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Angela wants to create great places

27 Feb 2019

Angela wants to create great places Image

By Shane Scanlan

Development Victoria’s new chief executive officer (CEO) Angela Skandarajah’s career has, in some ways, paralleled the success of Docklands.

As a “baby lawyer” Ms Skandarajah started her career as a property lawyer working on Docklands stadium at the turn of the century. And, without much guidance, all the players involved had to pretty much work it all out from scratch.

“It was a real eye-opener from a legal point of view,” Ms Skandarajah said. “You don’t build stadiums every day!”

At that time Ms Skandarajah was only starting her career with law firm Minter Ellison, where she rose through the ranks to become managing partner of the Melbourne office and national head of its real estate practice.

In February she was appointed Development Victoria (DV) CEO after nearly a year acting in the role.

When she resigned from Minters in July 2017 to take up the role of general counsel for the newly-formed DV (formerly Places Victoria), many would have considered it a fairly radical career move.

But, she explained, she saw it as an opportunity to make a real difference.

“I’d been involved with the projects but was always one step removed,” she said. “So this was an opportunity for me to get my hands dirty from the perspective of the actual proponent of the projects.”

“I actually jumped at the opportunity. It was the right timing in life, and all of those kinds of things as well.”

“But it’s also an opportunity to give back and the government is well placed to be able to make a difference.”

Ms Skandarajah spent 21 years combined with Minter Ellison and Freehills – sometimes representing government, and sometimes representing developers.

“Sometimes in a commercial law firm the objective is profits for your clients and the like, so it was a fabulous opportunity. I didn’t think twice,” she said of her decision.

And, like her own career, Docklands itself has come a long way.

She said friends had told her Docklands was a great place to live.

“I think it would be fabulous to live there. I like the inner-city feel, so it would suit my lifestyle. I like to walk everywhere and be close to the action,” she said.

“I have not heard of any negatives from people who live there.”

But she also acknowledged that negative perceptions of outsiders had affected Docklands.

“One of the challenges that we have are the perceptions around the Docklands and some Melburnians might have had an early experience that’s formed their views,” Ms Skandarajah said. “But, it’s evolved so much, it would be great for people to re-experience it and maybe some of those negative perceptions might be redressed.”

She said it was too easy to be critical in hindsight and predicted that, when completed, former prejudices would be forgotten.

“It has to be remembered that investment in Docklands was seen as a way of activating the economy,” she said.

“There’s a lot of criticism of some of the early-stage development, but it’s easy in hindsight to say ‘we should have done this’ or ‘it could have been done better’.”

“But we have to remember that there was no money in government so they really had to facilitate private sector investment. And I think it’s been a success on that front.”

She said there was no doubt the development of Docklands had delivered for government.

“One dollar of public money spent for 99 dollars of private money – that’s a great outcome,” she said.

“The government did a lot of trunk infrastructure and remediating the area, but the private sector did a lot of the heavy lifting.”

Ms Skandarajah acknowledged the challenges facing the current government to develop Fishermans Bend, where it doesn’t own the land and has taken a consultative approach.

“It does require incredible co-ordination to be able to bring the different levels of government together and the various stakeholders,” she said.

“And it’s a different approach. The Docklands was government-owned and it’s easier to do it when it’s a clear plot of land that’s all in one ownership.”

“But that doesn’t mean that governments should shy away from trying to achieve great urban renewal outcomes. To address some of the accommodation for people issues we’ve got to get smarter about how we do that and Fishermans Bend is a great opportunity to do that.”

“I think we’re lucky that in the city we have these sites and areas of land so close to our CBD.”

Ms Skandarajah said her organisation was well placed to develop other precincts in the state on the back of experience gained and lessons learned in Docklands.

“I think it’s a really exciting time in the precinct space. And with our new portfolio of Priority Precincts under Minister Jennings I think there’s a real focus on it,” she said.

“I think it’s going to be a good story if you can take the lessons out of Docklands and roll them out elsewhere.”

“Those lessons are about integration, about the transport opportunities and about the public spaces. How do we deliver great urban public spaces as part of these developments?”

She also acknowledged that, after nearly 20 years, Docklands was still waiting – particularly for the completion of Harbour Esplanade.

“With Docklands, that’s coming,” she said. “It wasn’t probably there initially because of how it had to be funded. And getting that balance right with great public realm and urban spaces cost money. So how to balance the need to deliver and get commercial outcomes?”

On the question of preserving Harbour Esplanade for public use, Ms Skandarajah said she agreed in principle, but that no final decisions had been made.

“I don’t think we’ve formed any firm views. We’ll consult with government about what possible uses there are,” she said.

“That waterfront area is a great face for the city, so we wouldn’t want to lose the public connection into that space. I think that would be one of our driving factors.”

“It takes time to create places and spaces,” she concluded.

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