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September 2, 2015

Melbourne Street: Back to the future

Evidence of Melbourne Street’s status as a high-end destination still exists, but almost solely in the memories of the area’s older residents. CityMag spent some time café-hopping along the strip to find out if lessons of the past could contribute to a more successful future.

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  • Words: Johnny Von Einem
  • Pictures: Andrè Castellucci

If there’s one thing people living and working in Lower North Adelaide can tell you, it’s that there was once a time when Melbourne Street was a thriving retail and dining hub.

A report by Adelaide City Councillor Anne Moran says it was a go-to destination during the leather rush of the 1980s.

“It was a really groovy place. I think it had Skins and Things, [which] was the first leather shop in Adelaide and we all got our leather pants there … and the Magic Flute was the really swanky restaurant,” she says.

“Then when the side streets got blocked – which is a good thing – it became more of a traffic corridor, and it really lost its way.”


Adelaide City Councillor Anne Moran

Walking along Melbourne Street’s pavement now, all of the hallmarks of a good street are present; it’s tidy, there are cafés, restaurants and retail at one end, doctor’s surgeries and architects at the other, and a smattering of accommodation throughout.

But there’s something noticeably absent from the strip – people.

Save for the few diners visible through café windows and outdoor seating areas, it’s difficult to discern where economic activity is actually taking place.

This is a problem for business owners, and one that Adelaide City Council plans to address through the (somewhat buzzword plagued) process of placemaking.

For the last two years, three pilot areas (Topham Mall, Hindley Street West, and Melbourne Street) have been undergoing placemaking treatment in order to “create a city of great places,” as Melbourne Street’s Place Facilitator, Callum Prior, puts it.

“You know, there’s people on the street that’ve been together for 10 years and they don’t know each other’s first names.” – Callum Prior


Melbourne Street’s place facilitator Callum Prior

The initiative is funded by Council, but is radically different to the role usually played by local government.

“The idea behind placemaking is that it’s mindful of the specific places and personalities in those places, and how it operates,” Callum says.

“So you need to spend a lot of time trying to understand that place, and moving away from where councils normally have a parent-child relationship with communities – we tell you when you can have your pocket money, where you put your toys, and we’ve got all of these rules – it’s really about working side-by-side.”

The slow-burn strategy was brought to Adelaide by former Adelaide City Council Chief Executive Peter Smith, and was by no means an easy sell.

“When they first started I thought ‘God, we’ve got a Capital Works Program, why don’t we just go and fix the gutters, put some lights up’,” Anne recalls.

“But we do tend to hit some pretty expensive road bumps, like street lights – people say they don’t like them, they’re too white, [so] we often have to retro-do things.”

“[Even though] we thought we’d consulted energetically, consultations really aren’t as good as actually getting what people want. I think [placemaking] is a form of, in a way, super-concentrating over a long period of time to get people excited and talking about what’s happening,” Anne concludes.

Though it wouldn’t be fair to say there isn’t anything on the strip already worth talking about.

Minima Hotel has brought notable Adelaide artist Lisa King’s work to the façade of their building, while a collection of other artists have created artworks inside under the direction of local art director Matt Stuckey. Down the road a little a sky blue 24-hour laundromat offers patrons and passers by free soap, free wifi, a book exchange, and even an occasional live music gig. Meanwhile The Lion Hotel, with its consistent record of awards, remains a faithful drawcard for large crowds.


The Melbourne St Laundromat, which sometimes hosts live music

But with the aid of Callum, some of the smaller and less established businesses will hopefully begin to make their own meaningful changes to the street, with the goal of giving visitors something to do between browsing through clothing store Karibu and grabbing their coffee.

Kate Pattarapongkasame, co-owner of the street’s UR Caffe, is planning to expand on an initiative started on McKinnon Parade that sees produce planted in public spaces for locals to access whenever they want.

“At the end of this street they have the big lemon tree project, if you walk that way you can grab some lemons, if you come here you can get some herbs,” Kate explains.

“If you walk on this street and you’ve got a feeling that ‘oh, this is cute, this is nice,’ it’s been improved.”


UR Caffe is one of the street’s busy spots

While a lemon tree and some herbs might not sound revolutionary, it’s the small things that count in placemaking, says Callum.

“Something really basic, like the little planter out the front [of E for Ethel], it used to be kind of old … artwork, but Barb from the CWA [Country Women’s Association) got involved, she’s mosaiced that with some little bunnies… and the guys planted that with some parsley so it looks like there’s some carrots growing in there, and suddenly it’s interesting to kids,” Callum says.

“And that’s important because you’ve got Ollie Ashenden down the road, who are a specialist kids’ shoe store.

“Kids go past and they zoom in on [the planter box] because it’s at their scale … and suddenly there’s a connection between, say, E for Ethel and Ollie Ashenden … something that didn’t cost anybody anything except a little bit of time and some old tiles.”

A different – and entirely intentional – outcome of the placemaking process is to introduce business owners to each other, and to build a sense of community, not just for patrons, but also for the people working on the street every day.

One of the main issues Callum has identified within the community is a lack of social connection and leadership, which in turn leads to a feeling of isolation amongst the traders.

“You know, there’s people on the street that’ve been together for 10 years and they don’t know each other’s first names,” he says.

