For a while there, Melbourne’s CBD did not look in great shape. Granted, there weren’t actual tumbleweeds and no zombies appeared. If you’d fired a cannon down Bourke Street, you probably would have hit somebody. But stripped of its office workers, its restaurants and cafes relegated to takeaway-only, its non-essential retail shops closed down, the CBD did lockdown hard.
An empty Flinders Lane in July 2020.Credit:Getty Images
City of Melbourne and other data suggested that during the pandemic foot traffic has been down by 80 per cent, office occupancy has been down to about 4 per cent and one in five shops shut. Some people talked excitedly about the strange new life we’d be enjoying post-COVID, raising chickens somewhere in regional Victoria with a dodgy Wi-Fi connection, drinking our coffee in reinvigorated suburban strips.
The question is how permanent these changes will be, and what will happen to the CBD’s businesses, its street life, its cultural offerings? As it turns out, there seems to be reason for optimism. The easing of mask restrictions in recent days for offices, bars and restaurants (if not yet retail), and some glorious spring weather, has led to big-city life resuming. No matter what you think of the anti-lockdown and anti-pandemic-bill crowd, the fact is they chose to go to the CBD to make their point. Proof again that it remains the geographical and social centre of Melbourne, and a magnet for activity of all kinds.
Take culture. Theatres are reopening with three tent-pole productions – Moulin Rouge, Frozen and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – all major CBD drawcards. Restaurants are reporting strong bookings, possibly stimulated by the City of Melbourne’s revived Melbourne Money refund scheme. Bars are once again heaving.
“Cautious elation” is how columnist Jon Faine described the feeling he had walking through the CBD midweek, writing in The Sunday Age: “Those confident predictions of but a few months ago, prophesying the death of the high-rise office suddenly seem rash and exaggerated.” The power lunch is making a return.
Some changes, though, appear likely to stay. The Victorian public service has already signalled to staff that, while they will be expected back in the office in person sooner rather than later, they only need to come in for part of the week. A Telstra spokesperson told The Age, “our people are telling us they think they’ll work about three days a week from home” and National Australia Bank chief operating officer Les Matheson said the bank’s expectation was “hybrid practices of two to three days per week in the office”. Research by Infrastructure Victoria published on Tuesday suggests it will become the norm for more Victorians to live further away from their workplaces and commute to the office less often.
There is clearly a strong appetite to return to the CBD, but the new reality is yet to find its level. Many traders, meanwhile, will do it tough, particularly in precincts such as Docklands and the city’s western fringe. London reopened months ago, but foot traffic there is still at only half of pre-pandemic levels, and use of the rail network at 60 per cent, suggesting most people are using the city centre mainly for weekend leisure, and cultural experiences, not for weekday work. Melbourne’s CBD will, likewise, have to adapt.
There may be some positives. Lower rents could attract smaller, niche retailers and creative types who could not previously afford a city presence. Government support could kick that along: the Greens suggest funding rent reductions of up to 50 per cent for creative, tech and innovative businesses that sign long-term leases, an idea that has some merit.
Similarly, our ebullient lord mayor, Sally Capp, has indicated local artists, entrepreneurs and landlords among others would be encouraged to transform vacant shops – a reboot, perhaps, of the city’s original laneway renaissance.
COVID-19 hasn’t killed our CBD. Quite the contrary: it is emerging from its hibernation resilient, re-energised, and refreshed. Let’s celebrate that fact and support it.
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