Almost 30 years on, can residents again lead CBD recovery?

By David Schout

In the early 1990s, a recession-hit Melbourne looked to new residents as a vital part of central city revitalisation. Nearly three decades on, could this be the blueprint for success again?

It was 1992 and Melbourne’s CBD was, in boxing parlance, on the ropes. 

The recession had hit the city perhaps harder than anywhere else in the country.

Manufacturing and retail was suffering, population was plateauing, and the buzz that would later define the city was largely non-existent.

Pledging to not waste a crisis, the City of Melbourne proposed a “Postcode 3000” planning policy that encouraged people to pack up and move into the CBD.

Supported by the newly-elected Jeff Kennett state government, the ambitious plan aimed to increase the number of city units from (then) just 600, to 8000 over the following 15 years.

To do so, both levels of government gave incentives to convert abandoned office buildings into residential dwellings and new apartment towers.

A media strategy promoted the CBD as an affordable, safe and convenient place to live.

Retailers, bar and restaurant owners were drawn to cheaper rent and, as new residents began to arrive, a new clientele outside the nine-to-five office crowd.

Combined with an active arts and culture scene, things began to click into motion.

The goal was reached in just 10 years, and Melbourne was well on its way to becoming a thriving metropolis.

And to get there, residents played a huge role. 

University of Melbourne researchers Emma Blomkamp and Jennifer Lewis wrote about Postcode 3000 in Successful Public Policy: Lessons from Australia and New Zealand, published last year.

Their chapter, titled Marvellous Melbourne: Making the world’s most liveable city, outlined the policy’s success.

“At its heart was a demonstration building conversion project, in which the city, working with industry partners, converted vacant floors of a historical building into apartments,” they wrote.

“Despite initial scepticism, the city recovered its investment as rents exceeded expectations and ‘a long waiting list of prospective tenants’ proved it had succeeded in persuading people to live in the CBD.”

Now, almost 30 years on, the city is set to face another devastating blow to the economy, this time due to the coronavirus pandemic.

COVID-19 has already had a devastating effect on tourism and international students, with uncertainty on when they might return. 

The weekday work crowd — for some businesses the majority of their clientele — has irretrievably changed since March, and if some predictions are correct might never return to pre-pandemic levels. 

For retail, prospective customers from outside the CBD might also be more reticent to travel into the city.

So, could it be that residents again prove key to keeping the local economy afloat?

In October, Lord Mayor Sally Capp said it was new locals that could fill the void. 

“There is huge scope for us to have more residents,’’ she told The Sunday Age.

“That was a big part of how we recovered and became one of the world’s most liveable cities following the recession in the early ‘90s.”

“Residents are the heartbeat and pulse of the city. They underpin so much of the economic confidence of the city because we know there are people here who can support local businesses and attend exhibitions and go to shows and participate in festivals.’’

As the city looks to adjust to the new “COVID-normal”, the recovery will likely feature bold decisions to make up what’s been lost in 2020.

It’s not outrageous to think that growing the CBD community could underpin that.

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