Will downtown Footscray ever really change?


    A brief (personal) history of ‘The ‘Scray’ via shopping

    By Elwyn Davies 

    It’s 1986 and I have just arrived in Footscray from the UK to work at Western General Hospital, now called Footscray Hospital of course. Highpoint, (aka Darth Vader’s Winter Palace) has recently opened. This is very significant in the story of Footscray CBD.

    As a new arrival I often head into Footscray from where I am living in Gordon Street to have a wander. I ask colleagues about the town. “Forges is a must” they say, “You’ll love it”. “The market!” say others. I dutifully go to both and I do love them, especially the Forges Café. 

    I try a few pubs. They’re not quite the same as UK ones, but they are busy. There’s even a cinema in Leeds Street and I go to see Highlander (don’t ask). Turns out it would be the last cinema experience I have in the ‘Scray. The town doesn’t appear to be as busy as it once was, according to patients I care for at the Hospital.

    Suddenly it’s the 90s. Footscray is awash with heroin. Needles are seen regularly in laneways. Apparently because Footscray is a transport hub with buses, trains, trams and V Line, many drug sales are to visitors to the area. Footscray’s reputation is slipping. The West is not held in high regard in the East. If you’re heading west on the Westgate, it means you’re lost goes the joke.

    And to add to the gloom, Footscray Football Club is in trouble and looks like merging with North Melbourne!

    Still in the 90s. I have moved to Raleigh Street and over the railway line the swimming pool closes. It goes to, you know where. I can’t blame the council, it was a sound financial decision.

    The Nicholson Street Mall is getting quieter. The dolphin pond is moved up to near Pipemakers Park, where the dolphins are ultimately stolen, probably for scrap. Landlords in Footscray are only asking their tenants for enough rent to cover rates.

    “Why don’t landlords cut rents,” people ask. Well in commercial real estate the value of a property is tied to the rent being charged I have learned recently. “We’re close to the city … it’s only 5ks to the GPO … investment is coming!” are frequently heard comments in local conversations. It doesn’t come.

    Investment is still coming apparently as we move into the 2000s. The mall is refurbished. There is discussion about reopening up the entire length to traffic. The 2000s roll into the teens, and here we are now. I am still living in Footscray.

    Currently there are approximately 70 retail spaces empty in Footscray CBD. Little Saigon is a bomb site, along with Forges, which has long gone to Ashley Street and finally closed for good last year. Paint Spot gone. The Western end of Barkly Street has 14 empty shops, including the old Ted’s and Jimmy Wong’s.

    What’s odd though is, for all the talk of gentrification there is little sign of it in Footscray. Seddon, Yarraville and WeFo are a very different story.

    The weakening economy is hitting hard around here. Reaching Out in the Inner West is doing great work supplying food to over 300 people on Monday evenings. For the first time I am seeing people sleeping in doorways.

    Anecdotally, people have conflicting views on central Footscray. “I don’t feel safe,” “There’s nothing there for me,” “I love the market and African and Vietnamese food,” but this doesn’t translate into foot traffic, business confidence or financial reality. 

    What’s keeping Footscray alive at the moment you might ask? Vietnamese traders; the Vietnamese shops, restaurants, and of course, the Market. The Traders Association and Council are working collaboratively.

    In simple terms we have an oversupply of retail premises. Highpoint is now bigger than ever. Footscray is a very poor second, perhaps even third cousin. There’s plenty of new great bars, but a few of these are up for sale, and they are not enough to lead us into the promised land. I can’t think of any other inner-city CBD that is in such a sad state.

    Everybody has an idea of how to move forward. Do we need a well-resourced task force perhaps? Funded by the state government? Looking at rezoning and offering tax break type incentives?

    Whatever is the solution, the conversation needs to start soon, before there’s nothing left to save. 

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    1. Wow! That was a negative article! Target the council lack of interest and poor management next time. Footscray needs positive suggestions not a reporter sticking the boots in. There are beautiful buildings in footscray that need insensitive to be restored with old verandas. Encourage traders to remove the hideous roller shutters. Get council to fix Pasley street footpaths. Encouraging drug and alcohol services to walk the beat and deliver services where they are needed. Improve the traffic flow and get rid of these silly Popup bike lanes. Possibly actions! Positive results. The problem is council officers not caring.

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