Working at Tract Consultants near Bridge Road in Richmond gives me a front-row seat on the city's sad trend of high-street decline. Every day, I watch one of the city's key retail strips slowly lose tenants. Walking to get my lunch, I often pass three or four empty shops in a row - and the ones that are still open are having closing-down sales. My guess is that 30% of the shops are vacant.
This decline has been going on for a while, but yesterday I noticed a new sign of desperation: a number of shops on the street are displaying this poster in their windows.
This campaign felt misguided to me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on why.
That evening I walked past the new H&M and UNIQLO - where there are still queues out the door on some nights. Next, I got home and unwrapped a parcel, containing a new pair of shoes I'd bought online, cheaply, from Asos in England.
It dawned on me - rather guiltily - that if our inner-urban shopping strips die, parking won't be the reason.
High-street retailers face two brutal competitors, in the form of big-box retail and online shopfronts. Both are vastly better at marketing, and have the advantage of advanced supply chains and economies of scale. This enables them to easily undercut small operators, even displacing the outlet stores of Bridge Road. They're simply more competitive - if you're only looking at prices.
The thing is, nobody dreams of living on a quaint little street with a friendly local lKEA, Zara and DFO. Large retailers, while cheap, are just as anonymous as eBay; they add no identity to the places they set up in, nor do their owners truly belong to the community in the way a small business owner does.
Small retailers are essential to the fine-grained, individual appeal of our Main Streets. These active, diverse frontages create the walkable, interesting environments that Australians from other cities marvel at. In short, small retail is an essential part of Melbourne's livability.
Despite this vital contribution to our city, the vacancies I see on Bridge Road suggest that we're collectively putting low prices first - or that at times we're content to act as 'free riders' by enjoying these beautiful streets while shopping in cheaper, less distinctive places. Maybe this is because we're subject to a constant economic narrative of 'belt-tightening'; maybe we just like having more stuff. Maybe shopping on the couch with iPad in hand is just easier.
Either way, the fact that residential development in these areas is moving at a crawl certainly isn't helping local retailers keep up. Sure, there are some apartment towers popping up behind the shops, buts this growth is too slow to offset the loss of regional customers. The local customer base isn't growing very fast, but the overheads - and competitors - are. Meanwhile, residential growth at the fringe (and in the CBD) continues apace, where regulations are more conducive.
I spoke to The University of Melbourne's Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, and he agrees that parking isn't the problem - but he isn't convinced that retail is in serious trouble.
Bridge Road might be losing some retail space to online competitors, but high street retail will generally be fine. I'm hopeful that the less successful strips will become mixed spaces, with small-scale production workshops and studios filling the gaps between surviving stores.Kim Dovey, Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, University of Melbourne
I like the vision of Bridge Road as a place where things get made. Watching a 3D printer do its thing might be just as good as window shopping. I'm also hopeful that a rise in shop-top residential could effectively cross-subsidise street retailers, providing landlords with a new income stream and enabling them to ease off on retail rental rates, which are often blamed for high vacancy rates. Perhaps Bridge Road will simply shift from its regional factory outlet role into one focused on day-today local needs; this is working very well for Swan Street nearby.
Tract will be conducting a corporate forum on revitalizing Main Streets later this year, focusing on our doorstep - Bridge Road. Hosted from some vacant Bridge Road shops, our range of local and interstate experts will shed some light on why some streets thrive and why others dwindle.
From what I've seen, the successful Main Streets display authenticity, localism, and retail diversity. They need amenity from high quality streetscapes, an active trader association, and a growing residential catchment. Parking does matter, but it's only one factor among many and it doesn't solely explain the decline of Bridge Road. I look forward to a broader discussion later this year to bring out some really inspired ideas for the future of this iconic street.
Thami Croeser is an Assistant Town Planner at Tract Consultants and studies at the University of Melbourne. This article first appeared in Planning Institute of Australia, Victoria Division's "Planning News" June 2014 issue.