The Bridge Mall precinct is out of place and out of time. It is not a "bridge". It is a plug.
It blocks the river corridor exactly where water and public spaces around it should be signature features of Ballarat.
It would never have been there in a planned city. We can trace how it happened from the 1850s.
The early miners were followed by businesses clustering on the river flats. The natural heritage of the Yarrowee River was treated as a nuisance rather than an asset.
The ancient stream was subverted under buildings and sent west along a grim, 19th century concrete channel.
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Poor fella our river! Until the late 20th century, business was done face-to-face.
Ballarat people took the tram into town for shopping and commercial transactions. But shifting economic forces have been undermining that model for decades.
In Bridge Street, the first wave swept away household names like Morseheads and McDougal Chisholm; quality stores like Picot Widmer and Walter Davis followed along with other locally-owned businesses of fond memory.
Tinkering at the margin over the last 50 years has had no effect. It has been a race to the bottom exemplified by the crumbling Norwich Plaza building.
The precinct is physically and socially depressing, economically irretrievable. Now we have digital disruption.
We can carry out almost any transaction we want using a device in the palm of our hand.
We cannot be sure where this technology is taking us.
We do know it is leading further away from past modes of transport and commerce.
Like other cities, Ballarat faces the existential problem of adapting the historic functions of its CBD to 21st century realities.
When a business like Thomas Jewellers closes its doors 50 metres from the mall and its building is still for lease two years later, it is time to face facts.
Only myopia could make one confident that Myer, Target and Big W will be as they are and where they are five years hence.
The blunt truth is that there are too many shopfronts, not enough public spaces and too few residents in the inner-city.
Bridge Mall is a sub-set of permanent structural change in the city. It could be the focal point of a visionary urban reconstruction project. Open up the river. Adapt its flow to serve the city. That is what towns around the world have done with run-down areas.
Think Melbourne's Arts Precinct/Southbank and Docklands and Geelong's waterfront renewal.
Why not a regenerative project with local, state and federal government inputs for a nationally significant city like Ballarat as it heads to a population of 150,000 by 2040?
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A creatively re-developed river basin area broadly covering Peel to Grenville streets, Mair to Grant streets and south down the valley would have transformative effects along the river corridor and up its Sturt Street and Humffray Street/Main Road slopes.
How might it look? Much of the existing Bridge Mall could become an isthmus with a pedestrian bridge across the main channel of the river connecting to Sturt Street. The retained buildings would have a better future than they face now.
In them businesses could continue or evolve appropriately to their waterfront and public space surroundings.
Some buildings, Big W on the north and the two supermarkets on the south, for example, have nothing to commend their preservation. The sprawling bitumen car parks are out of place in a city centre.
Phased re-location should be achievable, maybe even welcomed by their Woolworths and Westfarmers owners. Dan Murphy's would thrive anywhere but the Drill Hall building is probably sacrosanct.
Sensitively located levees could direct water flows, protect buildings worth retaining and create aesthetically, environmentally and recreationally attractive pondages and land surfaces throughout the basin and along the river.
One pond might be designed for conversion through winter months to a spacious, canopied ice-skating facility.
Sovereign Hill capitalised on Ballarat's "gold" brand; why not turn our national image of "cold" to competitive advantage? Residential development in the inner-city is to be encouraged, but not in the river basin.
The attraction of property around Wendouree Parade can be summed up in one word: water.
If water and welcoming public spaces are creatively deployed in the inner-east, attractive residential development will flourish in the environs.
This article can only sketch a concept. It is a plea for deeper analysis and wider strategic thinking about the Bridge Mall precinct and its role in future.
Ballarat has the opportunity to deliver a post-COVID urban re-development project that could capture the attention of the nation. Sure, there would be technical and planning difficulties along the way.
But the crucial challenge is the human one: finding the necessary imaginative, capable leadership and the collective will to deliver a transformative project.
Without that, we face a glum future of recurring stale debates about cars in the Mall and more wasteful treating of the symptoms, not the disease.
- Frank Hurley
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