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Skyrail vision begins to take shape

Engagement process identifies community priorities for level crossing removal project

The level crossing at Hope Street is one of eight to be removed.

Mark Phillips

IT was the former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who said in 2002 of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction there are “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns”.

The same statement could easily apply to the Brunswick skyrail project in 2023 with dozens of unanswered questions emerging from a Merri-bek Council community engagement process.

The lack of information was highlighted by a council-organised public forum at the Brunswick Town Hall on Thursday night.

More than 200 people turned up for the forum and while they all had a chance to raise issues and ask questions, there were few answers forthcoming.

That was not because council officers were being evasive — they are as much in the dark about the project as everyone else. As one council officer told the meeting, the council found out about the project only when it was announced through a media release.

The public forum was the final stage in a short community engagement process designed to feed into a document that will set out the council’s vision for the $1.5 billion state government project.

This will then map the way forward for council advocacy to get the best possible outcome for local residents and businesses.

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Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos said the council wanted to draw on the interest, knowledge and passion of the Brunswick community to shape the design of the skyrail so it would be an asset to the area.

 “We are at an early stage in the process but we have chosen to be quite proactive in doing this engagement even though it’s a state government project they’re delivering because we know it’s going to be a game changer for the community here,” she said.

“We will be working closely with the Level Crossing Removal Project and have a constructive and robust conversation with them. We may not get all we want but from past experience we will get a lot of what we ask for.”

What is known about the project, which was announced by Premier Daniel Andrews in September ahead of the state election, is that it will result in the removal of eight level crossings between Park Street and Albion Street by 2027.

The three stations in that part of the Upfield line will be replaced, but at this stage it is not known by how many new stations.

New cycling and pedestrian paths will be constructed under the elevated railway, and the equivalent of four MCGs of open space will be created by the project.

That is about the extent of the publicly available information about the project, Merri-bek Council’s Director of Place and Environment, Joseph Tabacco, told the town hall meeting.

He then listed a series of unknowns, including the number and locations of specific stations, access points to the platforms and stations, the specific designs of the stations and the precincts around them, and the size and height of the concrete pylons and stations.

But Mr Tabacco said the council did have the benefit of the experience of the construction of the Moreland to Coburg elevated railway to draw on, including the “frustration, disappointment and anger” created by the removal of trees at the Gandolfo Gardens on Moreland Road.

“The community engagement for that project was completely insufficient,” he said.

“People didn’t have an opportunity to express what was important to them and felt they were not engaged or consulted with effectively. We’re hoping we can use our experience from that process to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”

He added: “We know from our experience that this will be painful at different points in time. We know the disruption will be difficult.”

Merri-bek Mayor Angelica Panopoulos reads some of the comments gathered from the community roundtables.

The council organised three community roundtables in February on the subjects of Moving Around; Place, Country and Culture; and Construction and Disruption. It also had “hundreds” of conversations with random people in Sydney Road and along the Upfield shared path.

Key themes to emerge included a strong preference for pedestrians and cyclists to be given priorities over cars, the impact of construction on residents living close to the construction areas; disability access; and recognition and protection of local heritage and vegetation.

Participants in the roundtables gave brief overviews to the public forum.

One roundtable participant, Paula Hanasz, said whatever decisions were made now would impact on the lives of generations to come.

Another participant, Kenna Morrison, said the project would have ramifications well beyond the narrow Upfield rail corridor to the entire area between Merri Creek and the Moonee Ponds Creek.

But some people at the town hall meeting felt that important issues, including how to deal with drainage and the future of Sydney Road, had not been given enough priority in public consultation so far.

The information gained from the three roundtables and the town hall meeting will feed into a formal advocacy position that will be adopted by Merri-bek Council in April.

“We want this to be a successful project and to be a project that leaves Brunswick as an even more walkable, rideable, green, equitable and vibrant community than it is now,” Cr Panopoulos said.

“We all share that aspiration.”