“It’s a community, it’s a people’s market. People of different ethnicities, demographics meet there. Why would you go and destroy it?”
Dimitri has been visiting the Preston Market since 1971. He grew up there, spending Friday and Saturday nights at the market shopping with his Greek immigrant parents. He loves it so much that six years ago he bought his own business there, Athina’s Deli.
Dimitri’s concern for the market’s future is echoed by many in the community who feel Preston Market, one of Melbourne’s last standing, culturally diverse, open-air markets, is under threat.
Owners, multimillionaires Salta Properties, want to construct three residential towers along Murray Road, the northern edge of the 4.5 hectare site.
The towers, which would be 9, 10 and 14 storeys high, would include underground car parking and a retail precinct on each of their ground levels.
Designed by ‘trendy’ architects, Breathe, the towers – named The Loft, the Laneway and the Station – include 300 apartments, mostly 1-2 bedroom.
Salta firmly maintains that the Preston Market “will not be impacted by the development.”
It believes the residential towers and the old-style fresh food market can co-exist and have reassured the community that they are committed to “retaining the market and the unique experience it offers.”
Lori-Anne Sharp, a local resident, believes the plans threaten the market’s identity.
Since September last year, she has been heavily involved in the community-run campaign, Save Our Preston Market, which has over 2,500 members in its Facebook group.
Although Salta mailed an information update to local residents in November 2016, Sharp asserts her campaign has been critical in raising community awareness about the plans.
“95% of the people we’ve spoken to – and we’ve had thousands of conversations as a group – did not know the towers were proposed,” she tells Upstart.
She also casts doubt on the developer’s efforts at community consultation.
“They advertised community objection by way of a small yellow sign posted at a bus stop late last year, permitting objections from 21 December to 13 January.”
According to Sharp, the towers will dwarf the low-lying market, rob it of valuable northern sunlight and increase congestion and traffic flow.
Salta reassures the community that car parking will not be affected, that residents and market shoppers will have separate car parks.
They also state there will be a 5% increase in car park spaces and have committed to developing a traffic management plan, which will improve the flow of traffic throughout the market car park.
For Sharp there is also the fact that 90% of the apartments are 1-2 bedrooms, making them unsuitable for families, and that the entire plan does not make any provisions for social housing.
These features are at odds with the existing market, a place where families and people from all walks of life come to shop.
Then there’s the prospect of a 7-day-a-week retail trading precinct across the 3 towers.
“We all know that family businesses will not survive with 7-day a week generic retail. If you can’t afford your rent then you have to move on, and those businesses will then be replaced with generic ones that have got the money. More of your populist, bigger businesses. That will definitely change the market”.
Whilst Salta states it has informed the community about the plans, including a multi-lingual information page on its website, and guarantee the market’s future, Sharp insists consultation with the community and the stallholders has been severely lacking.
“Through a VicRoads report we learnt there are plans to build another 1,254 apartments on the site as well as commercial offices.”
On 8 March, the Group held a community rally, which drew over 400 protestors including the deputy mayor, local councillors and state and federal ministers. Placards like Flowers not Towers and Don’t Lose a Good Feed to Developer Greed were proudly displayed.
Sam Scriba, a local resident and long-time shopper of the market, was at the rally.
He shops there every Saturday morning with his wife and young son. Scriba believes the developers are “interested in one thing only – making a profit through the sale of the apartments.”
Their riding roughshod over community interests in the pursuit of profit is echoed by Manny Spiteri, a representative of the market’s stallholders.
According to Spiteri, Salta run the market like a fiefdom, charging the highest rent of any market in Melbourne and abrogating responsibilities of maintenance and upkeep.
He has taken the stallholders’ leases to the Small Business Commissioner and the ACCC where they have been deemed invalid.
Salta’s standover tactics contradict public statements about cooperation.
“They’re on month by month leases. If any of them should put their head up, they’re out. One month and you’re gone. You may have been there for 35 or 40 years… these guys hold all the power”, he tells Upstart.
For Spiteri, it’s a “death by a thousand cuts” and that the latest assault on stallholders is the requirement they open on Sundays despite the fact many are opposed and cannot afford it.
“We’re not against development. Development is good. But we’re talking about 4.2 hectares of iconic real estate, a social, cultural food hub.”
“We’re seeking balance. For these guys to sit down with the traders, the council, the community, and move forward that way.”
Darebin Council unanimously voted against the developer’s application on 27 February. The developers have since taken their application to VCAT and will receive a hearing in August.
Sharp and her group have organised a petition with just under 4,000 signatures, which they will deliver to State Planning Minister, Dick Wynne, requesting that he ‘call in’ the proposals and allow for community consultation.
For shoppers and stallholders like Dimitri, Lori-Anne and Sam, the future of the market sits in the Minister’s hands.
“The whole thing may not disappear but it might slowly change from a people’s market to a shopping centre,” Dimitri laments.
Fiona Villella is currently completing a Graduate Diploma in Communication (Journalism Innovation).