It’s time to truly invest in bettering this busted boulevard

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Ten years ago, the Napthine government awarded a $1 million prize to a firm of architects as part of a competition to redesign Flinders Street Station and make the immediate environs more amenable and accessible to Melbourne’s burgeoning population.

Some interesting, exciting and dramatic proposals emerged, but nothing ever came of it. Too often, that’s the story in this state. Big ideas get tossed around, but much of it is political gimmickry, and the unease about paying for it all tends to overwhelm grand ambition.

In the intervening years, under the Andrews government, the environs around Flinders Street Station have deteriorated significantly. The southern end of Elizabeth Street, where it meets the train station, is a particularly dilapidated, bleak and sometimes threatening corner of the central business district.

As The Age reported on Saturday, Elizabeth Street between Flinders Street and Flinders Lane has been an important gateway for pedestrians heading into and out of the city since the 19th century. Today it has seedy standing as a haven for crime, drug activity and anti-social behaviour.

Incidents of crimes against the person (assaults, harassment, threats, robbery, sexual offending) along Elizabeth St have increased about 57 per cent in the past five years, and workers in this tight area say they have been punched, spat on, threatened with weapons and abused.

What’s there? As Age journalist Marta Pascual Juanola put it: “a clump of cheap takeaway food businesses and convenience stores, bottle shops, two sex shops and strip club”.

Almost 28,000 pedestrians traverse that short stretch each day, scuttling from the station’s crowded and filthy underpass and surfacing into the eternally grey landscape of southern Elizabeth Street.

Yet no one seems to have any smart or wondrous proposals for change, and no one seems to have a spare $1 million to gratuitously thrust on architecture firms this time around.

Occasionally, the City of Melbourne has laid plastic grass on Elizabeth Street’s bitumen in a cheap and laughably lame attempt to create pleasant spaces or transform the area into a place to rest. Its most recent effort was quietly dismantled last year when it became a kind of camping ground for homeless people.

A few years ago, there was an optimistic plan to create “a greener, safer and people friendly” zone; another that focused on improved lighting, more trees, better paving and widened footpaths, plus some street furniture so that people could enjoy “alfresco dining”.

Another independent idea was to turn Elizabeth Street into a kind of urban forest with a canal – fanciful and green, but not necessarily practical. An upgrade completed two years ago has done little to improve the overall aesthetic.

Elizabeth Street’s main function is as a pedestrian thoroughfare and a busy public transport interchange zone. It needs careful but urgent tending, and the tending requires hefty investment, co-ordination and co-operation from the city council, state government, transport authorities, retailers, building owners and other users.

After all, Melbourne deserves better than patchwork solutions. A comprehensive redevelopment of the southern environs of Elizabeth Street and its connection to the station and Yarra River is essential if it is to transform from its current dreary, noisy and dodgy condition into something befitting one of the world’s most liveable cities.

To do so will require a sharper focus on building planning, the mix of retail tenancies, softening the streetscape with permanent vegetation, monitoring the movement of trams and other vehicles, providing amenity for pedestrians and cyclists, and much more. Properly done, it could be an inviting boulevard-style entrance to the CBD.

It’s all very well to promote the vibrancy and excitement of Melbourne’s hip laneways and minor crossways, its fabulous restaurants, cool bars, and wonderful sporting and cultural activities. But furthering safety, street appeal and general amenity along one of the city’s busiest pedestrian routes is vital too.

As The Age’s journalists will reveal over coming weeks, Elizabeth Street is not the only corner of this city that needs care and attention. It’s time for the state government and the city council to step up and reconsider a whole-of-environs investment.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

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