While the days of COVID-19 lockdowns fade into the distant past, there is one legacy of that time that very likely will become a permanent fixture. First floated as a possibility in September 2020, a few weeks before Melbourne came out of its first long lockdown, the proliferation of outdoor dining became a much-needed financial lifeline for the food industry.
The scheme was kicked off with free permits that allowed restaurants and cafes to expand onto footpaths, take over on-street car parking spaces immediately outside their business and join with neighbouring outlets to take over shared outdoor spaces. It was an immediate hit. Melburnians, who had spent more than 100 days locked up, were desperate to return to their much-loved favourite dining haunts. And if it meant sitting in a makeshift area previously designated for parking your car, so be it.
The Melbourne City Council has reintroduced fees for outdoor dining.Credit:Eddie Jim
More than two years later, they have become a defining feature of Melbourne’s streetscape and dining experience. Their permanence was illustrated this week with the revelation that outdoor dining on former parking lanes on Domain Road would not be affected by the road reopening to traffic when the Metro Tunnel Project is completed.
The expanded outdoor dining phenomena also reflects the changed reality of how Melburnians engage with their city, particularly the CBD. Despite some employers and lobby groups pleading with workers to return to their city offices, the so-called “hybrid work” model of splitting time between home and the office appears here to stay.
And yet, people are flocking back into the CBD for their entertainment. In January, pedestrian traffic between 9pm and 2am was at 96.9 per cent of the pre-COVID benchmark, up 49 per cent compared with the same time last year. This has triggered a surge in activity, with more than 120 new venues opening last year in the CBD.
This new reality also fits into the City of Melbourne’s longer-term goal of opening up more space in the CBD for pedestrians, commuters and bike riders while putting the squeeze on space for cars. Since 2011, the council has removed about one in five parking spots across the municipality, replacing them with wider footpaths, trees, bike lanes, new tram stops and, of course, outdoor dining “parklets”.
With this context, it is then surprising that the City of Melbourne has been so eager to reintroduce fees for these new outdoor dining areas.
In November last year, the City of Melbourne reintroduced full fees for dining areas on walkways, a one-year half-price fee for those in car spaces and an extension of free fees for the Docklands, which is still struggling to attract diners. The move is expected to fill the council’s coffers by more than $700,000 this financial year.
In contrast, as Melbourne was hitting the food industry with higher costs, the City of Sydney waived outdoor dining fees until mid-2025 as it works out how to make it permanent without landlords lifting rents on cafes and restaurants at a cost of about $4 million.
The crowds may be back since the pandemic receded, but it will take some years before the CBD fully recovers from the extended lockdowns. Outdoor dining should be a new feature of the city that reminds us that even during the worst of times, a positive lasting legacy can prevail. But it will take more foresight from the City of Melbourne than what appears its singular focus of how to balance the books in this year’s budget.
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