The tail is wagging the Acland Street dog

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By Don Gazzard LFAIA

Eighteen months ago I assessed the possibility of making Acland Street a traffic free pedestrian space. I’ve had some professional experience with pedestrian shopping streets and while I don’t automatically assume that closing streets is always a good idea, in this case I thought it was.

Acland Street would be free of cars and I suggested that the tram stop at Barkly Street could be moved down to Shakespeare Grove so the street would also be tram free. Then the street could be amplified by fresh food stalls and shady trees, and it would also allow the current eating places perched on the edges of the footpath to be moved out off the footpaths and expanded.

There are around 146 shops in Acland Street including those in the immediate side streets but not counting the supermarkets. Sixty-six, or over 45% of them, are coffee shops, restaurants, bars or gelato shops, and this is only the numbers: if the areas (including footpath eating areas) were measured, then the eating and drinking component would be an even greater percentage. And it’s increasing all the time, at the expense of real service shops like those we’ve lost.

In 2012 several important shops were lost (the only newsagent, the only hardware store, a bakery and a florist) and replaced by coffee shops and another bank. Except for the supermarkets there is nowhere to buy fresh fruit or vegetables and Mr Gruner is the only butcher. Shopkeepers must realise that if this trend continues local residents will simply leave Acland Street to the visitors.

Since my assessment the Council has gone through the consulting motions that as usual has been interpreted by everyone to suit their own biases. The Council also commissioned an economic study that concluded that closing the street to traffic wouldn’t increase the turnovers of the shops. But the emphasis of the study was all about making it more attractive for visitors, and ignored the regenerating effect on turnovers generally of a fresh food market with all sorts of specialty stalls that would attract residents as well as visitors.

No new coffee or food stalls should be allowed; there are enough already. Better to allow the existing shops with restricted tables on the footpath to expand further into the street and free up the footpath for more visitors. Imaginative management would be needed to select stalls that would complement rather than compete. The person who advised Veg Out on the selection of stall holders at the Farmers Market should be consulted to confirm that the right sort of market people are available, even if only on certain days.

No clothes stalls either, unless they complement the existing shops by selling something special like Prue’s handmade hats and scarves. The priority should be stalls selling fresh food.

The new terminus will have a central raised platform with trams on either side so that a more frequent timetable can be adopted. Surveys revealed that a large enough number of people catch the 96 tram at the current Barkly Street terminus during the morning and evening peaks and that some of these people transfer to and from buses in Barkly Street.

The authorities have sited the new terminus on the Barkly Street side of Bedford Street. The tram stop needed for the new, longer trams means that the pedestrian space left over is now much smaller, roughly the area between the Coles Arcade and Barkly Street. It’s probably not large enough for a viable market place so it may not satisfy the concerns of residents for a fresh food market.

Although the tram tracks take up the middle of the road from the terminus down to Shakespeare Grove, there would only be some minor increases in space for some of the footpath dining areas.

Another excuse for locating the tram stop after Bedford Street was a proposed loop for cars to connect Irwell and Bedford Streets via Acland Street. In my opinion this connection is traffic overkill and just isn’t necessary. It wasn’t shown on the Council’s draft plan and has been added later.

The concerns of the authorities are valid of course and should be taken into account but judgement is required as no one factor is ever going to be completely satisfied.

The tail shouldn’t be allowed to wag the dog and the authorities have erred on the side of satisfying trams and traffic in this complex equation rather than the needs of residents.

Connections between trams and buses are often far longer than that proposed in this case. For the many people alighting in Bourke Street for example and connecting to distant platforms in Southern Cross Station the distances are far greater. The distance could be increased in this case too!

So in my Solomon like judgement, the unnecessary car loop between Bedford and Irwell should be eliminated and the tram stop should be moved back down Acland so that the tram stop is between Bedford and Irwell Streets. This would double the size of the pedestrian area up to Barkly Street, people will still be able to get off trams and walk to buses and the incorporation of some fresh food stalls for residents would also be possible.

It’s all a matter of mature judgement now, and that of the people should prevail over the technocrats; the Council must not fail us!

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