“And that’s no disrespect to those guys, because we created that situation, but how are they going to come together and work on street-wide projects, have a collective vision for their area, feel comfortable with each other and not feel isolated if they don’t even know names?”

The best way to amend this situation is through conversation, which is being facilitated by regular meetings between Melbourne Street business owners.

Looking on from a property in Melbourne Street’s commercial end, Gerald Matthews of Matthews Architects has been working on the street for 15 of the business’ 40 years of operation, and he shares the view that leadership has been lacking.


Gerald Matthews of Matthews Architects

“One thing that Melbourne Street has never had is a clear idea of where it’s heading. It’s been heading in a good direction, but I think it’s reached that point now where a placemaking process could really do something valuable,” Gerald says.

“I honestly think the economy of Melbourne Street isn’t in trouble, it’s actually doing really well, because it evolved organically. So to boost it to that next level, I think a lot of it has to do with removing restrictions. Not adding money and not adding more controls or changing the masterplan to the point where you’re saying ‘ok, we’re going to narrow the focus of what we think should be allowed here’; I think it’s better to remove restrictions and essentially let the economy … and the community of the place decide what they want.”

McKinnon Parade resident Wendy Bell would like to see the small bar trend of the city make its way to Lower North Adelaide.

“[Melbourne Street] needs more night time activity; there are no small bars, … and they’ve helped to vitalise some of the lanes in the city,” Wendy says.

“It’s just one of the ways to get it more vibrant. If you go for a walk after dark along Melbourne Street … there’s places open, but there’s no activity.”


McKinnon Parade resident Wendy Bell

When so many voices are contributing to such a large decision, and without the cohesion brought to some precincts by landowners who have multi-building footprints, it’s difficult to reach an agreement on anything, even the validity of the placemaking process itself.

Justin Elder, who is at the helm of family art auctioneers Elder Fine Art, believes Melbourne Street needs something different than what placemaking can provide.

“I think Melbourne Street’s been forgotten about and it’s in the Dark Ages,” Justin says.

“You’ve got people stuck in the old days thinking rent’s going up and up and up, some landlords are causing problems on the street…


Justin Elder of Elder Fine Art

“There’s council approval for people to do development on the street, I think they need to change the guidelines and change it around so people can do different projects and go up in height; … the right sort of shops aren’t in the street, we need more retail and things like that.

“There’s so many problems, I just think placemaking is … a Band-Aid to the problem.”

It’s not an easily dismissed argument. Such subtle shifts in the physical makeup of the street can leave the public asking, quite rightly, what has actually happened in the two years that the placemaking project has been active?

Yes, there has been some sprucing up of planter boxes.

Yes, there have been some exciting engagements between business and council in the form of the Street Eat and Last Friday events.

And if nothing else has significantly improved, then at least the relationships between business owners on the strip have been given much needed attention, and a conversation has grown from that.

“We now hope that we can invigorate Melbourne Street, because there is so much change happening.” – Amanda Matulick

Melbourne Street's heritage shines through

Melbourne Street’s heritage shines through

But the reason, at least in the case of Melbourne Street, that there are no concrete plans or end goal for the placemaking project, is that it is still unclear why Melbourne Street stalled in the first place, and cannot seem to recover.

“It’s still a lovely street; it’s surrounded by lovely suburbs. Ok, it’s got a bit of traffic through it, but so does Unley Road, that doesn’t seem to stop it,” says Councillor Anne Moran.

“We’re not really sure what happened in the last 30 years, how the community became so disengaged. And maybe that’s what Callum will come up with in the end.

“Rather than having to rebuild from scratch again that sense of community, maybe out of this we’ll find out what actually turns people off, … which would stop us making mistakes that we have in the past.”

It seems though that the timing might be right for the residents of North Adelaide to receive the gentle nudge of placemaking into whatever its future holds.

Attitudes toward change on the street are shifting, according to Amanda Matulick and Dan Harland, who own café E for Ethel.

“I do remember – we joke about it a bit – there was a lady that walked in when we first started that said ‘you won’t survive. You won’t be here after three months’, and I wish I knew who she was so I could say ‘ha ha! We survived’!” Amanda says with a good-natured laugh.

“There was lots of that when we started. Lots of locals saying ‘we don’t like change on Melbourne Street’.

“We now hope that we can invigorate Melbourne Street, because there is so much change happening. Even just in the time that we’ve been here, we’ve seen so many businesses move or die or leave really quickly.

“We want lots of choice and lots of activity down here. Without other businesses, it gets a bit harder, and we don’t want that.”

While Melbourne Street’s long-term vision is yet to be set, and the placemaking pilot – two years in – is still in its infancy, there’s no shortage of optimism among the regular dwellers of the strip.

Whether Callum discovers how to unlock the street’s resting potential, or whether he just uncovers the mystery of its original downfall to take back with him to the drawing board, the process will be worth keeping an eye on.

And you might as well grab a coffee while you’re waiting – that’s one thing that’s not in short supply.


A 7 Day Makeover will be taking place on Melbourne Street in November. Go to for details.

Another thing that's not in short supply is good food - this example from UR Caffe

Another thing that’s not in short supply is good food – this example from UR Caffe

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