Monday, 14 June 2021

The Death of Melbourne's CBD has been Greatly Exaggerated

Google any news article to do with Melbourne CBD in the last 12 months, and you'll find 95% of those articles pertain in some way to its prophesied demise.

There's no question that the CBD is going to be doing it tough for the forseeable future, but there's also no question in my mind that Melbourne will actually be back on a pre-pandemic trajectory over the medium term, provided enough sound policy to nudge it back in that direction.

Reasons why Melbourne CBD would naturally be expected to recover over the medium-term

1. It's Central to Potential

COVID has accelerated the public acceptance of the desirability of a 20 minute nighbourhood. The CBD is the geographic centre of the city, and all of its surrounding suburbs have been densifying markedly over the past decade. We have already seen COVID strengthen demand for medium density office and residential development in those areas, and this actualy bodes well for strong future demnd for development on the scale and density that is proposed for the Fishermans Bend and Arden- Macaulay redevelopment zones.

Melbourne CBD has really only in recent decades reaped the rewards of having been surrounded by acres of marshland to its south and west. The CBD will remain effectively part of the 20 minute neighbourhood for all these areas, as well as a densifying north, east, west Melbourne, Carlton, Flemington, Kensington, etc. I also believe tremendous potential exists for redeveloping the Dynon rail yards and later the remainder of Docklands, but we will discuss this in more detail at a later date.

2. It's Still the Geographic and Economic Heart

Critical Mass matters. In planning and in Economics. The CBD is now home to something in the order of 80,000 residents. Many of those were international students, but regardless, we keep forgetting that we broke the "doughnut city" model in the 1990s, before the international students arrived en masse. The CBD IS the 20 minute neighbourhood to tens of thousands of people now, and while the projected pre-COVID growth for CBD high rise apartments will almost certainly take decades to recover, this now presents further opportunities, as we will discuss shortly.

In spite of the trend towards work from home, we've already seen other Australian CBD occupancy rates rise above 80%. So you'd have to say work from home is actually ultimately going to impact by something like that quntum. I also believe that firms are going to cruch the productivity numbers on work from home at some point, and we will actully see pressure being placed on employees to minimise work from home over the medium term. 

There seems to be a curious inversion of the power relationship right now evident in the comments section of all these articles that suggests people are convinced they are actually going to be able to dictate the future extent of work from home to their employers. I think this remains to be seen.

The question of economic critical mass cannot be overstated, either. Regardless of how many companies downsize or leave the CBD, it will still be by far the largest employment geography, with all the attendant economic activity that necessarily comes with that. Moomba will never be moved to Chadstone, for instance.

3. The Projections Don't Map to Current Evidence

The CBD over the medium term WILL recover to 80%+ occupancy, just like Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, and overall economic growth has almost already rebounded to pre-COVID levels.

The borders will eventually be opened again, and the internatioinal students will return, but it remins to be seen in what quantum.

Immigration will also return, population growth will resume and once more accelerate that economic growth, immigrants will also tend to be overall more accepting of higher density living arrangements, and will tend overall to settle in Melbourne and Sydney.

4. We've Seen it All Before

The effects of the influenza pandemic of 19 were not dissimilar upon CBD activity, yet history seems to suggest learned pandemic behaviours are quickly shed. 

Especially given the growth trends were so strong pre-COVID, I for one expect things to gravitate back towards the old trends faster than most commentators assume, notwithstanding the clear and ongoing trend towards work from home means it won't necessarily return to quite the same hectic levels, which is frankly going to be better for maintaining the CBD's long-run amenity, regardless.

5. Pre-COVID Growth was Spectacular

The CBD was already under severe growth pressure pre-COVID, the Property Council were screaming at the Planning Minister that his new CBD controls had left only a hndful of developable sites in the CBD.

So, I think all of the above suggests we are going to see levels of activity within the Melbourne CBD back at pre-pandemic levels naturally over the medium term.

But I also think it suggests some specific policy directions to ensure that we get there within the shortest possible timeframe. Announcing the ...

Wombat Melbourne Fightback Plan ...

Pause and Re-Load

We should declare the CBD now essentially FULL in terms of the scale of further development allowable. Melburnians love their CBD, but the consensus was clear that most people felt the scale of development seen since the late 2000s was threatening the character of what they loved. 

Rendering the pause on lrge-scale development semi-permanent is thus critical to the maintenance of "Brand CBD", especially considering demand for development on that scale - both office and residential is at best set for an approximate decade-long pause. Even more especially considering we have such ample tracts of development land now becoming available at the CBD fringe.

We should seize this opportunity to say "the CBD is at the limits of its capability to retain its heritage character, and its urban amenity in terms of sunlight ever hitting the footpath". Our task now is to get the fabric that we are dealt with here back to its earlier state of vibrancy. That will take some time, but simply adding supply to the mix seems like the worst possible strategy. 

There are large projected vacancies in the B, C and D grade office stocks, opportunities will exist to refurbish those buildings (which in general tend to contribute least to the existing urban fabric anyway) by way of maintaining supply.

