Marooned in a flood of Planning reshuffles Docklands and South Bank development under review

Royce Millar and other at the Age (Copy below) take a look back in history at the docklands development.

What’s missing from this synopsis is the foundation planning work undertaken by Evan Walker under the Cain Government.

Evan Walker had laid out the foundation plans for the area but things changed under Jeff Kennett.

The Crown Casino changed many of the development plans.

Evan had originally proposed the commercial-corporate development of the casino and new Exhibition Centre to be located on the north bank of the Yarra complementing the World Trade Centre prescient. Instead the casino is located where there is housing was planned and the exhibition centre were the Museum was originally located next to Polly Woodside. Crown Casino did not want to be located on the right bank preferring to take poll position in South Bank. They bumped the Museum to relocate the Exhibition centre as it would enhance the casino prospect. The problem is that the site adjacent to Polly Woodside is too small and does not facilitate expansion. It’s a bit cramped down that part of the Yarra.

.To make way for Crown Casino and the new Exhibition centre the Museum was bumped to the outskirts of the city, adjacent to the historic royal Exhibition Buildings. In the rush for the Kennett government to make its mark and fulfil Ron Walkers desired location the whole Docklands/South Bank prescient began to suffer from poor planning. Melbourne’s new Museum is faltering, its design and location second rate.

Crown Casino dominates South-bank where previously the Arts was the dominate function.and apartments are now located where exhibition facilities should be.

To add to the poor planning Jeff Kennett built the Bolte Bridge. It height being too low so large liners can not birth in City Harbour.

Crown Casino had so much political mussel that the money they owed to the City of Melbourne was used to fund development projects that were given undue priority. the Turning Basin is one such project. Boats can not access this part of the river anymore so one wonders why did they recreate the turning basin. Answer to clean up the Casinos foreshore. And it costs a pretty penny, no expenses spared for Rob Adams extravagant design. Polly Woodside still remains marooned in his death bed and its space is being encroached on in the need to expand the Exhibition centre where there is little room. Again poor planning.

I hope that history will one day record all.

Docklands a wasted opportunity?

By Royce Millar
June 17, 2006
The “instant city” approach to redeveloping Docklands has delivered what critics say are run-of-the-mill buildings exclusively for people with buckets of money.

‘A waterfront spectacular. An urban oasis. A modern marvel.” The State Government’s new coffee table history of Melbourne’s Docklands is 300 pages of hyperbole, of heroic efforts to transform 200 hectares of derelict waterfront into the sparkling new face of the city. But, like all official histories, it’s not the full story.

Former planning minister in the Kennett government Rob Maclellan, who had responsibility for Docklands in the late 1990s, is quoted in the book lauding the great views. His more critical comments – including about Docklands’ finances and their drain on the public purse – were edited out and now, he says, the tome is a “pious little history”. What is needed, he says, is a “brutal analysis” of the biggest urban redevelopment in Australian history.

Thirty years after planners and politicians began considering what to do with Melbourne’s old docks, and almost a decade since work began on the first major project, the Docklands Stadium, the “brutal analysis” is beginning. Just what has been delivered for hundreds of millions in public funding? (This, after the project was supposed to cost taxpayers nothing.) Is it good design that has caught the world’s eye, or a bland, corporate makeover? Does it add to the rich diversity of Melbourne or dilute it? Who lives there and why?

Docklands isn’t finished – two-thirds of it has yet to be built, a task supposed to take another 10 years but some say it could take decades.

After years of sensitivity, verging on paranoia, some key people familiar with the Docklands project are starting to talk about it publicly for the first time. These are people involved in the beginning of Docklands, or senior politicians, architects and planners involved periodically at crucial times. Many, but not all, are disappointed. Some are angry. Generally, they say that Docklands is not what it could have been, and certainly not what it should have been.

“They should blow it up and start again,” says Swinburne housing researcher Professor Terry Burke, who contributed to the Kirner government’s 1992 Docklands strategy. “The lack of social mix at Docklands will be a problem in the long run.”

State Architect John Denton – who as a partner in architectural firm Denton Corker Marshall is responsible for major Melbourne landmarks including the Bolte Bridge and and Jeff’s Shed (the Exhibition Centre) – tries hard to be polite when he says the Dockland’s architecture is “variable . . . I think we’ve got to hope towards getting some better and better results.”

