Cars may roll down Bridge Street for the first time in many decades under new proposals put forward by the City of Ballarat Council today.
The plans also suggest pumping $15million dollars into improving the public realm of the much maligned retail district.
City of Ballarat Council CEO Justine Linley said that the proposals, which will be considered by councillors next Wednesday (May 15), were a big opportunity to revitalise the area.
This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference. Not to do a bandaid, but to make a significant difference and re-vitalise this part of the CBDJustine Linley, CEO City of Ballarat
"The reality is that decline is here, it's continuing to happen and it's not good enough," Ms Linley told The Courier.
"This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a difference. Not to do a bandaid, but to make a significant difference and re-vitalise this part of the CBD."
Plans to reopen the Bridge Mall to traffic have been put forward several times. Former mayor David Vendy called for it to be opened as far back as 2005, but a 16,000-strong petition saw his plans rejected.
The vacancy rate in the mall now stands at 17.6 per cent according to council statistics, which represents an almost three-fold increase since 2012.
The funding would be spread over three financial years, with Council aiming to increase the amount of green space, restore historic shopfronts, and improve safety and security.
Council officers hope the improvements would spark a more diverse offering of retail, commerce, and entertainment, and encourage more people to live in the CBD.
Ms Linley stressed that the plans would not mean a return of Bridge Street to being a main thoroughfare, saying that Mair Street would remain the city's main arterial road. She said she hoped Bridge Street could become like Lygon Street in Melbourne. Plans say traffic would return at a "scale and a pace that allows people to see the beauty of Bridge Street and the heart of Ballarat."
The plans would also "celebrate Ballarat's history, from indigenous origins through the gold rushes and beyond." Ms Linley mentioned one possibility might be to mark the existence of the Yarrowee, which runs beneath the mall.
Meanwhile, Angelique Lush, the council's director of development and planning, said plans would act as "catalyst for investment".
"We have a number of investors looking around Ballarat for where the opportunity is and they don't see them in that space - but if we can show them the vision of what could be there, that changes the thinking and the mindset immediately."
"If you can get more of that passing trade, more vibrancy, the property values and the opportunity to grow and expand businesses in that precinct will follow."
Both Ms Lush and Ms Linley acknowledged that the proposals to breathe new life into the mall had been proposed and failed on several previous occasions - including plans to open it to traffic - but remained hopeful this time would be different.
Ms Lush said that recent community consultation showed a much greater appetite for change.
"They are saying to us openly - 'you've got to do something', businesses haven't been doing well down there for the last two or three years."
"What we've tried hasn't worked down there and something really has to change."
"The shop frontages are very narrow but the facades are so beautiful. I think we'll end up with some very unique, boutique and niche product offerings out there."
David Wright of Colliers real estate said he was very supportive of the investment and re-opening the street to traffic. "The Bridge Mall is slowly dying and it can't just rely on the private sector to invest in that area and make a change. It has to come from the top."
"The sooner it happens, the better."
The proposals are part of a wider masterplan for Bakery Hill and Bridge Mall that was developed with the help of the Victorian Planning Authority.
Ms Linley said: "We could very easily not recommend spending that amount of public money into this area, but it means we're turning our backs on the problem."
"We shouldn't be scared about being bold."
Key points from the proposed plan
- The plan goes to councillors for approval next Wednesday (May 15).
- If approved, there would be $15million of council money invested over three years. The $15m relates just to the Bridge Street public realm, which forms part of a wider Bakery Hill/ Bridge Mall masterplan.
- No developer has put forward plans publicly yet, and there there are no concrete development proposals for privately owned Norwich Plaza available.
- The road would open to traffic again but as a "local road" rather than as a main thoroughfare.
- Exact road configurations, designs and parking plans are yet to be confirmed and would be put out to public consultation.
- Council officers hope that if the plan is approved some work could start before the end of this year.
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