Five key questions for the CBD in 2023
The CBD continued its post-COVID recovery in 2022, and while there was cause for concern for some in the state’s epicentre, others might view the near future with their glasses half-full.
Looking ahead to 2023, we take a deeper dive into the biggest issues and points of interest.
Here’s the five key questions facing the CBD in the next 12 months.
1. Will the safe injecting room finally open?
One of the most prominent CBD topics in recent years, the state government originally said it would have an answer to this question by the end of 2020.
Now, almost two years on, it still has provided little clarity amid a growing number of delays.
The latest, citing “shifting patterns of drug harms in the CBD”, saw the government announce that no decision would be made until after the November 26 state election.
Assuming the current Labor government holds onto power (the election result was not known when CBD News went to print), will it announce the heavily-speculated-upon former Yooralla building on Flinders St as the site for the state’s second supervised injecting facility?
The government purchased the building in 2021 and most expect this to be the location, although a long-awaited review that will advise on the final site — being conducted by former police commissioner Ken Lay — was yet to be released.
Either way, we know the new medically supervised injecting room — a hygienic place where people can inject drugs in a supervised health setting and overdoses can be treated — is almost certain to be within the CBD.
A 2020 independent expert panel found that the state’s first-ever site in North Richmond had saved at least 21 lives in its first 18 months and thwarted 271 “extremely serious overdose incidents”.
However, it required help dealing with demand, and deemed the City of Melbourne — which has the second-highest ambulance attendances for heroin overdoses after the City of Yarra — the most appropriate municipality.
It is generally accepted that the most appropriate place for an injecting facility in the City of Melbourne was within the CBD.
The government’s first “preferred site” on Victoria St was scrapped after strong council pushback due to its proximity to vulnerable residents and the Queen Victoria Market.
2. Can Sally Capp secure state and federal funding for Greenline?
The Lord Mayor’s legacy Greenline project, which she made a key part of her 2018 by-election and 2020 general election strategies, has got off to a solid start.
Since draft plans were first released in May 2021 for the $300 million project, which proposes a four-kilometre green trail on the north bank of the Yarra River from Birrarung Marr to the Bolte Bridge, an implementation plan was then endorsed by councillors in late 2021 before independent economic analysts gave it a strong tick of approval in September this year.
Consultancy group Ernst & Young said Greenline would deliver more than $3 of value for every dollar spent.
According to the council, construction will officially begin in mid-2023 on the city-shaping project, which Cr Capp has said represented Melbourne’s “biggest transformation” since the opening of Federation Square in 2002.
“Site one” includes a new 450-metre boardwalk at Birrarung Marr.
However, the Lord Mayor still has a lot to do, namely, securing huge levels of funding.
It is proposed the $300 million project will funded via a three-way contribution of $100 million each from the council, state government and federal government.
So far, the federal government has committed $20 million to the project, while the state government is yet to come to the table.
The council needs further commitment for the entire project to be fully realised, however Cr Capp said the recent business case was a very strong start.
“[It] helps set us all up for success, as we continue to work with key stakeholders on the delivery of Greenline, particularly in relation to our discussions with state and federal governments,” she said in September.
3. Can the CBD’s “new rhythm” work for all?
The Lord Mayor, and the City of Melbourne in general, have liked to stay on-point with public messaging in the post-COVID city.
First it was about “bringing back the buzz” to Melbourne, a phrase they may now put out to pasture after a strong few years.
Now that the buzz has indeed come back, especially in thriving night-time and weekend economies according to recent foot traffic numbers, focus has shifted to a new oft-repeated phrase: the city’s “new rhythm”.
“Our central entertainment district is thriving. But our central business district remains a cause for concern. We know the city is moving to a new rhythm,” Cr Capp acknowledged in recent months.
In short, this is an acknowledgement that Melbourne has irretrievably changed as a result of COVID-19. The notion of a five-days-per-week office worker has all but gone as a result of the seemingly permanent shift to juggling working from home alongside in-person work.
The “new rhythm” is, essentially, having less people within the Hoddle Grid from 9am to 5pm on workdays, and especially Mondays and Fridays which have proved popular WFH days.
So, can this work long-term? Can the small business owners who rely on daytime trade be economically sustainable under the “new rhythm”?
It’s a considerable concern, and one the council was looking to address.
It has set a fairly ambitious target of having less than five per cent shopfront vacancies within 12 months (down from the current level of 17 per cent) and has a positive outlook on the city’s economic future.
Without doubt, the return of international students — a sizeable chunk of the CBD’s pre-COVID population — will help the city’s economy.
But the new rhythm has already been, and will continue to be, tough on some.
4. Will the bike lane “pause” be lifted?
One of the more controversial CBD stories in 2022 was the City of Melbourne’s decision, in June, to defer the rollout of protected bike lanes inside the Hoddle Grid until July 2023.
The move so incensed Melbourne’s cycling community that protests formed outside Town Hall and an incredible 1100 submissions were made to the council, the vast majority of which urged it to reconsider the deferment.
Tempers flared and emotions were high, largely as a result of the council’s inability to communicate a move that was not as controversial as many were led to believe.
Shovel-ready jobs inside the CBD were not being “paused”, as was reported, nor was the council having second thoughts on the wider bike lane rollout.
Rather, it wanted to take stock and work its way through certain traffic issues that had arisen from the introduction of protected lanes.
For example, the installation of bike lanes on Queensbridge St, which connects the Hoddle Grid with Southbank, saw traffic lanes reduced from four lanes to two and congestion rose sharply as a result.
The episode was an own goal by the council; the Lord Mayor admitted its messaging was “confusing” while Greens councillor Rohan Leppert said the optics as a result of council messaging were “shocking”.
However, despite these concessions, the council still did vote (despite 33 public submitters urging them not to) in favour of the deferral in this financial year.
So, will CBD works continue again from July onwards?
New lanes are slated for Bourke St (between Spring and Russell streets), and according to the council the timeframe for those works is 2023-24.
5. Will QVM renewal keep up with targets?
The renewal of Queen Victoria Market is one of the City of Melbourne’s biggest-ever projects, and the $268 million overall investment represents a significant chunk of capital works spending.
In this financial year alone, the council is spending a cool $50 million.
When the latest budget was announced in May, the council made a number of commitments to projects that would be finished by June 30, 2023.
These included works to restore all 12 heritage sheds, and a completely revamped Food Hall, while construction would also begin on upgrades to the Queen St streetscape, Northern Shed and Trader Shed.
However, as reported in the most recent edition of CBD News, these commitments are now looking somewhat shaky.
A recent council report indicated that supply chain difficulties and availability of labour had impacted the market’s renewal timelines.
Work to transform the market’s existing food court into a vibrant indoor dining destination began in February 2022, however, the council said that during demolition, it was discovered that existing underground services were in poor condition and required upgrading.
When combined with the ongoing construction industry issues, this has meant that tenants would not be able to start their fit-outs until the New Year, which was later than expected.
It is understood that eight of the market’s 12 historic sheds – many of which have been in continuous use since opening in 1878 — have been restored.
However, the council has committed to its original timeline of mid-2023 to complete the final four sheds.
Sticking to these timelines will be essential to the council delivering on the wider commitment to finish overall market improvements by the end 2024, and broader precinct renewal commitments by 2026. •