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Former Docklands boss checks us out

05 Oct 2017

Former Docklands boss checks us out Image

Former Docklands Authority CEO John Tabart was back in town last month, lavish with praise for the suburb he helped create.

Mr Tabart, who served from 1995 until 2006, says Melbourne should be proud of the achievement.

“By and large, Melbourne should be very proud of Melbourne Docklands,” he said. “By world standards, this is a model that is used in many places around the developed world as a good way to do things.”

“Docklands has cost the state nothing and, in fact, has returned to it hundreds of millions of dollars and is still returning income from the developer agreements. There is no example in the world like that.”

After leaving Docklands, Mr Tabart headed up the development of Barangaroo in Sydney and now heads a consortium attempting to build an Education City at Werribee.

He’s been back to Docklands several times, but was most pleased with seeing it in action at 3pm on a Friday.

“The place was buzzing. It was fabulous. To see it on a working day with people coursing everywhere … just fabulous,” he said.

He is well aware of the criticisms levelled at Docklands. Indeed, they started well before he left in 2005. So is he surprised at how successful Docklands has already become, despite being only 60 per cent completed?

“No,” he said. “I’d say more fulfilled – that the efforts of so many people who had put in had come to this.”

“To ask ‘is it what you thought it would be?’ would be to suggest that we were prescriptive about what we intended it to be,” he said. “It was always going to be what the market, the developers, the government determined it would be as it went on.”

“To be prescriptive about building a city is counter-productive. It’s counter intuitive to what actually happens. Cities grow organically – driven by market forces, by conquerors, by whatever. The flexibility which was built into Docklands has stood the test of time.”

“Hoddle just drew a fabulous grid [in the CBD]. He didn’t try to predict where every building would be,” he said.

And, while Mr Tabart said the vision was not prescriptive, he said it was vital to insist that developers delivered their agreed proportions of residential, commercial and retail.

“The mix is fundamental because the mix is what creates place. The beginning of ‘place’ is defining the mix of uses,” he said.

As an example, he said Lendlease wanted to substitute commercial use for residential where the 800 Bourke St NAB campus is.

“Lendlease came to us and said GPT wanted to do the NAB building and we said they could, provided they replaced the residential buildings somewhere else,” he said.

He said the mix chosen for Docklands was “Mid-town Manhattan”.

“It’s a mix of residential, commercial, retail, hotels, the New York Central Library, two blocks from Central Station, etc. That’s harmonious. That’s the mix we chose here.”

Mr Tabart said negotiated developer agreements had ensured that Docklands remained on track. Without these binding contracts, he said, it would have been almost impossible to achieve the vision.

“The key to anything you are trying to do is the real world. If this had have been privately-owned land, what would have happened?” he asked.

“The precincts were, in effect, large tracts of privately-owned land. But they had controls on them which were far stricter than normal planning controls.”

“Planning law is difficult, appealable, etc. Here we had a situation where, for example, if MAB won the rights to NewQuay, they won it on the basis that they actually built what was in their scheme. They could only change it by negotiation – via contract law. And they would need planning permission as well.”

“But the point is that they couldn’t just go top the planning minister and change a commercial aspect to residential.”

He acknowledged that Docklands had gaps between some developments.

“There’s another part of the model which states that the precincts should radiate from the stadium outwards in each direction,” he said. “Broadly, that’s happened. Probably the best example is Yarra’s Edge where it’s gone progressively along the waterfront.”

“Think about the CBD. It’s not perfectly managed. Photographs from balloons in 1894 show very nicely-finished buildings on street corners and rubble in between, except in Swanston St and Collins St. Hoddle was visionary, but it took 150 years to fill the grid.”

So, could Docklands have been done better?

“Yes. But, by and large, it’s a great success by world standards. Sydney would love to have it,” Mr Tabart said.

So why has Docklands been attacked?

“I think it was because Docklands was west of the city. It was embraced by Footscray. They love it. It was shunned by the east and the south-east.”

Mr Tabart also stands by his vision for wide waterside boulevards.

“The reason Docklands has 30 metre setbacks was because Docklands was to generate a 250,000 person event space,” he said. “Melbourne had no such waterfront space. Sydney Harbour’s got amble space. So this gave a space where something big involving the water could be held. If you had narrow edges without the space, this wouldn’t be half the place it is.”

And would the state have recovered from recession without the birth of Docklands?

“Yes, but I think this was an important catalyst,” Mr Tabart said. “This project kept the banks in Melbourne.”

“They were very strongly consolidating in Sydney during that period and it was really the cost of doing business in Melbourne, because of Docklands, that kept them here.”

“If you can take space in a ground-scraper at $450 per sqm but it’s going to cost you $750 per sqm in the CBD (or $1000 today) and in Sydney it’s going to cost you $1500, (also travel time, traffic issues, etc). At the end of the day, it was the lower cost of doing business that attracted ANZ, NAB and AXA.”

Mr Tabart said people generally lost sight of Docklands’ achievements.

“Public projects usually take a lot of money to start them up. Kennett made it clear there wouldn’t be any,” he said.

“It’s good to be critical to improve things. It’s bad to be critical to say we did it wrong. And, there’s more to do.”

“If one has a strong view about how to fix something, speak and get into it. But I’m far more interested in the views of people who live here and work here than those who turn their nose up at it from afar.”

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