Fitzroy Street shops in hot water!

One of the guiding tenets of Buddhist philosophy is that everything changes, nothing remains the same, and until you have a deep and instinctive understanding of change in all things, one cannot be said to have attained true understanding and wisdom. 

We are all aware of the big changes; mountains erode over centuries, the landscape alters with the seasons, the weather changes daily, buildings get replaced by bigger ones, technology changes things, governments change at regular intervals and relationships between people change as do our bodies.

Some of these changes are geologically slow and others are more dramatic, but slow urban changes are often not appreciated for what they are, particularly when commercial interests are at stake; the reasons are often misunderstood and desirable change is resisted.

These reflections are prompted by recent cri de coeur from shop-keepers in Fitzroy Street that Port Phillip Council should be doing more to support them by attracting more visitors in a cold winter.

For non-residents, Fitzroy Street is the long street that leads into St Kilda when coming from the city by tram or car.  These comments focus on the long retail block in Fitzroy Street that stretches from Grey Street/Canterbury Road and the George Hotel at the St Kilda Road end, to Acland Street and the Esplanade at the other end where you get your first glimpses of the Bay from the tram. 

It's a broad street with avenues of mature trees along both sides and the shops are mainly along the north facing side of the street.  There are some solid establish-ments at the Acland Street end, such as the Prince of Wales Hotel and Di Stasio, one of Melbourne's best restaurants, but most of this strip have become fast food places, some of which change from kebabs to frozen yoghurt every six months.

It was a really grand street once and the evidence of old villas peeping over the lower shops can still be seen.  St Kilda was established when rich people left the hot and crowded inner city areas and moved across the river, first to Emerald Hill, (now South Melbourne) and then on to St Kilda in 1857 when Melbourne's first train line was extended across the wetlands of what is now Albert Park to a terminus in Fitzroy Street.  Older buildings on the hill in Acland Street, such as Christ Church (1854) and the row of terraces opposite the church, will give you an idea of what St Kilda must have been like in those early days.

With rail access, St Kilda became a popular 'day out' destination right from the beginning, but as Melbourne expanded St Kilda itself was affected by the depressions of the 1890's and the inter-war period, and became less exclusive over time.  But 'St Kilda by the Sea' remained popular as a holiday destination, and Luna Park (1912) and the Palais Cinema (1927) only added to its attractions until the end of the Second World War.  The writer Hal Porter, who managed the George Hotel for a while, described St Kilda at the end of the war as a suburb that 'had skidded down from fashionable elegance ….to the tawdry and downright criminal.'

Sydney's equivalent day-out resort is Manly at the end of a long ferry ride with the slogan, 'Ten miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care'. But Manly was always more of a beach place and never developed St Kilda's other attractions or its raffish qualities.

I grew up in Sydney and didn't experience the free and easy days of post war-St Kilda but it's clear, both as a ten years newcomer and a student of cities, that St Kilda has been gentrifying and changing its character like the rest of inner Melbourne ever since the 39-45 war.  Property values have soared and the demographic base has changed in tandem, the boarding houses have long since gone and St Kilda is no longer the unique food destination it may have been once. 

It has served well for over a hundred years, but we are probably at the tail end of St Kilda as an inner city 'Day Out' resort destination being a major factor in its economic life.  There are still visitors peering into the Acland Street cake shops, and St Kilda will always remain a special part of Melbourne's heart and history, but in a different sort of way.

The Fitzroy Street shopkeepers are like the frog in that fable management consultants love to tell about a frog in a pot of water where the water is slowly getting hotter.  Like the frog they should hop out to survive, but because it's been so gradual they are hanging on hoping that something will save them before they are cooked!

The traders want parking along that part of Fitzroy Street to be free to attract visitors, and CCTV cameras installed to make the street safer late at night; they stopped short of demanding that the Council should also do something about the cold winter!  As well there are plans to beautify the street with posh paving and lovely landscaping, even an artwork, but all these actions, desirable as they may be, are ignoring the demographic changes, and whether they will put more bums on restaurant seats is doubtful.

