Hanging out in the CBD

By Rhonda Dredge

During the long shutdown, the owners of some of the CBD’s most treasured hang-outs have turned inwards and reflected on their former prosperity.

Johnny Vakalis, proprietor of the city’s most literary café, Journal, is one local who is rethinking his model.

“Perhaps I was a little complacent,” he said. “Now you have to calculate your bottom line.” 

The café in Flinders Lane closed for a while then opened for coffee, wine and toasties. Now there’s a range of takeaway items for locals, even a Journal strawberry jam.

But like many of the most creative places in the city, Journal did not fit the click-and-collect model and was not equipped for home delivery. 

“Your anxiety level does build up,” Johnny said. “You feel guilty that other places are doing this and you’re not.”

What they were selling – atmosphere and conversation – just wasn’t on the list of products that could be ordered at a distance. “Journal’s a drop-in kind of place,” he said.

There have been some low times during this period when council by-laws officers told Johnny to remove his sandwich board from the footpath even though he’d applied for a permit.

“They’ve been here four times now,” he said. “They said if you’ve put in an application we’ll look for it but they can’t track it down.” 

The Paris Cat Jazz Club is another hang-out that has been hard hit. While Johnny can foresee a future re-opening with a few tables out the front on the pavement, Liz Carnovale of Paris Cat said it would not be easy for them.

“Our venue is a ticketed event,” she said. “You couldn’t just move a musical out onto the street … the risk of PAs, electrical equipment. Who would be paying for the public liability for these venues?”

She said the council’s $100 million recovery fund might be a quick fix for cafes for the summer but for them “it’s not a sustainable idea.”

The Paris Cat was opened 15 years ago and they do 600 live shows a year with 100 musicians. Melbourne’s music scene was really buzzing with a higher number of live music venues per capita than London or New York when the pandemic hit. 

“We didn’t see it coming in March,” Liz said. “We want to re-open inside like they have interstate.” 

She said they’ve got a post-COVID model ready to launch with spaced tables and groups of four, cutting the capacity of the club down to a third. 

The club, too, has had trouble with the council, which hasn’t always been as receptive to moving outdoors. 

“They wanted to charge us $2500 for putting a carpet here,” Serge Carnovale said, pointing at the place for a doormat.

Johnny Vakalis said it would be nice if council officers came to visit and chat about the needs of business. If the seven bicycle racks were moved further up the street he could open for sit-down customers.

“I’m going to measure up,” he said, looking towards the future. “If I could get 30 people out there.”

He says the city needs to work together. “I know [Lord Mayor] Sally [Capp] has a lot on her plate. Her heart’s in the right place. I’m sure she can bring it back to life.” 

Support for live music

On September 20, the state government announced a $13 million grants program to support Victoria’s live music scene. 

Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley said more than 100 live music venues, including those in the CBD such as Loop, would share in grants totaling $9 million in the program’s first allocations. 

The venues grants will also help offset costs associated with enforcing patron caps. A second round of cash allocations to other eligible venues will be announced in due course. 

Under Victoria’s roadmap to reopening, indoor live music venues can reopen at the Last Step with density quotas and patron caps in place. Patron caps will be lifted when the state moves to COVID normal. 

A state-first planning policy will further protect Victoria’s live music venues during the pandemic and beyond. 

Proposed new permanent planning controls will allow councils across the state to identify significant live music precincts and consider the social, economic and cultural importance of live music venues as they make decisions on local planning permits. 

This will mean that when a site that is home to a live music venue is slated for redevelopment, councils will have strengthened power to protect the music venue as part of any new proposal •

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