It may seem like unearthing one of the oldest chestnuts in the book when the public is being asked to reconsider re-opening the Bridge Mall to traffic but it is a debate still worth having if the right questions are being asked.
Despite the issue rolling around with perennial regularity for Ballarat what is new and needs to be considered is the particular predicament CBD retail finds itself in 2017.
Bridge Mall is not alone in tackling the combined pressures faced by these retailers; balancing income with rent, filling empty shops, creating adequate accessibility including parking in a nineteenth century inner-city heritage landscape and perhaps most of all, getting the sheer numbers through the door when the greatest threat to retail comes form online alternatives.
Opening Bridge Mall to traffic alone may not solve these issues but any solution must answer the question; how does Ballarat create a more inviting and attractive retail or community area at the heart of its CBD.
When Bridge Street was home to trams and a flow of much lighter traffic it carried its own vitality. Populations grew and cars multiplied and as car parking spaces become scarcer, the attraction of freestanding all-in-one shopping centres often on city fringes grew stronger.
The concept is largely traced back to 1950s shopping mall pioneer Victor Gruen whose idea, despite what they have morphed into, was fundamentally inspired by creating communal spaces: “By affording opportunities for social life and recreation in a protected pedestrian environment, by incorporating civic and educational facilities,”
But Gruen also recognised with retail it was fundamentally about profit.
The ancillary of these attractive spaces was a place where people would shop and spend; “the environment should be so attractive that customers will enjoy shopping trips.
This will result in cash registers ringing more often and recording higher sales.”
The pedestrianised, converted malls in so many Australian country towns sought to create this same village attractiveness, a social as well as retail space within the confines of traditional main street strip shops.
Many have argued they have had their day and some cities like Stawell and Newcastle have considered the same plight.
But it is worth considering if funnelling traffic back into these narrow spaces – and Bridge Street would struggle with the full flow of wide Sturt Street traffic - would alone enhance the space as a place for pedestrians and shoppers.
Ultimately whether it is safety, atmosphere, diversity or amenity; any solutions must answer the basic question about what it would take to bring the people back.