Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Must there always be a 'bad side'?

Go to almost any rail-based retail strip in Melbourne and you'll find a 'good side' and a 'blighted side'.

The good side has the busy shops; the bad side has the empty shops, derelict buildings, tattoo parlours, pawnbrokers, sex shops, secondhand dealers and other low-rent and marginal uses.

The reason is visibility and pedestrian access. A thriving retail shopping strip caters to many needs and tastes. You won't want to go into every shop, but if there's one across the road that grabs you, one expects to be able to walk directly to it and be inside within 20 or 30 seconds. Poor visibility, waiting or backtracking kills the shopping experience and reduces customer count and sales. This is because the number of shops one can impulsively entered in a 30 minute visit to the strip is reduced. If people can't get adequate and accessible variety they they'll go elsewhere (eg a large shopping centre where the traffic problems are left outside in the car park).

This goes some way to explain why shopping strips based around or near traffic sewers (North Road Ormond or South Road Moorabbin) are failures, while those based around smaller streets (Puckle Street Moonee Ponds or Koornang Road Carnegie) are successes. And along the same street, eg High Street Preston, those sections with closer intervals between pedestrian signals win more shoppers than those that don't.

Nevertheless traffic along a shopping street (or more precisely long gaps between pedestrian crossings and long cycles for those that exist) isn't the only enemy of easy access to shops. Railway lines or major highways, running across a shopping street can divide an area, reducing visibility and/or access. Shops require much closer links between them than do houses; customers often go from shop to shop, but people seldom go from house to house in a street. Not only does visibility have to be good, but retail shops need to be almost adjoining and on the same level to maintain interest and encourage the shopper to 'drop in'.

Anything like a major highway or railway line violates the need for good sight and quick access and condemns the less favoured half of the shopping strip to decline (*). An underpass helps, but not if it is indirect and results in extra walking (as many low-grade DDA-compliant ones can be). Overpasses have similar problems. Even the 'cage' appearance of at-grade gates or booms reduces sightlines, even though in 80% of cases these won't be closed and access is faster than the perception of same.

What about grade seperation of road and rail? Local retailers appear to like this and think it will fix all their problems. While there may be other benefits of grade seperation, fixing a divided retail strip is not necessarily one of them. Indeed it could make matters worse; making a two dimensional problem into a three dimensional problem, further 'killing off' the less favoured side.

Oakleigh, Huntingdale, Sunshine and Richmond station grade seperations are all failures from an urban amenity standpoint. All have caused or encouraged significant urban blight in the overpasses' shadow. Even Elsternwick, which I have praised before, has it's 'bad side' of the line, as Reuben points out (and it was that post which encouraged this one).

If grade seperations aren't the cure for divided shopping strips, what is? I don't think there is one given the clear sightlines and continuous access required within a shopping strip for it to function as a whole. In this case it might be better to admit defeat and rezone the 'blighted sides' of shopping strips from 'retail' to 'residential - high density' with mixed uses also permitted.

This has a number of benefits. For a start it increases the pedshed of the railway station and local shopping strip, generating custom for both. While residents of this area will need to cross the railway or road to reach the shops this is acceptable since once over the line access between all shops in the strip will be good. Urban blight will be minimised since the retail strip will no longer be divided and there will be increased pedestrian traffic from local residents. And if the strip needs to be expanded, some houses could be rezoned mixed use or commercial towards the unblocked end of the strip.

(*) Reservoir seems to be one exception - with two active shopping strips on both sides of the railway.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reference, Peter. Appreciate it.

It's interesting that you bring up Reservoir as an example. Reservoir is one of those rare stations (and suburbs for that matter) where there is a massive intersection that - somehow - has a level crossing sprung across it. Pedestrian access at Reservoir is uniformly poor...and yet there is no remarkable decline in the quality of shops on either side. As my post mentions, the exact opposite is the case with Elsternwick which - by and large - has excellent pedestrian access and has been heralded as a 'good' station. Further to this, Reservoir is a fairly poor neighborhood whereas Elsternwick is in the top ten suburb bracket.

