One of Ballarat's most storied precincts, Bakery Hill now faces challenges familiar to many of the older CBD districts around the country.
Since May 2019, when the prospect of significant investment and regeneration was flagged publicly, there has been much discussion about what should be done. Little tangible has changed since - but 2021 may be a year when key decisions are taken.
Planners, retailers and residents will hope that, whatever they are, they usher in a new era to an area at the heart of Ballarat's evolution. This is the place where rebellion brewed, as miners gathered on Bakery Hill to rally against a colonial administrator shortly before the seismic events of the Eureka Stockade. As the town grew, and the extracted wealth of its surrounding geology shaped the public realm, the streets became a grand entrance.
Today, the grandeur has faded and many of the issues are distinctly contemporary. One of the major challenges is that facing retailers, which have populated many of the buildings since the first watchmakers and saddlers popped up to serve the newly arrived mining community.
As Ballarat's population has expanded, other shopping precincts have sprung up in many different areas of the city. Stockland in Wendouree, Delacombe Town Centre - and now Lucas - are all thriving retail centres, convenient to ever more people as the balance of the city's population moves.
Those same demographic shifts are also draining people from the centre of the city. The Marvella Heights on St Paul's Way - which went through a long and sometimes fraught development cycle - is bringing more than 70 new townhouses into the market in the area. But it is the exception. While Ballarat's population as a whole keeps rising, the CBD, including Bakery Hill, remains stubbornly flat - and at times has even dwindled. Fewer residents can mean fewer customers, and less vitality.
The internet, too, is having its impact: anecdotal reports suggest that even more retailers have decided to dispense with a physical presence as a result of the pandemic.
The return of cars
It was in the wider context of a precinct facing contemporary problems that council officers publicly tested the waters for the revitalisation of Bakery Hill back in May 2019.
In that announcement, just ahead of that year's council budget, officers said $15 million would be invested into the area over three years. This has not been invested as promptly as hoped expected - $6m of the money earmarked for this financial year was held back until next year, and a recent quarterly financial report flagged "minor delays" to the project. However, the intent remains: invest, with the aim of attracting private funds and new life to an area in need of rejuvenation.
The headline that emerged from that initial testing of public appetite for change was the reopening of Bridge Mall back up to traffic. It is not a new debate in Ballarat. The issue has popped up at irregular intervals, since the historic street closed to traffic in 1981.
While Bakery Hill is a much larger district than just Bridge Mall, the street has been its main artery since the early days. It was the site of the first bridge in Ballarat, over the shallow Yarrowee River, and where many of the high profile shops evolved. Whatever happens in Bridge Mall will have a ripple effect around it.
This time, the debate around whether traffic should come back through Bridge Mall may be redundant: it seems more of a question of how cars will return rather than when. Given the narrowness of the old Bridge Street, a two-way road seems out of the question. So will traffic travel from the west to east, showcasing the street as an entrance to the city? Or from east to west to allow easier access for locals?
To advise on that question, a design company was appointed last May - in a rare piece of non-pandemic news in the city - to map out how Bridge Mall should evolve. Hassell, which is based in Melbourne, was tasked with scoping out the best solutions for the street, geared towards boosting business in the area.
The Courier understands the favoured design is to allow one-way traffic from the east to the west. Other observers - including councillors - are believed to favour a west to east entrance for cars.
The City of Ballarat has said Hassell's proposals will go before council early in the new year. Decisions are also likely early in the new year for "early works" to improve the public realm.
This is one of the ways designed to help attract private investment, whether in the shape of development projects, or other landowners smartening up their own properties.
Some of the possibilities - outlined in the Bakery Hill Urban Renewal Plan, which was signed off by councillors in October 2019 - will seem esoteric at the moment. These include opening up the Yarrowee River - which currently runs underneath the heart of the CBD, funnelled underground by Mair Street, then only re-emerging in bluestone channels by Eastwood Street. It is a project unlikely to see the light of day in the short-term.
But there will be some change, and it should happen soon, the council says, promising a "big year" for Bakery Hill. In a statement, the City of Ballarat says there will be a choice for the early works between Curtis Street and Little Bridge Street, which run parallel to each other and bracket the Bridge Mall shops.
Little Bridge Street, in particular, has become known for its challenges. It has a poor reputation for safety, which persists despite previous investments, such as the new pocket park at its eastern end near Coles. In June, the Federal Government announced funds for more lighting, CCTV cameras and upgraded security. Alone, they won't be enough, but perhaps the momentum to changing the area will gather pace.
