City mourns after Bourke St tragedy as traders hope to see visitors return

Brendan Rees

City mourns after Bourke St tragedy as traders hope to see visitors return

CBD traders say striking a balance that allows for enhanced security while maintaining a lively atmosphere will be crucial to the city’s resilience after a Bourke St tragedy claimed the life of a man.

Police are ramping up patrols across the city grid after charging 26-year-old Melton West man Zain Khan with murder and attempted murder after he allegedly ploughed his car into cars and three pedestrians, killing a 76-year-old motorist on the evening of September 8.

The devastating incident has sent shockwaves throughout the community, with one attaching a poem to a nearby tree where the incident occurred, with the title of “A Poem for the People”. 

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said that while the city was still feeling the aftermath of this tragedy, data showed Melbourne was a safe city.

“This was an isolated and tragic incident. It’s understandable it could have triggered emotions and fears relating to previous, unrelated incidents in Bourke St,” she said, referring to the tragedies in 2017 and 2018, with six people killed by an erratic driver in the first, and the latter resulting in the fatal stabbing of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar owner Sisto Malaspina.

“We understand the concerns from traders that this will affect customer confidence at a time when they are still trying to find predictability and a steady rhythm. We are pleased to see that there has not been a significant drop in people visiting the city, as shown through our pedestrian data sensors,” Cr Capp said.

“Our team has been proactively visiting business owners and workers in the city, offering outreach services and support.”

City Precinct Traders’ Association for small businesses president Chloe Beevers said she supported a stronger police presence, but not to the point where it made people feel on edge.

“Clearly there’s always a balancing act, if measures are too heavy handed it can be counterproductive,” she said. “We do need to make sure that there is a good police presence and that there are very clear safety measures being made so that people can see that yes, this is a safe place.”

“If the city is activated with buskers and night-time activity, whether the cafes or restaurants are full and lively and then you’ve got that passive surveillance as well.”

“You feel safer walking down the street if you feel that it’s got more of a festive atmosphere, rather than if it’s quiet.”

Melbourne Chinatown Business Association president Christina Zhao said the community was understandably shaken by the incident but encouraged visitors to support local businesses.

“Safety is always the most important thing, but I also urge people to not be scared of coming back to the city to enjoy the great food and vibes in the City of Melbourne. It is our city, and as an endorsed association, we will do our best to support the businesses,” she said.

CBD News spoke to traders in Bourke St days after the incident, who said that police, on occasions, turned a blind eye to crime on the street.

“They [offenders] are violent sometimes, they come in the shop and try to steal,” one trader, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Just moments before speaking of their concerns, they said a man punched a pole and yelled at people on Bourke St with no police around.

In the week before the tragic incident, CBD News witnessed a man causing a disturbance and shouting at customers and staff at a fast-food restaurant on Bourke St, in which he also grabbed a donation tin to assess its contents while two police cars were parked at the front door.

Victoria Police Commander Mark Galliot said he acknowledged the community was concerned about the latest incident but maintained “Melbourne remains an overwhelmingly safe place to live and visit”.

“I think what we find at the moment is that Melbourne has that nice balance of security, safety, but also being accessible,” he said.

“We’ll certainly review what’s occurred over the next weeks and months and no doubt the coroner will also look into a range of recommendations, and we will be guided by the coroner and other expert reports.”

However, asked if Bourke St had been subject to copycat attacks, Commander Galliot said there had been “three major incidents” and “it’s understandable to think that it’s now more than a coincidence that this has occurred”.

Monash University Accident Research Centre Associate Professor Dr David Logan said installing retractable bollards in the middle of Bourke St would be a practical approach but acknowledged implementing such a solution came with its complications.

“My view on the bollards is that from a practical and safety point of view I think they’re probably the only feasible solution because you need some physical way of preventing vehicles from getting into the pedestrian parts of the mall,” he said.

“However, there are significant practical considerations with them because emergency service vehicles need access and trams need to come through. I’m presuming Melbourne City Council vehicles also have to get in regularly, so the issue is more practical than it is a safety issue.” 

RMIT professor of planning Michael Buxton agreed retractable bollards were worth considering to improve safety, saying the “technology does exist” and a “training program would be very important”.

“The Bourke Street Mall is a problem because cars can come into it but then they can speed through the Swanston St intersection, and they can go up to Russell St where this latest incident occurred,” he said. 

“It’s a matter of designing a solution to cater for the area in separating pedestrians from vehicles.

"You might not, for example, have to withdraw them every time a tram goes. There might be trams coming in proximity from different directions for example where you wouldn’t be withdrawing them if the trams only a short distance away, but this would all be done in the training program.”

President of CBD residents’ association EastEnders Stan Capp said while he applauded the services of Victoria Police, he reiterated calls for a safety and security committee, as seen in neighbouring Southbank, to be established for the CBD community.

“The people I speak to register safety in the streets of Melbourne as being a major concern,” he said.

“Our request is to form a safety taskforce with the highest levels of the various stakeholders represented who can oversee this with a view to maximising the benefits to the overall community.”

Professor James Ogloff, a clinical and forensic psychologist at the Swinburne University of Technology, said access to mental health treatment, medication, and support services can help reduce the risk of violence.

“While there may be a correlation between certain mental health conditions and violence in specific cases, it’s essential to avoid stigmatisation and recognise that most individuals with mental illnesses are not violent,” he said.

“Addressing the underlying causes of violence, improving access to mental healthcare, and promoting understanding and empathy can contribute to a more accurate and compassionate perspective on this issue.”


A poem for the people

After the murder of restaurateur Sisto Malaspina in 2018, then Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Pellegrinis café in Bourke St, to give his condolences.

When Natalina Angok was murdered in Celestial Lane 2019, locals lit candles for her and laid floral tributes on the footpath.

After the drive-through tragedy on the corner of Russell and Bourke streets on Friday, September 8, a CBD worker wrote a poem. He taped it to a tree close to where John Haasz was killed.

“On Saturday morning the city felt like a ghost town. The people were quiet, solemn and the streets were barren. No-one wanted to be here.”

Two other poets followed his lead. •

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