Further demand, and indeed the demand for residential and office development more at medium rather than higher density within a well planned neighbourhood can then be taken up by Fishermans Bend, e-gate, Arden-Macaulay and potentially Dynon and Docklands 2. These areas would then become part of a "greater CBD" and activity from the new development areas would naturally contribute to revitalising the neighbouring CBD/Docklands areas, and indeed giving Docklands the geograpic focus it has always been lacking.

New Social Housing Focus

The State Government is already buying up CBD apartment stock for social housing. There is no better location to place people with social housing needs than the CBD, from where they have access to virtully the entire metropolitan employment market without the need to own a car. Social housing tenants are another sector that are going to be more accepting of high density living arangements, and many would view the grade of housing stock on offer in the CBD as vastly superior to the social housing norm. I think the opportunities to actually solve some of the city's more critical housing issues is one of the silver linings hidden in the pandemic cloud.

A lot of artists and creative industries have been pushed out of the CBD in recent years through gentrification, and the opportunity exists to use the glut of both apartments and retail spaces to re-instate the CBD's role as a space where adventurous creative industries can thrive and put their product before an audience on a cost-effective basis, whilst at the same time enhancing those points of difference for CBD retail that Chadstone will never be able to compete with.

Retail Revival

For retail, I'd suggest we need to stop all these people out there rubbishing the CBD in the comments section of all these articles. The CBD needs to be THE place to shop again, even if folks do it late night or weekends rather than during their lunchtimes.

Melbourne has always struggled to make late night shopping happen systemically, but it's the point of difference relative to Chadstone (which can't effectively cater to anyone in the western suburbs), only the Melbourne CBD could transform itself into more of a late night or even 24 hour shopping destination for the whole city. The Council should think about policies that can push us more in this direction.

The opportunity also exists to seize the initiative to create a proper pedestrian retail environment the entire length of Elizabeth Street, in line with previous Wombat plans to create "the Asia-Pacific's largest outdoor mall". I think this emphasis wants accelerating. I think a campaign that emphasises not just that shopping the CBD is ten times more fun and a hundred times more soulful than shopping Chadstone, but that part of the attrction is that everything is OUTDOORS.

How many times have you seen"The Bourke Street Mall" come up as an infection site? Versus "Suburban indoor shopping centre food court", etc? Melbourne should be selling the OUTDOOR nature of its shopping experience, making the most of the MARKET as part of the overall experience, turn the tables on this damn virus and say "Melbourne CBD is the most COVID-safe major shopping centre available to you!"

So how about we put a pause on all the things that we felt were hampering Melbourne before anyway. How about we accept acceerating the push to a 20 minute city will be one of the pandemic's legacies, and we strive to make Melbourne CBD a part of that strategy for as many people as possible? How about we give our transport network the kind of off-peak service frequencies that mean people can turn up and go to the CBD within 20 minutes from Fisherman's Bend, Southbank, Docklands, Flemington, Kensington, Carlton, Nth Melbourne, Parkville, St Kilda Rd, East Melbourne, West Melbourne, etc. but we also from new proximate activity centres - Footscray, Moonee Ponds, Abbotsford, Collingwood, Cremorne, Burnley.

But I tell you what, you CANNOT do that at Fisherman's Bend, without a plan to get both heavy rail and additional tram routes in there via Southbank in the first case and Docklands the latter.

Regular readers will be unsurprised to learn a plan exists for all this too. But that can wait for another day ...

Thursday, 22 April 2021

Paring Back the Palimpsests - Mythology and the Lost Layers of Melbourne Geography

The City as Palimpsest

Robyn Annear's Bearbrass - Imagining Early Melbourne (Black Inc, 2014) does a great job of giving a voice to the city's earliest fitful development years. Melbourne was born in 1835 a rudimentary, slapdash, ramshackle city - a city which had largely been subsumed by more permanent structures by the time photography arrived in the colonies in the 1850s.

We know it mostly from rough watercolours and loose sketches, such as this by the city's first Surveyor-General Robert Hoddle, looking west along Collins St, over the government reserve towards King St in 1840.

Annear addresses the Melbourne we know from this time - the "Marvelous" city full of grand Victorian buildings erected from gold rush fortunes - as a palimpsest over the older, forgotten city.

But while it's obviusly beyond the scope of the book, Annear largely ignores the reality that her vanished "Bearbrass" was itself a palimpsest over the pre-contact land use and cultural heritage of various groups within the Kulin Nation.

The Stories We Tell

As the Andrews Government laudably looks to develop a treaty with indigenous Victorians, I can't help but feel a window of opportunity sits wide open to better connect all Victorians with a deeper sense of the utter lie of terra nullius, and through that sense of our own long, deep shared history  a history it would not seem in any way laughable for us to claim, were indigenous and non-indigenoous Victoria actually properly reconciled.

