Its not all mining – there are a range of new projects keeping Melbourne designers busy.
Ah, mining. Why do you dominate our media so? Whether it’s the antics of our larger-than-life mining magnates and their often less than informed political opinion or mining’s apparent role as saviour of our economy, it’s very difficult to pick up a newspaper at the moment without seeing the M word. Dare I mention Fairfax? There seems to be a mythology around the subject which I find disturbing. This is particularly true in the West – I made the mistake of mentioning the mining tax at a dinner party in Perth recently, only to start a massive argument that saw me pitted against a room full of people. These were all very well travelled and educated people too and the arguments really stemmed around the idea of a lazy and indulgent Victoria and New South Wales riding on the coat tails of Western Australia and its mining glory.
A couple of figures to put this all in context. According to the Australian System of National Accounts (and ABS), in the 2008-9 financial year, mining accounted for 8% of the Australian economy (this has increased to around 9% currently). It sat behind finance and insurance at around 11%, manufacturing at 10% and was marginally more than my own industry, construction at just under 8%. If you add up all service industries, they account for about 68% of our total economy.
These figures were from the middle of the global financial crisis. Looking at the numbers purely from a simple, static point of view, one could say that the insurance, financial and manufacturing sectors are the real drivers of our economy. Say that to anyone at that time and I’m sure the response would at best skeptical, at worst hostile. That’s because according to mining folklore, we only make money by digging stuff out of the ground and selling it to China.
Perhaps we’re so obsessed with it because of the scale of this industry and its ability to make a few people fabulously, filthy rich. Perhaps it’s because of the frontier nature of mining (Australians love a good frontier myth). Perhaps it’s because of global financial jitters and the inevitable restructure of the balance of power from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Whatever it is, widespread doom and gloom about most other parts of our economy don’t tell the true story.
I can only speak for the field in which I work, but in the construction industry things are not as bad as we are told. Speaking to many architect friends, in practices large and small, the response is almost always the same. Most people are busier than they have ever been. My own practice is busy on a range of jobs from housing to retail, to larger commercial work. Architects are always the first to feel the pinch and the first to get the sack at the onset of recession. If you were a tourist catching a taxi in the early 90s, your taxi driver was probably likely to be able to tell you a lot about the architecture of the city.
Things at the moment are cautious, yes, but there is no need to feel doom and gloom about the state of the world. A couple of examples:
Colonial First State Global Asset Management, managers of Chadstone, are currently working on the 48,000m2 Emporium Melbourne Development on the site of Myer’s old Lonsdale Street Store, with hundreds of stores and food outlets focusing on the higher end of the market. This is almost a whole city block that is being redeveloped, by a commercially astute company that probably knows the retail market better than anyone in the country. If you follow what is published in the mainstream media, you would think that retail is dying. It’s not dying, it’s changing.
Similarly with Melbourne Central, Emporium Melbourne’s neighbour. This centre is constantly reinvigorating itself and precincts to both drive and respond to the market. Over the past decade GPT, the owners of Melbourne Central have made a number of structural changes to the centre, opening it up to surrounding laneways, redesigning precincts based on need and broadening the centre’s activity base. The result is a thriving centre with better connections to the surrounding city.
Melbourne’s famed laneways are another area where our city is thriving. These are packed with people and businesses. At the moment these sites have some of the lowest vacancy rates in the country. There are now more people using the CBD than ever before. They are staying later and spending more. Try to have dinner in a good CBD restaurant on a Tuesday night and you may have difficulty.
All three examples are in the retail sphere, and show the best way of dealing with a shift in the market – by innovating. What worked twenty years ago may not necessarily work today. This is potentially one of the most exciting times for this very reason. Businesses thriving at the moment are adapting, driving or responding to these changes. Those who don’t may well be the victim of one of the most portentous of Chinese curses – for we are living in interesting times.