Pods plan at Queen Vic Market causes a stir but the CEO says it has “strong support”

By Brendan Rees

Queen Victoria Market’s (QVM) CEO has stood by a plan to put specialty stalls into pods to improve trader and customer experience despite opponents raising fears the iconic destination would be turned into a “shopping mall”. 

The City of Melbourne is considering a proposal from QVM to improve the market’s trading format which would see 42 retail pods installed at sheds A-D while E shed would get food trucks, tables, and seating, at a total cost of $3.4 million.

According to a council report, the changes aim to address some of the key challenges facing the market including falling trader occupancy, unmet demand for lockable trading, and a lack of customer seating.

Subject to approvals, QVM hoped to kick off works by September 2023 with a staged construction program over a seven-month period. 

QVM chief executive officer Stan Liacos said he had been “buoyed by the strong support” from traders regarding the new plan, adding it was vital for the future viability of the market as traders “need help to continue to evolve”. 

“The reality is we have declining occupancy for the traditional market stall market set-up, but I don’t have enough lockable spaces to meet current demand,” he told CBD News.

Mr Liacos said while the pods “are not fully designed yet” until ultimately approved, he described their format as “lockable retail-style pods”, like the current set-up in String Bean Alley. 

But the proposal has drawn the ire of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (RHSV) and a market protection group with concerns it would impact the character of the landmark site. 

“The ‘pods’ would obscure the open-air nature, the visibility, so integral to the space since its inception in 1878,” the RHSV wrote in a submission to the council.

“The proposal creates blocks of fixed compartments functioning like an extended food court.”

It continued, “the proposal is contrary to the spirit of the market, to its heritage nature and to the very aspects of the market which attract visitors. It proposes to replace the vibrant theatre of stall holders setting up stalls with fixed cubicles at which customers queue while staff sit inside.”

Friends of QVM president Mary-Lou Howie said the latest plans would “completely change the operations, authenticity and traditional significance of QVM”.

“These changes will transform the theatre of our market, which includes setting up and packing down each market day, into a static place very like a shopping mall,” she said.

“QVM is in desperate need of proper planning processes that will protect our heritage market and create a solid foundation on which to make it great again.”

Mr Liacos hit back at critics, saying “nostalgia is not the basis for a genuine strategy to help our traders. Our traders need help to continue to evolve”.

“I ultimately listen and work on behalf of the traders. I can’t help a small handful of people who hold onto an inflexible nostalgic view of the past,” he said.

“Retailing and expectations continue to evolve and a genuine market should always evolve to remain viable.”

“The old style of one hour to set up and then one hour to pack down is just not cutting it.”

“This is only a small part of the market and ultimately, it’s about balance and variety right across our seven hectares. The proposals, I can assure you, have very strong support from our traders.”

Trader Tony Pierrakos, who runs a stall called Intone Photography, said while he welcomed the proposal, his only concern was the location of pods in shed A and whether it would be a “bit of a section away from the general merchandise”. 

“At the end of the day these things can be moved. If it doesn’t work out, they can move them or get rid of them altogether,” he said. 

Mr Pierrakos said he ran his shop out of a container, which he described as “lifechanging for me”. “I went from being inside the market for 10 years and pretty much making ends meet … and then once I went out to the container, I succeeded drastically.”

Mr Liacos said he was conscious of the “potential concern” of the location of pods, which he reassured his organisation would “monitor”. 

“We’ll do it in a testing way to make sure that we trial things,” he said. “It’s not just about pods, it’s about introducing a lot more street food vans in E shed. We simply don’t have enough street food in the market … it’s important for us to try and bring some of our night market into the day market. It’s what people want, it’s about street food and they want fun.”

Charles Sowerwine, chair of the RHSV, said while he welcomed any proposal to attract more visitors to the market, he feared the plan would alter the market and take “away its historic functions”. 

He added there had been “no business case” nor “any convincing study that shows that the market will suddenly draw lots more people” if it did more fast food and hospitality services.

In her submission to council, Dr Miriam Faine, secretary of the Friends of QVM, said the proposed new trading formats would “directly impact” the market’s heritage “by changing the traditional ad hoc nature of trading in open stalls”. 

A council report said all the key elements of the project were “temporary in nature” and not fixed to any heritage fabric. 

The proposal was to be considered at the council’s November 9 meeting but was deferred until November 30 after Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the report was “better considered at a later time when we have the full narrative around our plans and business case for the future”.

Friends of QVM have raised concerns that council meeting agendas and supporting reports were made only available to the public on a Thursday – leaving only two-and-a-half business days to read and make a submission based on the material before council meetings were held.

Meanwhile, the City of Melbourne has given approval for demolition to go ahead at the QVM’s food hall which will be revitalised under a refurbishment set to start in February 2022. 

It comes as Heritage Victoria earlier this year granted a permit for redevelopment works. 

The new space is expected to open in July next year and offer a diverse range of cuisine styles and beverage offerings across takeaway, casual dining and restaurants.  

Current food stall holders told CBD News in September they feared losing their jobs after expressions of interest were advertised. Mr Liacos said it “should be in a position to confirm selected operators early next year”. 

According to its annual report, QVM posted a $1.75 million loss, down from a profit of $483,638 in 2019-20.

However, without a $9.4 million grant from the City of Melbourne, the market would have ceased trading due to the impacts of the COVID-19 restrictions and lockdowns.

The report also revealed $8.8 million was provided in rent relief for traders while discounted car parking to attract customers reduced its car park revenue by $377,000. The cancellation of night markets cost $1.15 million.

In a statement, the market’s CEO Stan Liacos said his team had “worked extremely hard this year to do everything” it could to keep the market open, support traders and “adapt to the rapidly changing and unpredictable environment”.

QVM pop-up park now open

Noticing the potential for more open green space, 1.75 hectares of a Queen St open-air car park has been developed into a pop-up park. 

The newly transformed space is an initiative of the City of Melbourne as a way to help reignite the city. 

And Lord Mayor Sally Capp hopes the park’s close proximity to the Queen Victoria Market will aid in enticing “people back as the city reopens”.

In addition to encouraging people to explore merchandise stalls and enjoy their recently purchased gourmet produce on the grass, the park will also host live music and community events. 

Endorsed and funded by the City of Melbourne and the Victorian Government, the $2 million project is part of the $100 million Melbourne City Recovery Fund •

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