Fading strip is as quiet as a chapel
Both ends buzzing, but dead in the middle
IT was once Melbourne’s hottest shopping strip, but Chapel St now resembles a retail graveyard, with dozens of shops closing their doors as trade continues to slump.
There are 36 shops vacant or sporting “for lease” signs along the once-bustling thoroughfare between Toorak Rd in South Yarra and Commercial Rd in Prahran.
Chapel Street Precinct Association president John Lotton said that while business had slowed in that stretch, the once-derelict Windsor end had been “re-enlivened” with a trendy dining and bar scene.
“They’re targeting the cool kids … the scene is bang-on for the hipster type,” Mr Lotton said of the southern end.
He said landlords had been slow to move with the market and offer more affordable leases. He said rents in Prahran were now lower than those in High St, Armadale — another popular strip.
Store owner Di Schwartz said she was shutting up shop and moving, after more than a decade on the strip.
“Chapel St just isn’t what it used to be,” she said.
“Tourists used to come here to shop for high-end fashion, but it’s a different market now and business isn’t good.”
Ms Schwartz said the rent for her fashion store was too high and foot traffic was almost non-existent.
“I love Chapel St,” she said. “We have the potential to be great, so it’s sad to be leaving.”
Ms Schwartz will close her doors next week and move to the city, where trade at her three other shops is booming.
Construction work on the site of the Prahran carpark has also had an effect on foot traffic, with reduced parking available.
Mr Lotton agreed, but said there were plenty of “blue skies ahead” to return the zone to its former retail health.
Katherine Sampson, who owns popular burger joint Hello Sam, said business north of Toorak Rd was thriving.
“Chapel St has evolved over the past four years … it’s no longer just a fashion destination,” she said.
“It’s doubled in size so of course, there’ll be vacancies. I don’t know why that area (between Toorak and Commercial roads) is quiet, there’s no reason for it,” she said.
Ms Sampson, who is opening a juice bar on Chapel St in July to complement her burger bar, said there were huge opportunities for businesses to seize some of the vacant shop spaces on the strip.
“Now is the time to open up. I’ve got 20-30 spaces to choose from and landlords are going to offer very reasonable rent to get me in,” she said.
CHAPEL St has long been one of Melbourne’s trendiest strips for shopping, dining and nightlife. But, like any precinct which takes itself for granted or fails to properly plan for the future, the lustre can quickly disappear.
The South Yarra-Prahran precinct has some of the highest-priced property in Melbourne — and Chapel St sits at the heart of some of the city’s most sought-after postcodes.
Up-market high-rise residential developments now increasingly define the area, with a number of major projects under way.
But as real estate prices head skywards, so to do commercial lease and operating costs.
Where carparking was once freely available, now every square metre is eyed for development. Chapel St traffic is often a snarl, day or night.
As a result, many who live outside the area choose to shop or dine elsewhere.
Suddenly, parts of Chapel St are looking tired and worn. Like Lygon St, drawcards pay a price if they take custom for granted.
Of course, both Chapel and Lygon streets are not only famous in Melbourne but still favourites for sightseeing tourists.
But a clearer vision is needed to rejuvenate and enliven such streets and support their individual character.
Access is the major challenge for Chapel St, and the Andrews Government should reverse its decision to not include a new South Yarra station as part of the Melbourne Metro Rail Project.
The southeast rail line is one of the state’s busiest, and giving Metro a direct route to Chapel St with a new station makes long-term sense.
Fashion store owner Di Schwartz (left) is leaving Chapel St for the CBD, where her other shops are booming; and (below) signs of the times on the once-popular strip. Pictures: DAVID CAIRD