Three years of talking about Acland Street

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By Daniel Wilson

For the first time ever, passengers in wheelchairs will be able to roll off the tram onto Acland Street. This victory for the disabled has not come easy.

In 2013 the Acland Street traders staged a ‘Day of Mourning’ to draw attention to their opposition to the tram stop upgrade, suggesting it would kill the street.

Over the next three years, St Kilda News received countless articles from traders, residents, architects, Public Transport Victoria, and from the City of Port Phillip, arguing for and against the upgrade, most of which were published.

In 2014, it seemed that a compromise had been reached between the City of Port Phillip, Public Transport Victoria and the Acland Street Village Traders Group.

Back then, Chris Hickey, the owner of Grill’d on Acland Street, was president of the Acland Street Village Traders Group. He claimed the outcome was a victory of sorts for the traders, proving that they were able to take the lead on a development that affects the whole community.

Hickey said, “While we didn’t get everything we wanted … we did get them to listen. We got them to compromise on their original drafts.

“Originally, they wanted to remove all of the car parks from Acland Street and they wanted to stop all traffic in Acland Street in both directions. And they also were not going to put any money into the urban design that went around the tram upgrade. They were literally just going to come in, rip up the tracks, lay new tracks, build a new tram stop, and then go.”

Hickey added that traders’ had high hopes for the urban redesign, which he anticipated would make the Acland Street area more community-focused.

“In terms of the plaza in Acland Street, we’re hoping that we’re going to be able to create a space that is appealing for locals and visitors to use as a community space. Perhaps there’ll be opportunities for that plaza to be used for entertainment purposes, perhaps some live music, some artwork display, some community seating space. Just a place where people can come and sit and enjoy the amenity of St Kilda Village.”

In 2014, Hickey retired to make way for new president Palma Smith, owner of Gado Hair and Beauty. Under her stewardship, the Acland Street Village Traders Group argued forcefully that a plaza would not be acceptable.

Last year, she delivered a speech to Port Phillip Council where she argued “owners and tenants in Acland Street risked seeing a substantial devaluation in their properties and businesses if they accept the plans that are currently being suggested.”

The plans she referred to would destine Acland Street to be pedestrianised between Belford Street and Barkley Street; the tram tracks sunken into the street so that prams and people in wheelchairs could simply roll off the tram and onto the tram stop which leads to a pedestrian plaza.

She went on to say, “The 51 free parking spaces that will be removed from Acland Street have, as yet, not been replaced by City of Port Phillip which will lead to congestion in the back streets to the detriment of the entire surrounding precinct.”

Experts such as architect and urbanist Jan van Schaik refuted her contentions. He told St Kilda News, “The reduction of car access between Barkly and Belford Streets will increase pedestrian use of the street. On-street car-parking is a very inefficient way to deliver people to the businesses of a street as one car, with one person in it takes up about 14m2, while at least seven people can make use of the same space – and in a far more activated way. The businesses of Acland Street will become visible to a greater number of people as a result of this design and will likely see a corresponding increase in revenue.”

However, the traders were not persuaded. In fact they have been arguing for an upgrade of the Luna Park tram stop instead. Public Transport Victoria said that option was not viable. The traders commissioned an engineer, to re-examine that option, proposing a new design. Smith said, “In my opinion, this alternative terminus is perfectly viable”.

Some residents thought the plaza threatened the distinct character of Acland Street. Mark Lopez, a local activist, said it would make Acland Street less accessible. “It has to be convenient. If not, many people go elsewhere. When that happens, the ‘vibe’ is lost and businesses are threatened.”

In lamenting the loss of ‘vibe’, Lopez perhaps reveals the true nature of the opposition to the Acland Street redevelopment. St Kilda has been undergoing gentrification for the last two decades. Change can be jarring.

When Café Scheherazade closed its doors in 2008, it changed the street. Arnold Zable begins his award winning book, “In Acland Street, St Kilda, there stands a cafe called Scheherazade”. Though immortalised in literature and history, that statement is no longer true.

Mark Lopez is not alone when he fears the loss of “a precious heritage-rich area and vibrant multicultural locality”. Many of us yearn for its protection, but the causational link between gentrification and tram stops that the disabled can access was never established.

In the weeks and months leading up to the upgrade, even the Premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, had to wade in and defend the policy.

The City of Port Phillip has also been defending the decision, “Council has conducted extensive engagement to inform the Acland Street Upgrade. The engagement approach for the Acland Street Upgrade has been designed to capture a broad range of perspectives and views from the community and key stakeholders.”

At the time of writing the works are still underway. Will the plaza be as destructive as Palma Smith suggests? Or as Jan van Schaik argues, will it revitalise Acland Street? Only time will tell.

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