One of Melbourne’s high priests of design, RMIT University professor Leon van Schaik says that it’s all corporate homogenity, lacking in grit. “It’s just the usual, run-of-the-mill, second-rate modernism.”

Most acknowledge that Docklands is no disaster, but nor is it a work of art. “Look, it’s a work in progress,” says former Kennett major projects minister Mark Birrell.

From the crest of the La Trobe Street extension, the new view of the waterfront is panoramic. This fresh perspective on the city is worth something in itself. So is the 30-metre walkway around the precinct, a new sports stadium and concourse immediately adjacent to a major railway station, and a waterside tram route. Yet many people expected more. Social justice campaigner Mary Crooks, who worked on the 1992 strategy, says: “It’s disappointing because it could have been an incredibly large jewel in Melbourne’s crown and I think it’s less than that, much less than that.”

At what should be the heart of Docklands, between Telstra Dome and the old wharf sheds of Victoria Dock, on a sunny winter’s day, there is nobody. Off in the distance to the north are the apartment towers and restaurants of NewQuay and the open plaza, pubs and cafes of the entertainment-themed Waterfront City. Even further away to the south are the upmarket towers of Yarra’s Edge. In between is the colourful National Australia Bank – the first major building at developer Lend Lease’s Victoria Harbour. The three precincts are dislocated, remote and little happens in between. Eventually some kids turn up to skateboard. On repeated visits, the story is the same. This is not the bustling, vibrant place depicted in the book, Waterfront Spectacular.

There are two key criticisms of Docklands. One is that the project was in trouble as soon as the Kennett government decided in the early 1990s that it would be market-driven with no government subsidy. The second flows from the first: the parcelling of Docklands into seven large precincts to make the project commercially viable, and its release to the market, all at once – the “instant city” approach, as developer Morry Schwartz calls it. This strategy also meant negotiable planning where developers were encouraged to challenge rules such as height controls. Only developers with big architects and big wallets could afford to tackle Docklands. And only big apartment towers and big corporate offices could deliver the level of return to justify the risk.

Developer Morry Schwartz says this “big, gutsy” approach was the only way to exploit the run of eventual “luck” for the project, including one of the biggest property booms in Australian history. “If it had been done in a slower, more organic way it would have taken 100 years, forever.”

But the domino effect of “instant city”, say critics, is that only cashed-up apartment buyers and renters and major commercial tenants are welcome. More than half of Docklands residents have a median income of more than $1000 a week. Only 12 per cent of Melburnians earn that much. Commercial tenants include NAB and finance and insurance giant AXA. The ANZ is hovering. The majority of developers, builders, architects, entrepreneurs, small businesses, artists and lower-income residents are excluded, and the architecture, urban design and social mix reflect this.

Denton’s preference would have been to concentrate development at a central area – between Flinders and Bourke Street east of Victoria Dock – and let it grow outwards. “The more laissez faire and commercial the response, the less you control where things start, and where things happen, and you end in the short term with what you have now,” he says – remote precincts and lifeless areas. “If you had all the developments down there now inside that central area there, that bit would be humming. It would be bursting at the seams Then you could progressively expand outwards in a rational sort of way.”

He is confident that the parts will eventually join, but he believes the chance was missed to make Docklands a more vibrant extension of the city in the short and medium term.

Concern about dislocation and dead areas is shared by many commentators, even by former planning minister Maclellan. But Mark Birrell says like the CBD, Docklands should not be judged too early. He says the Hoddle Grid, parcelled up and sold off in large chunks like Docklands, was “patchy” for 70 years. “If you’d measured the success of the CBD 30 years into its development, you would have said: ‘What’s this, a railway station up one end grand as hell and the Treasury Building down the other end looking like something out of Paris. Then you’ve got tents and dirt paths in between?’ “THE area known as Docklands was salty marshland before Europeans transformed it first into a noxious quagmire and then began work on a new wharf for the thriving gold-rush territory in the 1870s. A century later property players, planners and politicians began to ponder the future use for the docks as new container wharves took water-front work downstream and away from the old finger pier at Victoria Dock. Like Robert Hoddle 150 years before, Melburnians had a blank canvas upon which they could create anything. But it was also a publicly owned blank canvas in the heart of the city, and that raised expectations.

