Once upon a time on Nicholson Street in Footscray there where two rows of ordinary looking shops.
But if you took a look at the rear, it was soon apparent that the shops were not built on solid ground, but on a bridge spanning a railway line.
Down below were four railway tracks, carrying both passenger and freight trains.
Built in the late 1920s as part of a project to separate the passenger and freight trains that passed through Footscray, the Nicholson Street bridge replaced an existing level crossing, with the shops either side being completed a few years later.
The Victorian Railways annual report for the year ending June 1930 has this to say about the shops:
Shops at Nicholson Street, Footscray
When the new goods line was constructed between West Footscray and South Kensington, the level crossing at Nicholson Street, Footscray, was replaced by a bridge over the tracks, of sufficient width to permit of the erection thereon of shops or other revenue-producing buildings when opportunity offered.
During the year the matter was submitted to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways, which approved of the provision of shops on the western side, leaving consideration of the erection of others on the eastern side until such time as the first instalment had justified itself.
Nine single-storey lock-up shops, with provision for an additional storey if required, and equipped with modern plate-glass fronts, cantilever verandahs and other conveniences, have been built and are let at satisfactory rentals.
So far I’ve been unable to find further reference to the shops on the eastern side, but they eventually got built – albeit having been retrofitted with a much blander facade by the time I photographed them in 2011.
However nothing can last forever, and in the case of the Nicholson Street shops, the forces that made their creation possible were the same forces that led to their demise.
Again, the reason for change was the expansion of the railway through Footscray. Unfortunately for the Nicholson Street bridge, the piers that supported it were too narrow to allow the two new Regional Rail Link tracks to pass beneath, so it was necessary to demolish the entire structure to make space for them.
The shops on the eastern side were first to go in March 2012, followed by the shops on the western side in January 2013, and finally the road bridge itself being removed in October 2013.
The replacement Nicholson Street bridge opened in April 2014, consisting of a single span across the six tracks, but with no shops on either side.
Justifying the original shops
The 1929 report to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Railways goes into much more detail about the shops across the tracks at Nicholson Street, and the reasoning behind their construction.
In the Railway Loan Application Act passed in December last, provision is made for the expenditure of £5,000 during the current year towards the erection of shops for revenue producing purposes over the regraded lines at Nicholson Street, Footscray. This is a busy shopping area, and an electric tram service passes the site of the proposed shops, with a compulsory stop for all trams immediately opposite. It is intended that eight shops shall be erected adjoining the Post Office on the eastern side of the street, and nine immediately opposite, for a total of seventeen. The frontages of the shops range from 13 to 16 feet, the total frontage to Nicholson Street being 273 feet, of which 146 feet is on the west side, and 126 feet on the east side, while the depth is 40 feet. The shops will be constructed with walls of brick, corrugated iron roofs, fibro-plaster ceilings, metalled shop fronts, show cases, tiled fronts, and cantilever verandahs.
They described the expected demand for new shops in Footscray.
Respecting the demand that may be expected to occur for the leasing of the shops, it may be stated that the population of Footscray has increased from 29,266 in 1918 to 51,655 in 1929, a gradual and regular increase being shown each year. The property valuations have increased during the same period from £216,918 to £615,870, while the number of dwellings has increased from 7,033 in 1917 to 10,712 in the present year, or approximately 50 per cent. For the year ended 30th September, 1928, no less than 23 new factories were erected in Footscray bringing the total number to 208, employing an estimated number of 15,000 hands. The Railways Commissioners are of opinion that Footscray will increase in popularity as a shopping centre and regard it as a reasonable expectation that property values will show a substantial enhancement within the next few years.
The condition of the existing shops in the area:
A number of existing old premises in Nicholson Street, comprising small shops, are to be demolished, and their areas combined to provide sufficient space for the erection of new premises for large business firms, with the result that a number of small shopkeepers now occupying these premises will thus be compelled to seek other accommodation. It is anticipated that the shops proposed to be built by the Department will be eagerly sought after, and, as a matter of fact, a number of applications have already been received from prospective lessees.
That the money had already been spent to build a deck for the shops to be built upon:
When the Railways Commissioners were constructing the bridge over the railway lines which pass under Nicholson Street at this point, it was decided to extend the floor of the bridge over the cutting in order to make provision for these shops, and £8,925 has been already expended in extending the bridge in such a manner as to make it suitable for this purpose. The remaining expenditure for the actual construction of the shops, viz., £14,626 brings the sum up to the total amount shown, £23,550.
How solid the foundations are:
The method of constructing the shops will permit of an additional story being built with a minimum of expense if the department desires to do so. The structure upon which it is proposed to erect the shops is built upon a rock foundation and is of solid construction, and in these circumstances it is not considered that any vibration will be felt from trains passing underneath.
And finally, the financial aspect:
Taking into account the money already expended on the extension and strengthening of the bridge flooring (£8,925), so that it will carry the shops, the addition of £14,625 for shop construction makes a total of £23.550.
It is estimated by the Commissioners that the seventeen shops can be let at an average rate of £3 5s. weekly, the tenants being liable in addition for the payment of rates and taxes. This would represent a revenue during the twelve months of £169 per shop, or £2,873 per annum on the whole investment of £23,550; or a gross return of approximately 12.5 per cent.
The estimated net profit after the foregoing provision for interest, maintenance, etc, would be about 5.64 per cent.
In the years since, the construction of buildings over Melbourne’s railway tracks for profit is rare – I’m intentionally leaving Federation Square out of this discussion because that was a civic project, with no exception of a financial return.
The only commercial example that comes to mind is at South Yarra, where a handful of shops were built either side of the Chapel Street bridge a decade or two ago.
In this Powerpoint presentation you can read about how the Regional Rail Link project team designed and constructed the replacement bridges at Albert Street and Nicholson Street.