Acland Street, St Kilda, with 7-Eleven, Subway and vacant office space - click to see McDonalds to the left

Carol Nader wrote an article in The Age on the weekend bemoaning the decline of St Kilda’s famous Acland Street. She reports there are eight shops with “for lease” signs:

The strip that used to have everything is now bereft of a newsagent and a florist. Kinki Gerlinki has shut down and the Quick Brown Fox has moved to the Balaclava end of Carlisle Street. The Vibe cafe a few doors down from the iconic Cicciolina restaurant is gone.

With the closure of “cool and quirky” fashion and vintage clothes shops in Carlisle and Barkley streets, she counts 12 empty shops in the village precinct.

Ms Nader’s main emphasis is on the current poor economic climate for retailing, but a letter writer to The Age, Maxine Hardinge, reckons the rot set in long ago. She says St Kilda “was sold to the devil 20 years ago when McDonald’s and other chain stores started the ”creep”. The morph into Chadstone-by-the-Bay has long been complete”.

Sadly, the same thing is happening in Balaclava, with Priceline, Crust, Telechoice, Kinki Gerlinki, Flight Centre, 7-Eleven, Quick Brown Fox, Subway, Urban Burger etc gradually squeezing out the independent retailers.

Ms Hardinge says council should cap the number of chain stores and favour independent retailers, otherwise “the particular flavour of the suburb – that thing that attracts people to live and shop there”, will be lost.

Like these writers, I would be disappointed to see the special character and personality of these villages fade away. I’d prefer an Acland Street “where an Italian deli sits between a Middle Eastern bakery and an antiques shop”. I’d like to think St Kilda’s cake shops will be there forever.

However the idea that a council should manage the mix of uses in a centre, as if it were a mall under its management, is an idea that – to put it as politely as I can – is well ahead of its time.

It should be self-evident that the 7-Eleven’s and their ilk are moving into these villages because there’s a demand for them. They’re attracting customers more successfully and generating larger profits than the shops they’ve replaced (or, less charitably, squeezed out). The customers of Acland Street have spoken and the chains appear to be winning.

While St Kilda has enough “hip” inhabitants to give it a cool profile, it seems those who want a village of cool, quirky and traditional shops are actually in the minority. This might seem surprising but, as the My School debacle showed, drill down below the average and most places will reveal many residents in different age, family status, educational and income strata.

Many of these people have what the writers might think of as common tastes. St Kilda has long-standing residents who have no interest in the special character of the village. It has many newcomers attracted by the vibrancy of the place but whose interests are decidedly plebeian, even bogan.

Much as I personally would love to see the diversity of places like Acland Street preserved, resorting to regulation as Ms Hardinge proposes is not only impractical, but inequitable. It would give priority to the interests of what appears to be a minority.

Ironically, the sort of transition she fears has parallels with the way many fashionable inner city areas got their “cool” in the first place. The gentrifying yuppies of the 60s, 70s and 80s profoundly changed the living circumstances of the working class populations in inner city neighbourhoods.

For example, not so long ago all those boutique hotels in places like Fitzroy and Sydney’s Surry Hills were old fashioned drinking establishments, frequented largely by older men. Gentrification brought unaffordable bar prices, unsympathetic fellow patrons, and eventually no admittance. Not to mention higher rents, noisy parties, parking problems, and more.

It occurs to me that while nothing’s certain, the only way to be really confident about protecting the special personality of a village is for the majority of the users to value that character very highly – to want to buy their clothes from the quirky shop rather than from Sportsgirl. That’s only going to happen when the majority have very similar tastes – in other words, when the population is relatively homogeneous rather than diverse. But in St Kilda, the “bogans of taste” are moving in. It’s ironic that the diversity of shops might be undermined by the increasing diversity of the population.

One strategy that could help to retain interesting shops would be to increase the supply of retail space, so non-mainstream uses could find lower rent locations on the edge of an activity centre or in second class retail space, rather than be squeezed out entirely. It’s not a perfect solution because chain stores would continue to detract from the overall “non-mainstream” character of the village, but it could help maintain retail diversity.

There’s yet another irony here though, because the same group who want to regulate the retail mix are also the group most likely to oppose expansion and/or redevelopment.