Melbourne CBD
(Image: Reuters/Sandra Sanders)

Melbourne appears to have been plunged into winter this week, without the need for a perfunctory passage through autumn. The skies are grey, the air is bitter-cold, that vague winter wetness clings to everything.

This is of course the way we like it here. It accessorises the rest of the city which post-lockdown appears to be slowly sliding into what remains of the West Melbourne Swamp.

The Melbourne CBD is now as beaten down and vacant as it was in the deep recession of 1990, when the tramways union upped the ante on a strike by parking dozens of trams in the city centre.

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Overseas, the communist bloc was collapsing. Here, the city had a taste of East Berlin about it. Perhaps whoever owns the trams at the moment could be persuaded to reprise the moment for diversion. We certainly need that.

The wind whistles down empty streets in the CBD. On one side of Bourke Street 80% of shopfronts are empty. Big gaps are starting to appear in Swanston Street too. A couple of dozen cafes and bars have shut. Even the student hot pot places are starting to close. But really, something like this has been happening for a while.

With the long lockdown and the post-JobKeeper era emerging, something has been made more visible: the Andrews government and the Melbourne city council really have no plan for the centre of Melbourne. They’ve added very little to the two decades of change and development in the CBD which preceded them. Instead of curating the city, they’ve relied on a mutant three-headed cash cow: overseas students, overseas property investment, and a skyscraper boom (as well as the Metro rail tunnel and the associated property development by Lendlease).

This scheme may have kept things turning over, but it led the government to neglect the process of refining the CBD that had started with various arcades laneways and pedestrianisation projects in the 1980s. Much of the spirit of this appears to be dying away through neglect.

For years the government has been using a spatial (non-) fix for the insufficient demand arising from new industries it hasn’t been able to create: pour the concrete, build the road, dig the tunnel. Some of it is useful, and some of it — like the tunnel and the never-to-be-completed suburban rail link — are just a diversion of transport resources that could have been better spent on unspectacular things like tram line extension and interconnection, which would genuinely move people out of cars.

Now, having had one of the world’s longest lockdowns, the city has experienced possibly permanent patterns of movement and activity change that are a foretaste of what will be happening around the world. It’s a decisive delocalisation — a demotion of the city, the CBD losing its “C”. There is no sign that the Andrews government has any ideas about how to deal with that, or the capacity to get any.

The truth is, I suspect, the government rather wishes the CBD would piss off. The urban focus that ran through Labor, especially Victorian Labor, from the late ’60s has largely departed. State Labor, and the Labor and progressive independents in the council, were energised by the inner-city residents’ associations which had risen in opposition to a wild freeways plan and mass demolition by the Housing Commission. They set the stage for a process of rethinking what a city centre should be.

Now much of that spirit is a historical memory and Labor is thoroughly suburban and regional. I suspect it regards all the arcades and laneways business as a bit of a wank. Towers and tunnels are the go — except the latter go nowhere and the former are empty. The strategy — the “spatial fix” of capitalism, on steroids — has collapsed.

Labor has no choice but to be socially innovative. But it has so successfully removed a tradition of socially critical urban thinking — which ran through people like Moss Cass, Tom Uren and Brian Howe — that they seem at a loss as to how to recover it.

To a degree, one can sympathise with an exasperation at having to focus on the inner city. Millions of Melburnians barely go in there from month to month, and I guess up to a million don’t go in for years at a stretch. They don’t much care that someone wants to demolish the Hub Arcade (not the Hub!) or the condition of stencils on Hosier Lane. But the whole city decays if the centre decays.

Look at Sydney. The inner-city was ignored for a decade — and more during the reign of Bob Carr and his succeeding munchkins — and it ended up with the charm and amenity of a steel prison toilet filled with pruno. That was the period in which, improbably, Melbourne became Australia’s worldly city, while Sydney became a footnote of ’80s nostalgia.

The other relevant example is Los Angeles which, from the ’60s simply de-centred its downtown/CBD to the point where this huge collection of art deco towers, laneways and mini neighbourhoods became a no-go zone filled with garbage. It realised too late that this decentralisation turned LA into a post-urban nowhere it is struggling to retrieve.

LA had more chance of getting away with that because it was multi-centred. Melbourne, with its radial structure, has no chance of making that work. Government and council have to respond to our near-unique COVID experience which has thrust us to the forefront of moving towards a post-capitalist city.

Specifically, and in a sort of loose order:

1. Change the land tax regime to favour small, single businesses — not franchises as it does now. The land tax has killed Melbourne centre as a specialty shopping place. Even shops with freeholds couldn’t make a go of it.

2. Move public and social housing tenants into the city centre. Not only for the housing shortage but because lower-income people give a city life and vibrancy.

3. Enforce a shop vacancy tax which starts after, say, four months and rises steeply, making it uneconomic for landlords to leave properties empty.

4. Return individual artisans and small workshops to the centre, with subsidies. It would be chickenfeed in the scheme of things, but a working city is enlivened far beyond the spread of cafes and bars.

5. Limit same-brand franchise density. There are 7-Elevens four doors apart in the CBD. Most of them have replaced individual outlets. It is transforming the place into a tedious midwestern nowhere.

6. Enforce street-level interface rules. If you’re going to pull down the architecturally unremarkable six-shop Hub Arcade and the laneway bar beside it, replace it with seven spaces in that or another arrangement — not a closed-off single hotel.

7. Protect architecturally unremarkable streetscapes. We’ve lost too much. There should simply be a reverse of onus for all pre-1945 buildings in the city — developers should need to show why demolishing the building would be no loss, rather than the reverse.

8. Arghhhhh do something about Swanston Street. It’s is the ugliest central city street I’ve seen, and I’ve been to Bucharest.

Both state government and council seem to have lost all capacity for leadership on the matter of the city. They’ve been lulled into the idea that money will save them if they simply pour the concrete. It won’t. Three decades of good work is going down the tunnel.

For Melbourne, winter is not coming. Winter is here.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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