Central Pier’s uncertain future

Central Pier’s uncertain future

By Sean Car

Development Victoria’s (DV) decision to permanently close Central Pier last month has left the community wondering what will become of Docklands’ fading maritime heritage.

DV announced on January 3 that, following an “extensive 15-week assessment” by engineering firm KBR, it had decided against reopening the 103-year-old pier due to safety concerns.

The sudden evacuation of the pier on August 28 continues to leave many scratching their heads; a decision DV strongly denies was panicked. Despite $7 million invested over three years to stabilise the pier, it maintains that “rapid deterioration” of the pier’s piles had accelerated beyond repair from its previous bi-monthly inspection.

“Even if we were to invest significant funds and time in repairs, our engineers advise the issues will continue to resurface without ongoing specialist maintenance work. This investment would still not guarantee that the pier can be made safe for public access in the medium to long term due to its ongoing deterioration,” DV CEO Angela Skandarajah said last month.

While DV said it was “committed to ensuring a future for Central Pier” so that it could be returned to the community “to safely enjoy for another 100 years,” it had been left with no option but to demolish the pier.

However, as part of the heritage-listed Victoria Dock, no such action can be taken without the approval of Heritage Victoria and DV said that it was also committed to consulting the community and other stakeholders to “identify opportunities to rebuild the pier.”

The decision was met “with a sense of disbelief” by the eight businesses on Central Pier, who, led by head tenant the Atlantic Group (which had a lease on the pier until 2026), continue to pursue compensation in the Federal Court.

“The safety of our 1300 staff members and customers has always been our number one priority and it is clear now that tens of thousands of people have been put at serious risk over a long period of time due to Development Victoria and its failure to maintain Central Pier,” a statement from tenants read.

Along with a handful of photos (like the one featured) showing failing piles and cracking beams, DV revealed last month through a “summary fact sheet” that an estimated 50 per cent of piles underneath Shed 9, and 15 - 20 per cent underneath Shed 14, required repair.

In addition to the “poor condition” of structural elements throughout the pier, DV said it was anticipated that efforts to rectify the pier’s issues would take more than 14 months and cost “tens of millions of dollars.”

While more details relating to the pier’s structural issues are now known, the full engineering report that led to the pier’s closure by KBR, which Docklands News continues to pursue under Freedom of Information (FOI), has never been publicly released.

A spokesperson for the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC) confirmed last month that DV had attempted to place a secrecy provision under section 38 of the Freedom of Information Act 1982 on the document. An extension to retrieve the document has been granted to OVIC by Docklands News until February.

While no one doubts the pier’s aging condition, the continual refusal to release complete information or seek further professional advice (as requested by tenants) makes it difficult for the public to conclude that the pier is, in fact, beyond repair.

It came after news emerged last month of structural issues at nearby Station Pier in Port Melbourne, which Ports Minister Melissa Horne said of at the time, “like all structures, it requires regular maintenance to preserve it and ensure there are no safety issues.”

As part of the National Highway Network, Station Pier is far more crucial to the government than Central Pier and naturally, it is investing to resolve its issues. But the contrasting response does call to question the quality of work being undertaken to stabilise Central Pier on behalf of DV’s tenants until 2026 leading up to its closure.

With Victoria’s net debt projected to keep ballooning as the government keeps up its record infrastructure spending on major projects such as the Metro and West Gate tunnels, the pier’s closure will certainly help ease pressure on its books.

Nevertheless, while all issues will continue to be ironed out in court between both parties, what comes next for the pier remains a significant issue for the Docklands community. Will it be left to rot? Will it be demolished, and its piles incorporated into the existing sea of white caps? Or will it be restored and returned as a new attraction?

Rest assured, the community will not, and should not, rest lightly in ensuring that the maritime value of this historic asset is returned and respected as part of any future reincarnation. But what that future looks like could remain a mystery for some time.

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