If Indigenous Australia's heritage were properly part of the Australian story, then Australia could claim to be arguably the oldest extant culture on earth. Australia has so much to gain from a successful process of reconciliation that for conservative commentators and politicians to treat any indigenous issue, much less any talk of a treaty, as if it were some latte-sippers' indulgent abstraction, rather than critical to our entire national identity and actually critical to nationally moving on from a whole range of issues we are collectively hung up on makes my blood boil.

Such a narrow, unimaginative scope for the vision of our still very youthful and emergent (no matter how much ScoMo might want to finesse the issue) sense of national identity ought to write the Mark Lathams of this world entirely out of the debate altogether, instead of granting them a platform to promote anything that reeks of national reconciliation as patrisan distraction, pandering to minorities etc.

If that sort of bulldust is going to stand in the way of the nation lifting its eyes properly to the horizon, coming to terms with the wrongful basis on which a nation was founded, but promoting that same nation's welfare as the obvious and best vehicle to advance the welfare of indigenous and non-indigenous Australians, then it needs to be countered.

The Lies We Rote Repeat

Just like having a foreign hereditary monarch as our head of state, just like having the flag of another nation in the corner of ours, just like never having formally recognised the basis on which the land was settled represented an injustice that didn't result in genocide only by accident, these things all hobble our sense of national self, our confidence in acting independently in our own interests.

PATRIOTS should be screaming to change the flag. PATRIOTS should be in the streets demanding a republic. PATRIOTS should be advocating for the interests of those Aussies with a connection to the land that runs 40,000+ years deep.

Consider New Zealand, where in spite of a not-unparalleled level of frontier violence, the existence of the Treaty of Waitangi with that nation's indigenous peoples appears to symbolically at least have ushered in a national acceptance that using indigenous place-names and indigenous terms like "kia-ora" within the effective national lingo is itself an act of patriotism, rather than some form of woke treason.

"Aboriginal Australians camped in the bush near the Yarra River, [Vic.]", 1858 Daintree and Fauchery photographers. Original title: "Camp of Blackfellows."

What if we really seized the opportunities a Victorian treaty process invites to elevate the pathetic level of respect and commemoration we have for our pre-contact indigenous history, by formally recognising it in our geographic nomenclature, and by resurrecting memory in some way at the many sites of significance to indigenous Australia which dot present-day Melbourne?

What if Brighton were "Worrowen"? Toorak were "Turruk" (and already hopefully readers can see, the palimpsest city doesn't always turn out to be as much of an erasure as we might assume)? 

What if we renamed Albert Park lake, named for a Prince Albert who bears no relevance whatsoever to modern Australia, and who never so much as set foot on this soil "Euro-yoroke"?

What if it were "Gariwerd" instead of "Grampians" again? Bruce Ruxton is dead, it's worth another crack ...

What if the Richmond Football Club took the opportunity through the planned redevelopment of Punt Rd Oval to find a way to include something - an artwork, an interpretive centre, anything that commemorates the significance of the site to Melbourne's pre-contact history? 

Do that within a retained Jack Dyer stand, and really show we've turned the corner as a nation in appreciating our own heritage ...

In our language lies our ideology. At the moment, as a nation we are still more concerned with denying the past (as this somehow threatens our present sense of identity) than planning for the future, and it's not good enough just to blame politicians.

But my hope is that the politicians involved here WILL see the transformative opportunities a Victorian treaty represents.

Just a few of the sites that would be potential places for commemoration - and note how many neighburing nations shared use of many of these sites, indicating how fluid relations were between clan groups within the Kulin Nation ...

Known Indigenus Camps in the Melbourne Metropolitan Area at the Time of First Contact (Canning & Thiele, p. 21)

Gellibrand Hill Park in Greenvale near the Melbourne Airport - Wurundjeri-willam camp

South bank of the Yarra River between Princes Bridge and Punt Road – Bun wurrung, Daung wurrung and Woi Wurrung camps

Richmond Cricket Ground (Punt Road Oval) - Wurundjeri-willam camp

Melbourne Cricket Ground – Wurundjeri-willam camp

New Town Hill (Fitzroy) – Wurundjeri-willam camp

Riery’s Hill (Clifton Hill) around Heidelberg Road – Daung wurrung and possibly Ngurai-willam wurrung camp

Royal Park and both sides of Sydney Road – general camping area for all Aboriginal groups

Melbourne General Cemetery site – preferred camp site for Corio and Western District groups

Worrowen (Brighton) – Bun wurrung camp between the Yarra River and the coast

Euro-yoroke (St. Kilda swamp) now part of Albert Park Lake – Bun wurrung camp

South of the confluence of the Merri Creek and Yarra River in Studley Park, west of the Merri Creek

Turruk (Toorak)

Fawkner Park, South Yarra


Canning, S. & Thiele, F., "Indigenous Cultural Heritage and History within the Metropolitan Melbourne Investigation Area", Victorian Environmental Assessment Council, 2010

Annear, Robyn, "Bearbrass - Imagining Early Melbourne" (Black Inc, 2014)