Nicholas Building: half empty or half full?

By Rhonda Dredge

Up to 50 per cent of rooms in the Nicholas Building in Swanston St are empty as a result of the pandemic, according to tenants keen to see the place full of creative energy again.

“It’s half empty,” long-term tenant and gallerist Stephen McLaughlan said, who has at least survived the lockdown. 

Rents were a major preoccupation during the long slow days of winter and Stephen paid his on the dot from his superannuation to make sure he kept up.

His gallery was forced to close but the efforts of the Nicholas Building Association helped, with landlords granting a rent waiver for several months, keeping up much-needed morale. 

Those creatives without an ABN were vulnerable, Stephen said. “People lost their day job or they were not getting JobKeeper. Others felt it was time to draw a line.”

Now rents are back to normal and businesses are having to deal with the new normal, like it or not.

The gallery’s first post-COVID exhibition was a gap show of work by artists who missed out because of the 2020 lockdown but two new artists are currently showing, which is encouraging.

“I’m busier than ever,” Stephen said. “It’s a lot better than I expected. I’m not ahead in the big picture but I’m pretty lucky.” 

Marc Dixon on the fifth floor also survived the pandemic but the patterns have been different for architects, with plenty of work during the lockdown but less on stream now.

“Projects are planned years in advance,” he said. “After June/July last year there were no calls.” 

The firm is getting by on small jobs such as making the entrance to the City Baths more accessible and renewing the tuck pointing between the bricks. 

“You can design a city block but equally what people are gripping such as a hand rail,” he said. “How high should a step be? How much grip should it have? Could there be an architectural solution?”

The old conviviality of the building is taking a while to recover and he is missing the casual way of working in the past when you could drop into the Town Hall and discuss projects with council officers.

“Chance meetings are off. We’re only seeing people over the past three weeks,” Marc said. 

Another impact of the pandemic has been an increase in office expenses in terms of the server going online and more regulations in the industry.

“There’s a lot of heat in the industry,” he said. “There’s trouble getting prices from contractors. We’re loaded with extra admin requirements. There are more regulatory requirements within the building industry.”

But there’s always a chance to let off steam in the Nicholas Building and these stalwarts have not lost their zeal in this department.

Stephen had a spring in his step as he took a stroll around nearby arcades and Marc was looking forward to a glass of wine downstairs come Friday knock-off time. 

There were reports that takings at Cathedral Coffee were back up to 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels and that is a measure of how full the glass really is.  

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