Saving Acland Street: The Struggle Continues

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By Mark Lopez

Acland Street, St Kilda with its pleasantly quirky, family-friendly, delightfully culinary and utterly delicious inner-city magic is under threat. Our damsel is in distress, and the threat comes from the bureaucrats at Public Transport Victoria.

They wanted to plonk one of those gigantic concrete super tram stops right in the middle of it. That was their original plan. But the initial community outrage in 2013 led to the involvement of the City of Port Phillip to try to sort things out.

However, rather than championing the people and giving the plan the boot, as many locals hoped their Council would do, it worked closely with Public Transport Victoria to produce another design that is equally threatening to the precious 280 metres of shops and eateries near Luna Park that Melbournians know and love.

The new plan involves lowering a large stretch of road, creating a trench, like the one in Bridge Road Richmond. They also insist on blocking most of the street to cars and removing 100 per cent of the street parking, thereby removing any potential temporary traffic obstacles to tram movements by the new giant E-class trams in a street that is arguably too narrow for them.

The likely result: Acland Street will become a giant tram terminus with a few nearby shops crammed close by. That is, if these businesses survive the changes. Take a look at Fitzroy Street St Kilda or Bridge Road Richmond to see how many shops adjacent to super tram stops soon become vacant, with many remaining that way, years later.

A viable entertainment and shopping precinct must be served by a diverse transport mix, which includes access roads and parking. It has to be convenient. If not, many people go elsewhere. When that happens, the ‘vibe’ is lost and businesses are threatened.

Business viability is more fragile than many assume. It cannot be taken for granted.   Too many rainy days, long winters, and high rents can be challenging enough. Throw in commuter chaos and dramatically reduced accessibility to cars and you have a recipe for disaster.

The local traders are understandably concerned. Family businesses established over generations could go under. A precious heritage-rich area and vibrant multicultural locality, the kind of place that governments routinely claim to support, could be wrecked, and the happiness will drain from one of the most charming features of our city.

But Public Transport Victoria is determined to have its way. Cleverly, it has used the notion of a ‘mall’ or ‘plaza’ to beguile many who may have otherwise questioned the building of a super tram stop. The notion of turning Acland Street into a mall is a sweetener. The policy makers behind this do not care one way or another about a mall. They want the super tram stop terminus. The mall is mentioned because they know that most of us love the idea of a mall, a notion with pleasing connotations of leisurely, pedestrian-friendly public spaces.

But this proposal has problems. For a mall to work in a narrow street it would need to be a public space without trams. This narrow street will have an enormous super tram stop carved into it, and the frequent 2 to 4 minute tram movements by enormous E-Class trams will destroy the amenity of the environment. No carefree leisure will be found here. What they call a ‘mall’ will in actuality be a giant transport terminus with a few nearby shops crammed close by. That is, if these businesses survive the changes.

Meanwhile, there are sensible, economical alternatives to turning Acland Street into a super tram stop terminus, such as shifting the terminus to the wide open space in front of nearby Luna Park or to nearby Elwood, which would allow us to keep Acland Street as it is.

But Public Transport Victoria claims they have an engineer’s report that means that a tram stop terminus in front of Luna Park is not viable, yet the Acland Street traders recently commissioned the same engineer, now working for a different company, to re-examine that option and, this time, proposing a new design, he concluded otherwise.

As Palma Smith, the president of the Acland Street traders, said: ‘In my opinion, this alternative terminus is perfectly viable’.

When I go to Acland Street on the weekend, I see so many smiling faces of people enjoying themselves. I want to keep it that way. That is what this struggle to save the Acland village is all about.

Public Transport Victoria has a poor track record regarding the frequency in which their super tram stop policy produces inadvertent negative consequences for the community it is supposed to serve, as is evident for all to see in Fitzroy Street St Kilda and Bridge Road Richmond.

Yet, on what is vitally important to Acland Street’s ongoing viability, Public Transport Victoria still refuses to compromise.

But, fortunately, more people are speaking up against them.

The claims by Public Transport Victoria and the City of Port Phillip that they have majority support are questionable. Much of their data was collected while Public Transport Victoria’s well-resourced marketing of the plan reigned supreme, before those concerned about the viability of the proposal were sufficiently organised to get their message out. But as that message gets out, public opinion is changing.

The Acland Street traders organised a petition that in about two weeks got about a thousand signatures against the proposal. At around the same time in this David and Goliath struggle, the well-resourced City of Port Phillip got ‘921 responses’ to their ‘phase two engagement’ survey, of which ‘55 to 67%’ responded positively to the five questions asked.   But note, none of their questions asked respondents whether they wanted Acland Street to stay the same. Meanwhile, the ‘Save Acland Village’ Facebook site quickly gained 750 members, with nearly all of them being worried about, or opposed to, the redevelopment proposal. A visit to this public site reveals that the counter-arguments are gaining increasing support.

One of the most beautiful expressions of politics is when people from diverse backgrounds and from all political persuasions stand together for a common cause.

This is happening now over the Public Transport Victoria’s plans to turn beloved Acland Street St Kilda, one of the jewels of our city, into a super tram stop terminus.

However, in the meantime, the councillors of the City of Port Phillip voted unanimously on 8 December to greenlight PTV’s bulldozers.

Despite our disappointment, this has only served to boost the resolve and numbers of the people wanting to save Acland Street.

The struggle continues.

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