From rust belt to renaissance

The price of investing in a city may be considerable, but the price of doing nothing is far greater.

With the office vacancy rate in our city centre hovering at 14.7 per cent, and retail sector street-level vacancy at 15.9 per cent, it is clear something must be done – and done quickly.

This doesn’t need to mean raising rates or charges either. Melbourne’s Postcode 3000 program, which fast-tracked the conversion of obsolete office buildings to new uses, employed a range of measures: changing regulations, offering financial assistance and technical support, and launching promotions to underpin private sector investment.

More half a million square metres of office space was withdrawn from the market over the period of the Postcode 3000 project, with vacancy rates falling from 25.8 per cent in 1992 to 7.5 per cent in 2000.

Investment in the public realm – tree plantings, bluestone paving and attractive street furniture – improved the streetscape, while all new developments required 75 per cent active street frontage.

The citywide impacts of the program are there for any visitor to see – more than 30,000 residents now live in the CBD and the city hums with vim and vitality. Hundreds of sidewalk cafes line the laneways, the streets are safer at night, and more people walk along Bourke Street each day than they do London’s Oxford Street.

As Melbourne’s density, connectivity and vitality increased, it became more financially viable. More activity in a compact space has seen local rates and taxes decline by more than 50 per cent. Property owners in 1996 who paid 13 cents in the dollar on the value of their property now pay just six cents.

How did they do this? Through a clear vision and ambitious, yet achievable targets. “Where other cities have produced high quality documents Melbourne has managed to achieve a high quality implementation program,” says the man who has overseen much of Melbourne’s transformation, Director of City Design Professor Rob Adams.

Melbourne mastered the art of successful partnerships, bringing together government, business groups and the community to take control of its destiny and create a better city. Now it’s our turn.

Catherine Carter is ACT Executive Director of the Property Council of Australia