Development Victoria continues to “deny responsibility” for Central Pier closure

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Brendan Rees

Following its sudden departure from Central Pier nearly three years ago, a lead tenant says it still has not received a “full explanation” as to why the century-old structure was left to deteriorate.

Hatem Saleh, the chief executive of the Atlantic Group, which employed more than a thousand staff at its function and events centre, told Docklands News that was “upsetting” that Development Victoria (DV), the government agency in charge of the shuttered pier, had “never acknowledged the risk to life it created” while continuing to “deny responsibility”.   

“The pressure and the stress have been astronomical. We will not give up and we will not stop telling our story until this is managed properly and responsibilities are acknowledged,” he said.

The pier, which housed function spaces, restaurants, and offices, was abruptly shut down in August 2019 due to structural integrity issues and engineers deeming it unsafe and “could collapse at any time”. DV continues to work with Heritage Victoria, the City of Melbourne, local businesses, and the community on long-term plans for Central Pier, which is considered to be the most important piece of community infrastructure.

In the latest development, DV’s group head of precincts Geoff Ward said no work would begin on the pier until “all relevant permits are approved that allow us to progress the pier’s redevelopment, which we are planning to lodge in coming months.”

“Central Pier is a historic structure, and we are looking at a range of options for the pier – including removing the structure from the water as soon as practical given some parts are more than 100 years old,” Mr Ward said.

Mr Saleh, along with a host of other hospitality and tourism businesses that operated on the pier, are in the middle of suing Development Victoria for compensation over the shutdown and the losses they incurred of their leases which had several years remaining until 2026.

In a wide-ranging interview with Dockland News, Mr Saleh said their exit from the pier had been “horrendous” with his last communication with DV being January 10, 2020, when their lease was formally revoked, and “since then, it’s all been through lawyers”. But he said DV had “made no effort to see how we’re going” nor offered support.

“Essentially, at that night [during the shutdown of Central Pier], all of our turnover, all of our business, all of our assets, everything that we invested in there, was gone and we have nothing to show for it,” he said.

Mr Saleh said he was due to appear at the Federal Court early next year – which raised questions as to whether the court case was holding up any development or recovery efforts of the pier, which has been labelled as an “eyesore” by the Docklands Chamber of Commerce.

However, DV maintained, “The ongoing court proceeding has no bearing on the use and development of the site.”

Mr Saleh said it was “heartbreaking” to see the once “significant attraction” hoarded up and sitting idle.

“It just sits there empty [and] derelict. And it hasn’t collapsed, which is interesting,” he said.

“At a time when Melbourne is trying to change, trying to rebuild itself and bring people back to the city, I guess it’s upsetting and frustrating to see such a landmark continue to stay closed.”

His comments come as the City of Melbourne’s CEO Justin Hanney earlier this year expressed the council’s concern with DV’s proposal to close the pier for a “longer period of time.”

Mr Saleh said as far as he was concerned, maintenance on the pier before its closure was “business as usual” and “to the best of our knowledge, they were maintenance works to maintain the asset.”

“We thought there was never any concern … the fact that such a well-regarded, well-known asset was running, obviously doing well, but then, in the background, something so underlining could be going on, it’s pretty tragic,” he said.

 

“Surely the people in Victoria, in our opinion, deserve better, as do the people that run these businesses as to the public. And as do the people that have essentially, taxpayers that have been paying for this asset over many, many years.”

 

Mr Saleh said had DV followed engineers’ advice and maintained the pier “as small steps at the time, it might have been less than a million dollars.”

“It again shows to us that there’s a lack of regard to a process that should have been followed,” he said.

“One of the obvious things that comes to mind is if Development Victoria was doing safety checks on the pier, every two months, as it says it did, then how come they didn’t detect the issue in advance and how come it got to a position where it became an emergency evacuation situation?”

He said despite the knowledge of knowing the pier was deteriorating and had posed a risk to public safety, DV “didn’t take any immediate and any proper steps and largely ignored expert advice that it was receiving from its engineers at the time. I can say that on record because it’s public knowledge.”

According to Mr Saleh, he and other tenants were of the understanding the pier would be fixed at the time and returned to operations in January 2020.

“We were never really told about the real or present risk to the pier by Development Victoria and the time prior to the emergency evacuation.”

Asked how he felt about how DV had handled the matter and their communication with him, he replied, “unsatisfactory”.

“I just think if you take someone’s livelihood away, and you take businesses away from people that have worked really hard and invested all their hard-earned money, that you’ve got a responsibility to resolve the issues and put people back in the same position that they were in, and we haven’t we haven’t had that luxury,” he said.

“Development Victoria pushed us into a position where we’ve disrupted a lot of people, our staff, our families, our clients and customers, brides that had weddings booked for two or three years in advance, and corporate customers that had annual events, which disappeared overnight.”

“I think it’s important for us to continue to share our story because people wouldn’t know what’s been going on at Central Pier unless we tell them.”

Toby, who was a beverage manager with Atlantic Group when the pier was thriving, said he took more than two years off work after struggling to come to terms with the pier’s sudden closure, which he considered his home.

“I had no problem with the company, it was the way we were out of the blue, dumped,” he said.

“It didn’t need to happen that way, there was no warning. That was my livelihood.”

“It was really upsetting in the way it was so sudden and we had no time to prepare.”

Toby, who asked not to use his surname, said Atlantic Group had been supportive, and had recently taken up a casual position with the company working in a warehouse. He is now in negotiations to take on full time work, an opportunity he is grateful for.

DV said in June that permanent hoarding remained installed around Central Pier while it undertook the planning and consultation phases to manage its future.

All key stakeholders, including the community, will have an opportunity to be involved in consultation for the Pier’s future redevelopment, DV said in a statement in June.

In the meantime, works are continuing to remove the western tip of the pier and is progressing ahead of schedule. The western tip is no longer connected to the main pier structure.

The Docklands Representative Group (DRG) said the way the pier was redeveloped “will determine the tone of our neighbourhood and the liveability for residents.”

“The DRG has expressed this to Development Victoria, and we have emphasised the importance of consultation to get Central Pier right,” a DRG spokesperson said.

“Central Pier, as the name suggests, has been central to Docklands past and must be central to its future.”

The Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network has long advocated for Central Pier to house a Maritime Experiential Centre – a tourist attraction showcasing Melbourne’s maritime heritage, industry, and trade.

Other ideas pitched by residents to Docklands News have been an Aboriginal centre, an organic market, a trendy restaurant, an art gallery, and an aquarium.

Meanwhile, Mr Saleh said his passion for Docklands had never faded despite his ordeal and would have “no hesitation” in making a return.

“I want it to be a fruitful and great experience for customers and I want people to be able to visit again.”

According to court documents, the matter is set for trial after April 11, 2023. •

 

Caption 1: Hatem Saleh.

Caption 2: Central Pier continues to sit idle in Victoria Harbour today, following its sudden closure by Development Victoria in 2019.

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