Key points

  • Occupancy figures from the Property Council show office occupancy at 28 per cent of the pre-COVID figures for January.
  • However at night time the city is busy with pedestrian traffic between 9pm and 2am at 96.9 per cent of pre-COVID benchmarks.
  • There are more people in the city on weekends than before the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021.

Ding-dong, Melbourne’s CBD is dead, but there’s no need to panic, the city is busy reinventing itself as a destination for entertainment and a place to live in the aftermath of the pandemic.

Despite some employers and lobby groups resorting to both threats and bribery, the bustle of office workers five days a week has not returned, but instead the city is buzzing at night and weekends.

Nature is healing with tourists back taking photos of graffiti in Hosier Lane. Credit:Eddie Jim

It’s not Melbourne as we knew it, but it’s a different Melbourne and it’s still kicking.

And this is the key point. We need to focus less on the “B” in Central Business District and put more emphasis on making the city centre a hub for living, meeting and being entertained.

We need to stop pretending it will go back to how it was. The latest Property Council figures show office occupancy at a measly 28 per cent of pre-COVID figures for January, even taking into account summer holidays it’s clear a shift has occurred.

Office workers aren’t staying away because of a few bike lanes, they are staying away because they have worked out that many jobs can be done perfectly well from home one or two days a week with the remainder of days in the office for in-person meetings.

This seemingly permanent shift to so-called “hybrid work”, which occurred during the pandemic, is the kiss of death for a city only focused on business.

So what can we do to change the city? In a planning scheme quirk, developers receive bonuses for building more offices in the city centre. Let’s instead incentivise them to include social housing, community and retail spaces in new developments.

Some public transport services could be shifted from peak hour to ensure more at nighttime and on weekends, with fewer shops selling sandwiches to office workers and more cafes and restaurants that are a destination in themselves.

Score yourself a seat at the bar and a cocktail at Gimlet in the evening, a ticket to Prima Facie at the Arts Centre or a spot on a plastic stool at Soi 83 for a serve of Thai noodles and you’ve hit the Melbourne jackpot.

The World’s Longest Lunch at the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival.Credit:Eddie Jim

Don’t shed too many tears for the tumbleweeds down Collins Street on Monday mornings – come Thursday evening it’s a different story with pedestrian traffic just below pre-COVID benchmarks.

Weekends are another bright spot for the city with people flocking in for festivals, sport, music, art, shopping, and theatre.

This will be turbocharged in “Mad March” when the city bursts at the seams with the frankly overwhelming combination of the Melbourne Food & Wine Festival, Melbourne Grand Prix, Melbourne Fashion Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Then there’s the people making their home in the city with the latest City of Melbourne figures estimating there are 102,326 residential dwellings in the city centre, a number that has steadily climbed over the years.

The future of the city centre is mixed use, including housing, and it seems to be a no-brainer that some empty office buildings could be turned into apartments.

The transformation is already taking place in New York where America’s biggest office-to-residential conversion is under way. A skyscraper near the New York Stock Exchange is being retrofitted into 1300 apartments ranging from studios to four-bedroom dwellings.

We are yet to see plans for these conversions in Melbourne partly because they are costly and difficult to undertake.

Apartments require natural light which is often in short supply in offices and each home requires plumbing which is typically concentrated in just one area around the lift well in office buildings.

Still, the greatest barrier appears to be the lack of available properties due to building owners and managers hoping that things will go back to the way they were.

Associate professor of architecture at the University of Melbourne, Rory Hyde, says, “we are in a strange no man’s land where offices are empty, but space is not cheap”.

New buildings are often advertised as “mixed-use” but this just means residential or offices on top and half-empty retail below.

True mixed-use buildings in cities like London are encouraged through planning schemes where developers are incentivised to include community housing, libraries and theatres within developments.

It’s no longer a CBD, instead we could have a CED (central entertainment district) and CLD (central living district).

Whatever acronym you choose, the death of the CBD does not have to mean the death of the city centre.

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