By Rhonda Dredge
Casting has started for the lead in the latest drama to hit the Port Phillip Arcade. Tenants have been given until September 5 to vacate their premises so that Metro Tunnel can start demolition for its new tunnel.
Rumour has it that the owner of one business refuses to go and will chain himself to the bain Marie rather than relinquish his hold on a profitable quarter in the CBD.
The arcade is home to a range of authentic Asian food outlets, including Thai, Chinese, Sri Lankan and Japanese kitchens that have pioneered the lunch deal in Melbourne.
The queue was long at Ratee Thai on the day notices of their impending demise were posted. The cafe has yet to find an alternative venue and customers are unlikely to follow them very far.
Port Phillip Arcade is a communal space, frequented by students from nearby Victoria University and those travelling through from Flinders Street Station to the library or meetings at Ross House. Corporate commuters tend to eat at food courts closer to their place of work.
The arcade is unique in that it simulates the street culture of Asia, allowing customers to snack casually as if seated outside yet be protected from the weather.
“In a way, for government, communities are a nuisance,” said Helen Bowman, a frequent customer at Ratee Thai. She was sitting with her friend at a long table, joining in the conviviality of the Asian-style of dining.
Metro Tunnel is not offering compensation for loss of business or community. Individual offers have been made to tenants ranging from $30,000 to $125,000 to cover the costs of relocation.
“Go and see the engraver,” Ms Bowman said. “He’s been there for a long time. It will be a great loss. He’s part of the fabric of the place. He’s put in so much. He knows the stories.”
In Metro Tunnel’s world, the only stories worth considering are those that solve the problems of Melbourne’s transport. Possession of the arcade by the authority has come earlier than expected, after the awarding of construction contracts.
“The city is changing in so many ways,” said another customer Marion Crooke. “I don’t think they’ve looked in a futuristic way. Look how Collins St has been ruined. What a price to pay. We haven’t got ownership anymore.”
The land beneath the arcade, along with a parcel of properties along Swanston St, has been rezoned and is now under the control of the Department of Transport. Planning approval is not required for any work.
“There was no warning this was going to happen,” Ms Bowman said. “You don’t see the whole picture.”
Metro Tunnel has put notices in all of the newspapers but that is not the issue for the tenants who have established their business in this lively part of the CBD.
No one wants to leave. Kim Sing opened a Chinese cafe in the basement 30 years ago. The sushi place has been here for 19 years, Jolly J’s for 20 years and Max Stern since 1956.
John Morris has had a key cutting and engraving business here for 51 years.
“I was here with my father,” he said. “There was a birdcage in the middle and a sailor with a winding handle that showed the business signs. There was an umbrella repairers, a hearing aid shop and a record store. It was middle-of-the-road, not posh like the Block Arcade.”
Phil Glasson from the Cake Deco shop has been in the arcade for 33 years. “They’re trying to make it hard for everybody,” he said. “They want everyone to get out so they don’t have a headache. People come to our shop from Singapore and Hong Kong. We’ve got a five year lease with a five year option.”
Yukio Hirata from the sushi cafe is not happy either.
“No one is happy. I’m not allowed to take my stove, sink or air-conditioning. I have to leave everything behind. I bought them new 20 years ago.”