By 1990, the Cain and Kirner govern-ment had tried but failed to kickstart development through doomed schemes for an Olympic Games village and a mysterious hi-tech Japanese city – the Multi-Function Polis. Labor’s Docklands Taskforce released a strategy underpinned by principles of social equity and the environment. It pro-posed concentrating initial development at a central point at the eastern end of the pre-cinct. The plan included parkland, medium density housing and a levy on developers to pay for some public housing.

But Docklands was never going to be easy. A man-made waterfront carved out of swamp, it was unstable for construction and heavily contaminated in parts. Spencer Street station and rail lines, and the truck-laden Footscray Road, had cut Docklands off from the CBD and the only road into it was Flinders Street. Then there was a paralysed property market, a recession, and the state’s emerging rustbucket image, and the 1992 strategy looked ambitious. “Noble” is how former Kennett major projects minister Mark Birrell describes the Labor plan.

Initially wary when they won the 1992 election, the Liberals eventually embraced Docklands under the mantra that the Gov-ernment would not contribute a cent. The Docklands Authority mission statement was rewritten to stress that the project would not be a “burden on taxpayers”. Developers would pay for everything: roads, trams, sewerage and even public art.

“We didn’t want to create an orchid,” says Rob Maclellan. “It was about proving it can be done successfully, not proving that you can subsidise it to make it successful.”

The strategy was a test of the govern-ment’s free-market philosophy. In 1993 the Docklands Authority annual report boldly predicted that work would begin within months. By 1996 nothing had happened. Developers were tempted but tentative; fear-ful of uncertainty. Docklands, after all, was little more than a large, unserviced tract of Coode Island silt.

One by one, preferred bidders either walked away from Docklands or were rejected by the authority for failing to offer enough for their share of infrastructure. Through the later 1990s, successful bids col-lapsed at six of the seven precincts.

Maclellan admits that, in the mid-1990s, the Government was “lashing around” for something, anything, to kickstart Docklands. “We tried for technology park, we tried for intellectual, we said let’s have IT or medical; and in the end we found it in the same old place we always find it in Victoria, sport.” Football, to be precise, in the shape of the stadium that became known as Colonial, then Telstra Dome.

Quietly the Kennett government aban-doned its no-spend policy and found $61 million to prop up the stadium includ-ing the Bourke Street footbridge and the extension of La Trobe Street. “Yes in a twinkling of an eye it (the no public money line) changed because if they (the Dock-lands Authority) can talk someone into giving them money, they’ll spend it; and they did,” says Maclellan.

Soon after, developer Mirvac signed for the Yarra’s Edge residential precinct on the southern bank of the Yarra, and MAB Cor-poration for NewQuay on the north side of the Victoria Dock. Docklands was away.

Once loosened, the government purse strings remained so, a trend that continued when the Bracks Government took office in 1999. An analysis for The Age by the RMIT business school estimates that after deduct-ing developer contributions and land sales, Docklands appears to have cost taxpayers about $470 million. And that does not include federal contributions or likely future outlays, including for the reinstatement of the Webb Dock rail line severed by Dock-lands.

The Bracks Government has supplanted the “no public cost” with an emphasis on economic benefits – new investment and jobs. It estimates that when complete, the market value of Docklands will be $10 billion.

If, as projected, the Government’s final net outlay is tallied at $100 million it would be a return on investment of 100 to one. “The Docklands model is a world-beating model,” said the former VicUrban chief executive John Tabart last year. “People come from all over the world to find out how did we attract so much private money to an essentially public-initiated project.”

Others dismiss such claims as more Docklands spin. “Those figures are a lie and demonstrably so,” says Tony Crabb, investment strategy manager with property consultancy Savills. They ignore the fact that much of the investment at Docklands would have happened elsewhere in Melbourne, with most of the new offices built in the CBD. “Docklands will be a drag on the CBD for 50 years. It is an outrage and should never have been allowed,” says Crabb.

