor are they feasible. Instead we have platform stops. Acland Street need not be any different. Sunken tracks will be dangerous to pedestrians in such a heavily populated area, increasing the risk of injury, while trade will suffer from inhibiting people’s ability to pass freely between north & south side shops. Acland Street prides itself on its European heritage, but splitting the strip, Berlin Wall-style, should not be on our list of objectives.

Of course there are other subsidiary issues to consider. Where will new parking spaces be located? I would argue for a second level to be added to the car park between Irwell & Belford Streets. This doesn’t have to be the thin end of the wedge, leading to a multi-level monstrosity. One extra level would easily recoup the lost spaces on Acland Street, keeping them nearby, and providing undercover parking for those who desire it. The City of Stonnington has successfully done this with its car parking near Prahran Market. The St Kilda Triangle space might also be considered for car parking in the short-term. Of course it’s destined for greater things, but in the meantime… None of the proposals for the site are anywhere near fruition, and Melbourne has an unenviable track record of letting prime sites sit idle indefinitely.

Traders have expressed concern whether increased visitor numbers could be sustained all year round, or whether Acland Street would become barren & deserted during the winter. We could create a ‘deciduous’ (or semi-deciduous) Acland Street. One that, with the installation/removal of bollards, could be closed to traffic in the warmer months, and open in the colder. Traders may yet be pleasantly surprised to find such an approach redundant.

None of this is rocket science. It only requires all parties come together and be more open-minded & lateral-thinking than the norm. I would urge that the deeply-flawed plan Council approved on 8 December be halted, and a better solution reached. The issues of whether to pedestrianise Acland Street and whether to have a large tram terminus on it are separate, and ought not be conflated. We should give a resounding ‘yes’ to the first, and an equally resounding ‘no’ to the second.

 

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