The increasing ratepayer subsidy needed to prop up the declining St Kilda Festival is part of the same nostalgic reluctance to accept the evidence that the culture of St Kilda is changing.  And the fatuous claim that the Triangle car park is a site of international importance that needs to be developed with an important cultural institution in order to attract visitors to St Kilda, also misses the point and fails to ask what would genuinely best serve local residents. 

Most residents don't see why our high rates should be used to support Fitzroy Street's failing fast food shops, or to subsidise the declining St Kilda Festival.  Many people would also be reluctant for the Council to lose the not inconsiderable income from a landscaped Triangle car park unless it were replaced by a resident-friendly, low cost solution like a contemporary art-garden. If only we could bring back Carlo Catani, he would not only have known what to do, but would have acted rather than talked! 

Many of the Fitzroy Street buildings are on small sites, are only one or two storeys high and are ripe for redevelopment.  The property world is a brutal one and left alone this block will continue to decline until developers find it financially feasible to amalgamate sites and redevelop.  And in the normal course of events this process will happen in a piecemeal way, dependent on what sites are for sale and the possibility of amalgamation. The hit and miss developments that might result are not a good way to achieve the best outcome for Fitzroy Street!

Fitzroy Street top

Fitzroy Street on the city side of Grey Street.

An existing model of desirable development (above) can be viewed simply by crossing Grey Street towards St Kilda Junction.  This part of Fitzroy Street has flexible awnings, the footpath is more open as a consequence, the trees can grow straight and there are fewer signs, sun is admitted in winter and there are apartment buildings above the shops.  With a resident population living above them, ground floor cafes and shops are more permanent and the streetscape is more attractive. 

The poorer part of Fitzroy Street from Acland to Grey, see below, has fixed cantilever awnings that restrict and distort the growth of the trees and make the footpath cold and unfriendly in winter, and this isn't helped by the on-the-whole unattractive shops and display.  There is clearly a time and place for fast food outlets, but however sympathetic one might be to the winter woes of the retailers, the market in the form of empty shops, is trying to tell us some thing!

Fizroy Steet Bottom

Fitzroy Street between Acland and Grey Streets

The street has to align with the demographic changes that are happening and go more up-market.  We need to get a retail mix in Fitzroy Street that is more directed to the residents and not so totally oriented to visitors.  What is needed are more attractive shops like di Chirico the Baker and La Formaggeria, along with a bookshop, a florist and a fresh fruit and vegetable shop; it's not all about the visitors any more Stupid, it's also about the residents!  

In such a long term, changing situation the City of Port Phillip has limited powers to steer free enterprise development in the right direction, and there's nothing on their web site about the future of Fitzroy Street except the proposed streetscape improvements.  

One desirable thing that would help would be a three dimensional scheme for the future development of the whole block from Acland to Grey, and as back as far as parallel Jackson Street at the rear.  One can never guarantee the architectural design of course, it might be brilliant or ordinary, but we could at least ensure the eventual overall design works well in all the other urban design ways, particularly at street level.  Eight storey residential buildings located over the shops are desirable to increase density and provide the economic base for a thriving new Fitzroy Street.

This model should be practical and take existing property boundaries into account and retain heritage buildings like the old French Embassy.  Desirable heights, floor space, materials and setbacks should be set down as a guide to show developers what is considered desirable and would meet with Council approval. Acquisition and amalgamation would be left to developers and property owners of course, and although there would no doubt be some changes made along the way, there would always be a clear three dimensional legal Development Control Plan in existence to act as a guide to satisfying the goals of the community. 

The main thing we have to accept is that St Kilda is changing whether we like it or not, and so will Fitzroy Street whether the retailers get cooked by winter circumstances or not.  A long-term plan for redevelopment would be much more useful than either free parking or more elegant litterbins, but then it's not an either/or situation.  It is desirable that we have both short term actions and a long term plan for change. 

Don Gazzard LFAIA
September 2015