Richmond's 'ugly duckling' Swan Street outshines nearby Bridge Road

11.01.18 The Age
Richmond
Booking: 149416
Photo shows Dimitri Karabagias, owner of Dimitrie's Feast on Swann Street. Dimitri grew up on Swann Street and has seen it go from an ugly duckling to a trendy destination.
Photo: Scott McNaughton
11.01.18 The Age Richmond Booking: 149416 Photo shows Dimitri Karabagias, owner of Dimitrie's Feast on Swann Street. Dimitri grew up on Swann Street and has seen it go from an ugly duckling to a trendy destination. Photo: Scott McNaughton
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29:  Shoppers walk along the retail shopping strip on Bridge Road in Richmond on August 29, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Wayne Taylor/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 29: Shoppers walk along the retail shopping strip on Bridge Road in Richmond on August 29, 2014 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Wayne Taylor/Fairfax Media via Getty Images)

Richmond locals noticed the changes sweeping through Swan Street about five years ago.

Outdated teak furniture shops and discount shoe stores made way for happening cafes, bakeries and barbershops, and New York-style apartments were built above the old Dimmeys building.

Restauranteur Demitri Karabagias grew up on the street above his family's fruit shop when it was dominated by Greek and Italian migrants.

His friends thought he was mad when he returned 10 years ago to open Demitri's Feast.

"All my hospitality mates said 'You're crazy, Swan Street is a shithole. Why would you want to go there for?'"

"Swan Street was always the ugly duckling. There was an ugly old Coles - prior to that it was a Bi-Lo - a couple of run-down bakeries and Dimmeys, which just attracted pensioners on Thursdays.

"Then it just went ballistic and now everyone wants to be on Swan Street."

Today, Swan Street is one of the city's most in-demand strips, with well-heeled Melburnians flocking to dine at the likes of chef Shannon Bennett's Benny Burgers and Elliot Costello's not-for-profit eatery Feast of Merit.

Retail vacancy along the street is some of the lowest in Melbourne at 5.7 per cent, according to a Knight Frank report published in September.

But while the sun is shining on Swan Street, it's a different story some 800 metres away on Bridge Road.

The strip has the highest vacancy rate in Melbourne at 21.4 per cent, with shops remaining largely unfilled since Direct Factory Outlets and, later, the internet, decimated discount retail.

"In its heyday, it was absolute bedlam," says Herschel Landes, president of the Bridge Road Traders Association. "The streets were absolutely jam packed and people came from all around.

"We're in the post retail period now and so the question is how to go about activating your space."

There are hopes apartment developments will bring a longer-term fix, but Mr Landes and other local business owners level the blame at Yarra City Council and landlords for letting the shopping precinct atrophy.

"The guy next door, he's had three tenants that have all failed," says Malcolm Green, whose family business Tofu Shop International has been a stalwart of Bridge Road since 1982.

"They didn't have a fair rent. There's so much indiscrepancy in rentals and what landlords expect based past experience.

"Enthusiastic people come in here like the florist two doors down and they really want to be in the street."

Mr Landes said he had lobbied the council for years to encourage pop-up shops, night markets and activations to utilise the street's historic and unused businesses.

"I'm looking for a time when we've got nice wider foothpaths and trees and community spaces."

Leanne Quinn of the Swan Street Business Association said the precinct had been rejuvenated by young, foward-thinking Melburnians.

"There's a lot of entrepreneurial people coming in and seeing an idea or vision for existing shops and turning it into something quite unique. I think that is what Swan Street is all about.

"Some rents have gone up quite substantially, but that's sort of compensated by the massive business that's come into the area.

"I think Bridge Road concentrated on clothing outlets and relied on that for far too long."

But change is slowly coming to Bridge Road, too.

A Yarra City Council report shows fashion business declined 39 per cent between 2014 and 2017 but medical grew 100 per cent and health and beauty businesses 38 per cent.

Barbershops, cafes and pizza bars have slowly opened at the bottom of Richmond Hill and are plying a solid trade.

But things over the hill are still grim. In January last year, 43 per cent of businesses lay vacant. It appears food and other essential services are vital to the mix.

The Knight Frank report found Melbourne's emerging retail strips such as Swan Street and High Street in Northcote relied less on clothing, footwear and soft good retailing than food services.

City of Yarra mayor Daniel Nguyen said he believed a new Richmond High School, Coles supermarket and apartment development would transform the area in coming years.

"Some people talk about Bridge Road with doom and gloom. I refute that. There are definitely challenges in the Richmond Hill end where fashion outlets were, but if you walk down towards the river on a Saturday, you struggle to get a seat at a cafe."

Cr Nguyen said council was working hard on creating new green spaces, improving footpath and public transport access and had made financial contributiosn of up to $300,000 to the traders association.

"I know a lot of traders who work hard and are busy and it can be a bit hard for them hearing people say 'Bridge Road is dead'. It's not. It's about not trying to perpetuate it and make it a reality."

This story Richmond's 'ugly duckling' Swan Street outshines nearby Bridge Road first appeared on The Age.