Melburnians might not care too much about the cost if the results were interesting, imaginative or lively. In a new book on architecture and design in Victoria, RMIT University professor Leon van Schaik argues that Melbourne is to the early 2000s what Barcelona was to the 1980s and Amsterdam and Rotterdam to the 1990s – a global design hotspot. He points to large projects such as Federation Square and the vibrant work of architects and artists tucked away in laneways and back streets. But notable by its absence, is the place where Melbourne’s architecture is most obviously on show.

“Our Docklands is not a place you would take people if you were bringing them to Melbourne and wanted to show them what this city can do,” he told The Age. “The vast majority of buildings are mediocre and could be anywhere in the world.”

Van Schaik is surprisingly frank, describing the Fender Katsalidis towers at NewQuay as “second rate compared to what they have done elsewhere where they had more control”. He says the apartment tower by architect Wood Marsh at Yarra’s Edge was designed as an “elegant” building but became “pregnant” when built, with “the client pumping in more and more apartments to get more and more return”.

“The way Docklands was done drove inevitably to this lowest common denominator architecture which has eventuated in almost all cases.”

The only Docklands picture in van Schaik’s book is of developer Morry Schwartz’s twin Watergate apartment towers designed by Schwartz’s daughter’s firm, Elenberg Fraser. Van Schaik acknowledges that the Watergate buildings at least “had their moments”.

Seated on a pink vinyl couch in the foyer of one the towers, Schwartz smiles when van Schaik’s comments are raised. “I agree with him overall,” he says, then quickly describes his own buildings as “exceptional”. Schwartz says Docklands architecture is not “optimal” but, pointing back to the CBD notes that nor is Melbourne’s more generally. This is a common response from many of those directly involved at Docklands – it’s not state-of-the-art, but it’s better than most of Melbourne.

Ian McDougall, director in the prominent Ashton Raggatt McDougall firm was a key consultant to the Docklands Authority (now VicUrban) through the 1990s. In general he agrees with van Schaik that the work of the Docklands architects is not necessarily their best. “Yes, you would have hoped that there would have been some real out there stuff, down there,” he says, lamenting a lack of innovative design. But like Schwartz, McDougall points to other areas in Melbourne – especially the residential towers of Southbank – and says Docklands is superior. “It could be better. It could have been a lot better. but it’s actually better than any other big project in Melbourne or Sydney.”

Docklands to most people means either the area around the stadium or MAB Corporation’s NewQuay at the north side of Victoria Dock. The stadium is a mixed blessing. It was the large project needed to kickstart the troubled precinct and draw crowds to a hitherto unknown part of Melbourne. But as an inward-looking venue, where even the sun is excluded, it does not relate well to the waterfront. It works as a barrier between the CBD and the water and has rendered the large public space in front of it, dead; a defacto skateboard rink where Docklands’ heart ought to be.

“It’s not yet proven that that’s where people want to gather,” says former Cain planning minister and Docklands consultant Evan Walker. McDougall, who played an important role in the design of the area, says he was constantly frustrated by the lack of funds to create anything exciting there. Even former VicUrban chief executive and Docklands’ leading defender, John Tabart, acknowledges an absence of life at this part of his beloved creation. “I would have been happier if even more was concentrated around the centre than what it is.”

With a south-westerly blowing in off the water on a grey winter’s day, NewQuay is bleak at best and as Walker acknowledges, “a little lonely”.

Ground-breaking Melbourne architects of the 1990s, Fender Katsalidis played a leading role in designing NewQuay but, while the company’s buildings were marketed individually, and their artistic merits promoted through their names – the Boyd, the Arkley and the Nolan – partner Carl Fender now says he prefers to assess Docklands “precinctually rather than architecturally”.

He says that despite the lack of sun, people love NewQuay and flock to the restaurants and bars. “It was post-industrial Footscray a few minutes ago. Now it’s a very highly populated new face of Melbourne that has to transcend one’s opinion of one building or another.”

In the only comprehensive academic analysis of Docklands, University of Melbourne professor of architecture Kim Dovey says NewQuay is compromised by the Kennett government’s precinct strategy and flexible planning. In his 2005 book Fluid City, Dovey points out that earlier plans for Docklands repeatedly recommended height limits no greater than 20 metres for the NewQuay area to prevent overshadowing. But through negotiable planning, MAB was allowed to build 80-metre apartment towers that “plunged the harbour and the waterfront into shade for much of the year”.

