Thursday, 5 April 2018

Reviving Bridge Mall

There's been a lot of talk in Ballarat circles lately about how to revitalise Bridge Mall - and (somewhat coincidentally) it's happening around the same time there's been a lot of debate about the effects of various street-shaping projects on Sturt and Mair Streets. Many people are concerned about how desolate Bridge Mall can get, and worried that the same sort of thing could happen on surrounding streets - so it's worth discussing the kinds of things that help or hinder the vitality of a street.

Bridge Mall in 2016

Earlier in the year I read Jane Jacobs' seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It has a lot to say about how to make lively streets, neighbourhoods, and cities, but one of the core lessons is that the best neighbourhoods put people first, and attract a wide range of people for a wide range of reasons at a wide range of times. This diversity of uses is important for a whole range of reasons that each affect each other.

Before we get into that, what are the problems with Bridge Mall? The main two problems are that it's not doing so well as a retail precinct, with a number of storefronts going without tenants for long periods of time, and that there's a strong perception that it's unsafe - particularly at night. The two problems are closely connected.

As the retail strip declines, fewer people have a reason to visit it. The fewer people visit it, the less safe it feels - the perception being that only hoodlums would be there. The less safe it feels, the fewer people are willing to shop there - and so on.

One of many empty storefronts in Bridge Mall
So what needs to happen?

We need to bring more people into the precinct, for a wider variety of reasons, at a wider variety of times - basically, more diversity of use. This provides "passive surveillance" (the effect of lowering crime and antisocial behaviour simply because there's lots of normal people around) at a wider span of hours, while at the same time acting as a kind of "social proof" (other people are there, it must be a good place to go - I'll go too).

Part of the problem is that the current mixture of uses is heavily geared towards 9-5 retail, and 8-4 cafes. There are just very few legitimate reason to be in the Mall after about 6pm - hence the "hoodlum" perception. If there were a few businesses that opened later into the evenings, giving people a reason to visit in the evenings, that would go a long way towards fixing that - it could be anything from later-trading retail stores, to restaurants & bars, to theatres.

Of course, that's easier said than done, and there is a catch-22 here - at the moment the Mall is dead after 6pm, so what retailer would bother staying open later? What restaurateur would choose it for a location when there's no foot traffic?

The only two restaurants in the Mall are visible from Grenville Street
To some extent it can be chipped away at - the 6-8 shops at either end of the Mall are visible from Grenville Street & Peel Street, so they already get some of the "passive surveillance" effect (and notice how the only two restaurants in the Mall are crammed into the Grenville Street end?) People visiting those restaurants provide passive surveillance to the next few shops towards the middle, making them more desirable; if someone fills those shops, they provide passive surveillance to the next few, and so on. Applying the same principles of diversity of use to the surrounding streets and lanes can also help with this (Coliseum Walk is a good example).

But it's clear from the current malaise that this isn't enough on its own - there needs to be outside intervention. So what can be done?

I'm going to say at the outset - I don't really know. I have a good idea of what needs to happen (diversity of use) but how to make it happen is a bit trickier. We as Ballaratians all need to participate in that conversation - businesspeople and customers alike. But I do have a few ideas to get us started.

Tram entering Bridge St, in the days when trams & cars both ran down the street (Source)
Let's get the two big ones out of the way upfront - cars and trams.

Returning cars to Bridge Mall gets proposed every time this topic comes up, but all the evidence from around the world tells us that it won't work. The problem isn't a lack of parking - there are massive carparks either side of the Mall, not to mention all the on-street parking nearby. You might think that having cars driving past would help just from the perspective of putting more eyes on the street, but it doesn't - people are basically too focused on the task of driving, and too ensconced in their protective bubble, to either window-shop or provide much passive surveillance.

Trams probably would work - a pedestrian/tram mix like Bourke Street would tick all the boxes. People waiting for (or sitting on) trams provide good passive surveillance, and are often likely to patronise nearby businesses because they're convenient to get to. But it's a huge, expensive, city-wide project that won't happen at least for a few decades, so we need to think of more realistic short-term options.

Proposed pedestrian & cycling improvements on Grenville Street (via VicRoads)
One big problem at the moment is that the walkability access from the Grenville Street end leaves a lot to be desired. Because east-west traffic along Sturt Street diverts around the Mall via Curtis and Little Bridge Streets, any east-west traffic has to use a short stretch of Grenville Street - which means Grenville is basically handling both east-west and north-south trips in that section. A pedestrian waiting for a "walk" light therefore has to wait twice as long as usual to travel east-west across Grenville, which puts a bit of a barrier between the two shopping precincts of the Mall and Sturt Street. There's also no north-south pedestrian crossings where Grenville meets either Curtis or Little Bridge Streets, meaning you have to divert out of your way to cross at signalled crossings further east.