Once council makes its call, the public realm works on either Curtis Street or Little Bridge Street should get underway this year. Works on the Bridge Mall itself would not happen until 2022, a council spokesperson said. However, they also said a business support package would "focus on the heritage of the precinct and enhancing the facades of shop fronts."
How to use the land
The City of Ballarat clearly has a key role in generating interest and setting out a vision for how the area should change. Aspects of any change may happen organically, without too much input from council. Main Road, which lies in Bakery Hill, is one example.
It is changing, attracting more "destination" shops such as the one set up by designer Nicola Cerini late this year, joining other places people make a specific journey to go to: the Mr Jones restaurant and the Known World Book Store for example. Could the impact of that street's evolution filter downhill towards the Bridge Street?
Apart from the strategic planning and generating interest, another area where the council holds a lot of the cards in the broader area is with the land available. The City of Ballarat is one of the main landholders in the precinct. Most of that is car parking, with the biggest slab of all being the land between Woolworths and Coles.
The council may be hamstrung somewhat, on that larger site at least. A questionnaire went out last month, organised by the consultants Ernst & Young, who have been appointed by the City of Ballarat to help establish how the council should approach three properties in the precinct.
For the larger car park, the council is tied to an old 1980 deed that requires them to supply approximately 530 car spaces to be used by people visiting Coles. That agreement apparently stands while the supermarket is trading - a significant obstacle - although a multi-storey car park such as the one servicing Central Square at Dana Street has been suggested as a solution to free up the land.
The other two car parks - a site of 1,734 square metres at 5 Peel Street South, and a smaller site at 28 to 32 Peel Street North - have less obstacles preventing their development - although consultants do highlight the likely impact their development might have on shops within immediate reach.
Linking that masterplan to what happens next is key. Will that 76-page renewal plan be a well presented but esoteric wishlist of unfunded hopes and ideas? Or can it, along with other advocacy efforts, be a genuine blueprint to fire the imagination of developers, retailers and the wider community, and shape the area for the next 20 years?
The Courier is aware of several development projects that have been worked on extensively for the precinct, but have not yet been presented to the public. Will the impending council decisions on Bridge Mall and public realm improvements help a new momentum gather? If so, the calls made in 2021 will be just the start.
TIMELINE OF BRIDGE MALL AND BAKERY HILL
1854:Revolution in the air
Miners gather on Bakery Hill prior to the Eureka Stockade in 1954. One of the main mining leaders, Peter Lalor, is said to have made a famous speech at the time.
1862: Bridge Street gets its name
The entry in the Victorian Heritage Database pinpoints the building of a "basic bridge" over the Yarrowee River to 1862. It reads: "The width of the bridge is reported to have determined the width of Bridge Street and accordingly, storekeepers built the frontages of their shops to align with the bridge."
However, there were early signs that the location had not been thought through as it should with regular floods affecting businesses in the area, leading to engineering works to raise the street by up to six feet in some places.
Familiar names begin to gravitate towards Bridge Street: Faull's Shoes opens on Bridge Street this year, and has remained on the street ever since.
1950s and 1960s: A thriving retail centre
This was an era where Bridge Street was dominated by Morshead's Department Store, where many current residents will recall going clothes shopping there in their youth. Trams still ran through the street, which was the busiest retail hub in the city. One long-term Messer & Opie worker interviewed last year recalled it as a "hive of activity".
1970s Norwich Plaza
The Norwich Plaza building was constructed around this time, covering much of the footprint previously occupied by Morshead's. Since then it has become one of the city's most unloved buildings, with its stopped clock and faded exterior.
1981: Pedestrian Mall arrives
Bridge Street is closed off to traffic in what was seen at the time as something of a pioneering move for Victorian retail areas.
2003 First calls for traffic to return
Early calls were made to open the Mall to traffic, but met resistance from sceptical traders. In this instance, a proposed face-lift possibly involving a sponsorship tie-in with Sovereign Hill was raised but never went anywhere. That call was made again by former mayor David Vendy in 2011.
May 2019 Funds for renewal
Council announced its intention to pump $15m of funding into the area over the following three financial years. Councillors signed off a template for the precinct's regeneration, called the Bakery Hill Urban Renewal Plan in October.
Consultants from Ernst & Young begin work to help progress land use ideas for council-owned areas, as well as
Possible decision made on return of cars to Bridge Mall and early works in surrounding streets.
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