“Here we see a trade between the public interest in urban amenity and the private interest in maximum height,” he writes. He argues that rather than pursuing its goal of a totally market-led development, the Government should have accepted the need to play a leading role, and used its investment upfront to leverage clear public benefits including affordable housing, more social mix and better design.

Schwartz acknowledges that, so far, Docklands lacks soul. “It’s in the fine grain that Docklands really has its challenges.” He is in no doubt that now that the big corporates have paved the way at Docklands, the funk will follow and empty offices and shops will fill with interesting tenants. Yet the median apartment price is $610,000. The average price for an apartment at Lend Lease’s Dock 5 tower now being built is $1 million, or nearly three times the median price of a typical house in Melbourne.

Where the 1992 Docklands Strategy proposed a levy on developers to provide funds for a component of public or social housing – a common model in the US and Europe – the Kennett government rejected the idea.

RMIT University housing specialist professor Tony Dalton helped develop the 1992 strategy. “You’ve got to have buckets of money to live there, and that’s a tragedy. It should have been a suburb where a whole load of people can live and work.”

Victoria Harbour developer Lend Lease says it wants to be able to house at least some Docklands workers – chefs and waiters for instance – through a “key worker” affordable housing scheme. Project director Maurice Coccia says he wants to ensure that Victoria Harbour is not “an enclave for the rich”. International property group ING (Waterfront City) wants to do the same. But both schemes are dependent on subsidy from a wary Bracks Government and negotiations have dragged on for three years.

Major Projects Minister John Lenders says he has told VicUrban to come up with ways of improving affordability at Docklands, but he is non-committal about how that might happen. Mary Crooks, who also worked on Labor’s Dockland strategy, says the original vision was that Docklands was for all Victorians. “Now people are going down there more out of fascination than a feeling that, “This is part of our territory”.

“It’s almost like an intra-Melbourne tourist attraction.”

Crooks argues that the lack of affordability, prevents the social and cultural diversity that is evident elsewhere in Melbourne. The first survey of Docklands residents, commissioned by VicUrban and the Melbourne City Council last year, found that the average Docklander was wealthy, young, professional and childless, from an Anglo or Asian background. It was found that the diverse nationalities of wider Melbourne, and especially southern Europeans, were not well represented.

However, Mark Birrell stresses that Docklands allows a style of city living that encourages people to leave their cars at home and make better use of public infrastructure. He says the Docklands vision was an alternative to suburbia and recognition of the trend towards single-person households. Importantly, he says, it provides secure housing in a supportive community for women living alone. “The Docklands option was to create a places that was extremely well structured to cater for that age group that found itself alone.”

Given the limitation in both the design and social dimensions of the project, can Docklands be improved in the two-thirds of the project still to be built?

Lend Lease’s Maurice Coccia acknowledges the shortcomings of Docklands, but insists that Victoria Harbour is learning lessons from the precinct’s explorers. He says Lend Lease wants to build a local community, with a mixture of housing types, less emphasis on high-rise, a genuine strip shopping centre and even some affordable housing for “key workers”.

But some commentators fear that with contracts already in place for most of Docklands, talk of diversity is overoptimistic and again an example of hype and spin. They say developers will be reluctant to re-enter negotiations or alter their plans, especially if it means providing more public benefits for less profit.

Kim Dovey says concern about social mix at Docklands disappeared after 1993 “only to reappear after the millenium when when it was too late”. He says the Bracks “rhetoric” about housing affordability, “rose to the top of the agenda just after the final development contracts were were “being sealed without any such provisions”.

State Architect John Denton hopes there is still room for negotiation with developers and supports a wide-ranging examination, involving all players, of Docklands thus far and its future. He wants to look at how to get better design and include some social housing.

“I think it perfectly reasonable that after a period of actual development you look at all of it and say: ‘Have we done it right?” Denton asks. “What are the things that worked? Are there things we could have done better?”

As Rob Maclellan points out, these questions were neither asked nor answered in Waterfront Spectacular.

“Of course it’s not unusual for government and semi-government organisations to write their own histories,” says the former minister. “The worst possible thing is that someone else writes their histories for them.”