Opinion piece by Chief Executive Paul Guerra: Here's how to save the CBD

30 April 2022

I love Melbourne. It’s the best city in the world. But COVID hasn’t been kind to our CBD and it’s becoming more obvious that our recovery is taking longer than we hoped.

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We know that Melbourne’s CBD has three different phases: Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday evenings and the weekends. While the latter two are quickly returning to their former glory, it’s Monday to Friday 9 to 5pm that remains less than ideal.

Data shows office occupancy in the CBD still lags behind other capital cities and foot traffic remains well below pre-pandemic levels.  While the rest of Victoria roars back to life, the CBD’s recovery has been patchy at best.

Before COVID, 500,000 people came to Melbourne’s CBD each day. The city contributed seven per cent of Australia’s gross national product and 25 per cent of Victoria’s gross state product. Our world class sporting and cultural events and iconic retail and hospitality sectors ensured we were regularly ranked as the world’s most liveable city.

According to the Economist, every office worker supports up to five other jobs such as baristas, waiters and hairdressers and these rely on the presence of people in the CBD. The city is our most important business, cultural and recreational hub and, until COVID, was the jewel in Victoria’s crown.

But it’s not shining as bright as it can and this is impacting business particularly hard with shops either empty or completely vacant. Adelaide and Perth now sit above Melbourne in the rankings of the world’s most liveable cities.

It’s not for a lack of trying by the State Government and City of Melbourne which have pumped millions into programs like Melbourne Money to help rejuvenate our hospitality sector. Visit Victoria has also worked hard to secure a number of new major events including next month’s Brazil v Argentina blockbuster at the MCG.

But the CBD is not shining as bright as it can and this is impacting businesses particularly hard with shops either empty or completely vacant.

Now, Adelaide and Perth sit above Melbourne in rankings of the world’s most liveable cities.

But I’m over the constant negativity – these problems need to be addressed. We need to restore out city to its greatness, to regain the mantle as the world’s most liveable. The CBD matters and it’s a shared responsibility to not just revive it but reimagine it.

 

There is enough noise from people I respect about cleanliness, graffiti, homelessness and bike lanes on our major thoroughfares to know there is an issue that needs attention.

 

We must start with cleaning the CBD at an increased rate. The City of Melbourne has acknowledged it’s hard to stay ahead of the ever-growing graffiti problem. More resources are needed to address this.

 

What could be if every employer across the public and private sectors committed to a clear plan about how many days a week their staff work in the office? And publicly declared it.

 

How about removing the bike lanes in Exhibition Street for a trial period? We strongly support bike lanes but the lanes in Exhibition Street slow traffic on what is a major thoroughfare and link to the Monash Freeway.

There will be other views and more ideas, and I know mine might be contentious for some. But let’s deal with the issues and then plan our CBD’s ultimate recovery with a fully developed strategy.

We simply can’t let the CBD drift any longer. It will require a concerted effort from state and local government in partnership with the business sector if it’s to be not just revived but reimagined.  We need to create a clear vision for what we want the CBD to look like for the decades to come.

It’s called our central business district for a reason after all.  If it’s not churning at full speed, then Victoria’s economy is not at the level we want or need it to be.  According to a report by the City of Melbourne it will be the end of 2024 before the CBD returns to pre-COVID levels. I’m sure none of us want to wait that long so let’s do our best to help now.

I’m just one of millions of proud Victorians who love this city. We all have a role to play to ensure the CBD’s future and help Melbourne regain its rightful mantle as the world’s most liveable city.

We need to focus on what our city will become, taking a view of today and tomorrow and learning from what happened yesterday. Many cities around the world are grappling with the same issue. But I love Melbourne, and I will be striving to ensure our city becomes the example that others will follow again.

 

This article originally appeared in The Age on April 30, 2022.

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