Peter Parker said...

I'll guess. Heaps of low income people in units walking distance from the shops. Also a fair number of retirees?

As you say, terrible access across. So terrible that people would avoid it unless essential.

So two sides operate more or less independently and there's enough people who walk to their local shops to sustain them on both sides?

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that sounds like Reservoir. I think the popularity of both shops is accounted for in that the residents on either side of the tracks shop locally. I know East Reservoir is poorer than the Western side, and I'd expect - therefore - the shops along the Eastern side (Broadway) to be more rundown. Anecdotally, this is certainly true...perhaps because money was recently invested in the other shopping strip.

My recommendation: Grade separation and greater access between station and outlying streets.

You're on my blogroll, by the way.

Anonymous said...

Peter, it's not my role to fill your blog with controversial sociological anthropological comments, but I think it goes beyond what you've written.

Urban planning is important, but my question is why Australia has less retail than other countries. I've recently come back from KL - shops by the millions, shops in 10 storey enclosed malls, shops by the street-side, shops in old buildings, shops in new.

And brand names by the thousands, not by the dozens as we see in Australia.

I think retail culture is dying in Australia.

I suspect hi-rise with IGA supermarkets in their basement is the way to go for those low value sites.

Anonymous said...

Reservoir seems to be considered locally as different suburbs or localities; Broadway is different from Reservoir in the cultural mindset of most people.

Oddly enough; the low income/retiree aspect is changing slowly, Northcote's gentrification is marching north as middle-income families wanting to do a Deveney* (move into an multicultural area so they can breathlessly pretend that they're somewhere interesting while actually causing the place to be exactly like the outer suburbs they pretend to hate as they quite don't like the darkies) can no longer afford the wherewithall to get into Preston even.

Actually, Preston's another interesting split; the medium-rise on the western side of the tracks has seemed to fail a bit, mainly because it is split off the renovated activity centre of Preston Market by the station.

*Named after Catherine Deveney, the left-wing stereotype and narrow-minded git in The Age

Anonymous said...

Ah Notch, I can't bite about your Deveney reference on PP's blog.

I will say I don't think it is a bad thing for suburbs to go through cycles, including gentrification, and if the rail line assists this, all the better.

Whitebread or otherwise, this will probably catch all suburbs in the end, even yours. The darkies will eventually die off (the old ones) and their descendents will move to the outer burbs with the more established ethnic groups, added to the mix.

The reason I prefer to see the cycles is the building stock: most buildings in Melbourne are not ageing well past their 100th birthdays, some get rejuvenated but most will be pulled down.

Gentrification tends to be the early rejuvenation of the suburb, while demolition and new building stock cleans up the remaining properties that weren't economic or desirable reno jobs.

The key question for us is whether the renewed suburb has good PT or not; higher density is useless if people still need 3 cars per household, and some of the renewal jobs seem just as bad as the outer suburbs, for example, Victoria Garden, has a tram route but is swimming in parking.

Anonymous said...

Quick comment - Oakleigh is a disaster, but I think Huntingdale was bad news anyway. Light industrial and factories, overtaken by offshoring. The large carpark on the downside is a symptom of the zone 1 boundary, a avoidable consequence of a bad ticket system.

Huntingdale is a pretty down-at-heel area anyway, I don't know why, probably the rust-belt feel.

Sunshine, can't say. The grade sep looks like it did a lot of damage but suspect it has the hundred years of former industry overshadowing the area too.

And would Richmond have ever been anything but a disaster with 8 lanes of Punt Rd crossing it? Maybe Underground would have been the best shot.

What I don't get with Elsternwick is why didn't they pull down the station and redevelop the whole site, not just one side of it. What is Victrack trying to hold onto? The quadruplicaiton of the Sandy line?