A group of small business owners in Melbourne's south-east are mounting a class action against their local council, claiming a carpark development has left them battling financial woes, marriage breakdowns and even mental health issues..
Stonnington Council is spending more than $60 million turning a carpark in Prahran into a town square with underground parking and retail spaces.
Pastry chef Pierrick Boyer opened a cafe on the edge of the development just a few months after construction began in early 2018.
"We knew about the work and that it would impact business," Mr Boyer said.
Yet he said the road closures from the construction went beyond anything he ever anticipated and that customer numbers plummeted as the months went on.
"Trade dropped significantly, pretty much 20 to 25 per cent every week, to not much at all. We went to having one or two people for lunch," Mr Boyer said.
By the end of 2018, Mr Boyer claims the Cato Street square became so unattractive for customers to visit, he was "on the verge of going bankrupt".
"I had to sell my house and lost so much money. For the last two years, I've been on a low-wage income. We had to get help from family," he said.
Mr Boyer said the financial stress turned him from being a normally positive person into somebody experiencing "sleepless nights".
"I will say I'm a workaholic but from depression to even thinking of suicide, that's something I was scaring my wife," he says.
"I've never had that in my life. When you're 45 and you get this unknown and you're really down about yourself. It's sleepless nights. You feel you'll lose everything you've ever worked for 30 years."
Mr Boyer liquidated his company but reopened the Prahran cafe this year, after getting financial backing from a business partner and reduced rent from his landlord.
"That was on the hope that the square would be opening soon. But they keep postponing and pushing back and pushing," he said.
Podiatrist Jesse Hibbs said his business was down "about 30 per cent" in revenue duto the road-blocks and construction.
"But that is nothing compared to those businesses down 50, 60 and 70 per cent, and there's lots in this vicinity," Mr Hibbs said.
He said the project has been initially sold to local business owners as a revitalisation with green spaces, but in its final stages of construction it was more of a "colosseum".
The experience has left the podiatrist so incensed that last month he decided to launch a class action against Stonnington Council to seek compensation for business losses.
"I started speaking to local traders and realised the losses were widespread, catastrophic, localised and able to be demonstrated effectively," Mr Hibbs said.
"We're seeking some of our losses to be returned to us so we can continue to grow our businesses and put some food on the table."
On Monday evening, about 40 local business owners and locals gathered to hear from lawyers looking to mount the class action.
Stories shared with the ABC at the meeting included business owners selling their homes to survive and people's marriages breaking down under the financial stress.
Commercial litigator Rick Mitry said the group had a case for compensation.
"It's not only possible but it is necessary," he said.
Yet Mr Mitry said for the legal case to get up, the group would need to prove that collectively it has suffered about $50 million in losses between them.
At this stage, Mr Mitry said only about 30 claimants seemed genuinely serious about lodging a class action, and at that rate they would need to prove losses more than $1.5 million each.
Mayor defends 'great project'
The retailers the ABC spoke to alleged the council did not adequately warn them of the impacts of the construction and that the project has faced delays.
Stonnington Mayor Steve Stefanopoulos disputed those claims.
We've consulted with our businesses and traders around here since the word go," he said.
"Even before we started the project, traders knew what the project was going to entail, when it would start and finish and opening hours.
"Where we can, we have informed traders and business owners well in advance about road closures."
Yet he conceded that the project had run several months behind schedule, with the finished town square now set to reopen by Christmas.
Cr Stefanopoulos said the project to create a more "community-focused area" was worthwhile in a council area that was "desperate for more open space".
"Before we did this project, it was just an open air carpark with asphalt tarmac. It was hot in the middle of summer and bloody freezing in the middle of winter. It wasn't a very desirable place to hang around.
"I'm not saying that development hasn't had an impact on their businesses but what I'm saying is that we're producing a world-class facility here that will bring people to the precinct.
"I think it's a great project. It's a small-term pain for long-term gain."
When asked about the emotional toll on local retailers, Cr Stefanopoulos said he "encourages anyone struggling with mental health issues to seek assistance".
Source: ABC News
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