It's not like it's impossible to cross here - but you want an area like this to be as porous as possible, to actively encourage shoppers to walk a little further and check out the next block. Making crossings like this difficult acts as a subtle signal to pedestrians saying "It's not worth going any further this way".

Thankfully, there is already work underway to improve this. VicRoads and Council are working to upgrade Mair Street so it can take more of that east-west traffic off Sturt Street - which will hopefully mean we can have more pedestrian-friendly light cycles on Grenville Street. As part of a separate project, they're also intending to install new crossings where Grenville meets Curtis and Little Bridge, which will be a big help (aspects of the planned cycling improvements on Sturt Street have been sent back to the drawing board in controversial circumstances, but I understand this aspect is still going ahead).

No bikes allowed!
Beyond these plans, the first step that could be taken is to allow cyclists to ride through the Mall, at sensible speeds. Currently bikes are banned from the Mall, along with skateboards and scooters - no doubt due to the desire to get rid of loitering teen hoodlums, and/or the perception that anybody with the money to go shopping would drive a car.

But there are plenty of adult cyclists (with disposable income!) who could take their bikes through the Mall - perhaps stop off at one of the cafes on the way to work, or do a little clothes or book shopping on their way home.

Even if they just rode straight through (choosing the Mall because it's safer than dodging traffic on the surrounding streets) they would provide a lot of passive surveillance, including outside normal business hours.

One of many non-functioning lightposts in the Mall
The second thing that could be done - fix the lighting. There are dozens of lightposts along the Mall, but well under half of them actually emit light. I don't know whether the globes are burned out or if they've been vandalised, but whatever the reason - most of them are missing, and the Mall is only sporadically lit as a result. It looks dark and uninviting - and to many people, downright frightening. Making the Mall better-lit at night would go a long way towards increasing the perception of safety, and encouraging people to enter.

Most of the buildings in the Mall have upper storeys that are under-used
The third thing that could be done - encouraging better use of the upstairs sections of the stores. Many of the stores are two or three storeys tall, but the upper levels are usually either disused, or have low-value uses (like storage). This is in many ways prime real estate - close to shops, restaurants, workplaces, public transport - so if the spaces were available and nicely done-up, renters would pay a premium to live there. And when you've got people living there, coming in and out of their homes at a wide range of hours, and looking out their windows at other times, you get a massive boost in passive surveillance.

Fourth - projects like this Ballarat Arts Foundation initiative could be a great way to kickstart things. Hopefully some of them will be able attract people after normal business hours - whether through later opening hours, or by being able to be enjoyed 24/7, in the case of artistic displays visible from the street. If empty spaces could be used for small community theatre productions in the evenings, for example, that would be a good way to get the ball rolling.

Wendouree West bus in Ballarat (via jayessaitch on Flickr)
Fifth - better public transport in the evenings. I know, I know - a bugbear of mine - but this is a problem that impacts night life throughout Ballarat, not just the Mall. The bus network basically shuts down around 7pm, which means if you actually wanted to access extended-hours shopping, or restaurants or movies or plays - let alone go out for a serious night of drinking - your transport options are limited. If you don't live close enough to walk or cycle, you'll either need to drive (not an option if you want to drink) or take a taxi. For a really usable system that would attract a lot of people, you'd need to extend the existing frequencies to about 9pm and then have lower frequencies till about 11pm, but to be honest, even a low-frequency service after 7pm would be a good start.

Finally - specifically encouraging the kinds of businesses that open later in the evenings. The zoning appears to be conducive to them, but clearly it's not just about allowing these types of businesses - we need to actively encourage them. Maybe obtaining some of the permits, like liquor licenses for restaurants, is too cumbersome - in which case council could streamline this process for businesses willing to take a chance on the Mall. Maybe that's not the issue at all - I don't know. Like I said, we need the businesspeople to get involved in this conversation, and tell us what the barriers are.

The point is not that this is remotely easy or that I have a simple list of solutions on hand. It isn't, and I don't. But we need to have an understanding of how these things work - what kind of general conditions encourage a lively precinct - if we're to know what goals we're heading for.

In order to actually achieve those goals - to know which policy levers to pull in order to get there - we all need to get involved.

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