Vultures circling over multicultural Melbourne market

The suburb where I grew up, North Watsonia, wasn’t much of a cultural hub. Aside from the milk bar and local park, about the only place to go was Greensborough Plaza. If you’ve never been, you aren’t missing out. It’s the same as every other shopping mall in the country.

But Saturday mornings were an exception. We’d get in the car and drive in to Preston Market to do the week’s shopping. I’d enjoy a slice of pizza the size of my head while my parents would buy groceries, occasionally including live crabs that would become significantly less tranquil in the warm car boot on the trip home.

Now I live in Preston and the market is a short walk down the road. It’s still a wonderful place. With Vietnamese, Chinese, Filipino, Middle Eastern, Italian, Greek (and many more) stalls and restaurants, it’s a living example of the unforced multiculturalism of Melbourne at its best. You can still stretch a $20 note to cover a bowl of pho, coffee and cannolis and a half kilo of fresh sardines.

For years, however, rumours have circulated about a proposed redevelopment of the market. Reports now suggest that the first phase of this redevelopment will begin in October. On paper, it sounds innocuous enough. It includes some long-overdue refurbishment, a raft of sustainability measures, something called “smart building technology” and an extension of the “Preston Artists’ Market”.

But alarm bells are ringing, and not just because Preston Market is chasing the hipster dollar. Firstly, traders were not consulted about the plans until after they were announced. The Leader, the local newspaper covering the north, has reported that at least three traders have been given marching orders, while many more are operating on a month-to-month basis.

And this is just the beginning. Since they acquired the market and surrounding properties in 2004, the Medich and Salta development corporations have planned to redevelop the area radically. Stages two and three of their proposal include multiple high rise apartment buildings (including one of 28 storeys) as well as multi-level car parks.

This has the potential to utterly destroy what is so special about the Preston Market. Salta has form on this, with a number of generic suburban shopping malls, apartment and office buildings to its name.

The first change it made to the Preston Market area was to build the Centrelink office on Murray Road, opposite the supermarket. Featuring tinted glass and angular off-white and grey panelling that contemporary architects seem to love so dearly, it is yet another monument to postmodern soullessness.

For years, developers have turned everything they touch to shit. The Queen Victoria Markets face similar threats. How many beautiful shop fronts or mid-century homes have been torn down in favour of ugly, cheaply built yet overpriced townhouses? Let’s not forget the windswept wasteland that is the Docklands or the slow motion train wreck that is Fisherman’s Bend. Why do they do this? Because developers are money-hungry vultures and because state governments have been gutless at best or bought off at worst.

The future of Preston Market is up in the air. Given the half-billion dollar price tag associated with the redevelopment, it’s safe to assume the developers won’t give up. The Darebin Council has been something of a barrier, albeit not as steadfast as we might like.

Activist groups have begun to form, including People for Preston Market and others. Fights like these will define the culture and quality of our suburbs in the years to come.