News / Community

Breese Block residents push for improvements

New group has its sights on a pedestrian crossing as its first project

Elissa McMillan, holding son Finn, with Better Breese Block co-founders Andy Fergus and Sally Gray near the entrance to the Bulleke-bek Park.

Mark Phillips

IN a few short years, the area around Breese Street has gone from a light industrial zone to Brunswick’s most densely populated residential neighbourhood.

A decade ago, the block along the Upfield railway line between Albion and Hope streets was full of factories and warehouses interspersed by a sprinkling of small houses.

Today, it is the site of hundreds of apartments in multi-level buildings, with construction of a new building seeming to be finished every couple of weeks.

But as the area’s population has grown, its infrastructure and public amenity has failed to keep pace, say local residents.

The opening of the Bulleke-bek park and playground in West Street has provided a rare green oasis in the middle of a concrete jungle, while locals navigate hazardous uneven footpaths and pot holes in the road every day. There are no traffic calming measures for the scores of trucks that trundle up and down the surrounding streets every day, and on-street parking is haphazard. At night, street lighting is poor.

In short, it remains an area that was designed for small factories and warehouses, not for residential living.

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When she moved into the area two years ago, Sally Gray couldn’t understand why this was.

In Sydney’s inner west, where she had lived for many years, private development was accompanied by urban renewal led by the local council.

“I came to Brunswick as an outsider from NSW and I was so confused because in Sydney, when you have a private sector development, public infrastructure such as trees and footpaths are delivered at the same time,” she said.

“I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t happening here.”

Dr Gray, who has lived in a new apartment on the corner of Albion and Breese streets since moving to Melbourne at the end of 2020, is one of the driving forces of the Better Breese Block initiative, a new group formed by local residents who hope to bring about change and build a sense of community in the area.

Based on 2021 Census data, the area of Brunswick on the eastern side of the railway line near Anstey station is set to become one of the most densely populated in Melbourne within the next couple of years.

The so-called Breese Block – bordered by Albion and Hope streets to the north and south, Sydney Road to the east and the Upfield line to the west – is about 7.7 hectares in area and had a population of 1301 at the time of the Census.

Another founder of the group, urban planner Andy Fergus – who lives in the Nightingale Village apartments and has consulted on other residential developments in the area for the past decade – said a spate of apartment building completions last year had pushed the area’s population up to 1881 or almost 245 people per hectare.

Mr Fergus has forecast that by 2025, the Breese Block will have a population density equivalent to 24,524 people per square kilometre, second only to high-rise apartment buildings in the northern end of the CBD near the Queen Victoria Market, and ahead of Southbank or Docklands.

Yet while tens of millions of dollars have been invested in transforming the area into a residential hub over the past decade, the public realm is virtually unchanged, apart from the Bulleke-bek Park which opened at the start of 2021.

Location of the Breese Street Block

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Mr Fergus said the issues in the Breese Street block were not uncommon in urban Melbourne and were due to flaws in the way funds from private developer contributions were allocated for spending on public works in large and growing municipalities like Merri-bek.

Dr Gray said she was shocked when she was told by former Merri-bek Mayor Mark Riley that there was no masterplan for the Breese Street block, and she is worried that the area has been ranked as low priority by the council because residents there are regarded as well-off and less in need than in other parts of the municipality.

“They seem to have a blind spot that this demographic who have chosen high density city living is somehow not deserving,” she said.

She said the footpaths were dangerous for older people like herself and the road surface was so bad that recently a heavily-pregnant local resident’s waters broke when she was a passenger in a car driving along the street.

The new group first came together in September and will seek to unite residents in the area to both build a sense of community and lobby for change.

“We want to be part of building a healthy, breathable, safe and attractive public domain in our precinct,” Dr Gray said. “We want to work with government at all levels to help make the air breathable; improve visual amenity; make the street and footpath fabric functional and safe and the visual amenity up-to-date”.

In the longer term, the group also wants to combat the “urban heat island” effect and play a part in climate change mitigation.

For Elissa McMillan, another resident in Nightingale Village, she simply wants to make the streets in her neighbourhood safe enough for her two-month son, Finn, to play in when he is old enough.

“I took a walk along Breese Street with the pram yesterday and it’s so tricky I had to go on the road a few times because the footpath is so bad,” she said.

“There’s lots of people living in this little space. Soon my son will be running around on the street with other kids and I want him to be able to use this space safely.”

The group has just lodged a submission to the council for a $60,000 grant to develop a pop up pedestrian crossing and traffic calming measures on Breese Street to allow people to safely cross the road from Bulleke-bek Park and walk through the Anstey Square arcade to Sydney Road.

Mr Fergus said this was a small but practical project that could demonstrate to local residents the types of changes that were possible to improve the area.

The group has also launched an Instagram account where it will post news updates.

Ms McMillan said everyone in the local area was welcome to become involved in the Better Breese Block group.

“We’re really keen to hear what other people in the Breese Street area would love to see done but also to get them involved whether looking after street trees or whatever,” said Ms McMillan.

“Talking to people in this area and bringing them together through this project is something we’re working on.”