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Government surrenders to pier pressure

03 Sep 2019

Government surrenders to pier pressure Image

By Sean Car

The sudden nature of Development Victoria’s (DV) highly risk-adverse decision-making process which led to shut down of Central Pier on August 28 continues to leave many scratching their heads.

No secret has ever been made of the 103-year-old pier’s failing condition, with DV having commissioned specialist marine contractors to undertake a suite of works since 2017 to stabilise the structure.

For the past few years, the presence of a “jack-up barge” with a crane has served as a constant reminder of these works. As too, has the break which emerged between the pier and its unsafe western end in 2017, which remains rotting in the harbour today.

The pier is inspected by engineers every two months and Docklands News reported only in June that the third stage of DV’s ongoing rehabilitation program was nearing completion. Never was there a suggestion of a looming crisis.

And yet following last month’s shock findings by DV’s engineers that a “rapid deterioration” of the pier meant it was no longer safe for occupation, no one could have foreseen what came next.

Not even DV’s tenant Atlantic Group, which has a lease on the pier until 2025, was given a chance to respond to the report after allegedly being issued a shutdown notice at around 4pm that very day.

While Deakin University managed to relocate its annual ball to Ms Collins in the CBD having booked Peninsula that same evening, surprised diners at The Woolshed were forced to swallow their entrees and evacuate at around 6:30pm.

How communication broke down to allow for this situation to occur still remains a question unanswered. So too the immediacy of it all. While no one argues safety is paramount, was a 24- or 48-hour notice really beyond the realms of possibility? Was full-closure warranted or could a partial closure have been managed?

Upon publishing this edition, the pier still remains standing. There has been no suggestion of doors in the buildings not shutting properly, cracks appearing in walls or sections eroding into the harbour. So, how bad can it be?

While diners were forced to flee, the following days saw Atlantic Group staff coming and going from the pier. Yet even boating operators, who have been told by DV for some time that the pier was unable to handle the lateral forces of their vessels, were denied regular access.

Jeff Gordon, whose boat has been berthed at Central Pier since 2007, had to be transported to his Lady Cutler via boat on August 30, after losing an argument with security guards who are now permanently stationed at the fenced off pier.

“It’s a mad world,” Mr Gordon said. “One day we can board 360 pax the next we can’t even get to the ship!”

“I do think that there are larger issues here. What’s happened here is that they’ve known for some time that there are emergency issues. We’ve seen gradual closure and a lack of money available. It’s a guillotine closure for businesses.”

As usual, the devil must lie in the detail and unfortunately, a request to DV by Docklands News for a copy of the engineer’s report under Freedom of Information (FOI) was not met in time for publishing this edition. But of the advice provided to DV by its engineers KBR, this was all that was publicly disclosed …

“Based on photographic records from 2017, the findings of the recent two-monthly inspections and detailed pile inspections demonstrate that the structural integrity of the pier is clearly and consistently deteriorating,” the advice stated.

“Based on the condition of the sub-structure and the rapid deterioration that we have witnessed to date, our view is that occupation of Central Pier is no longer sustainable and represents an unacceptable risk to life.”

The “life-threatening” issues, according to DV CEO Angela Skandarajah, lie in the pier’s “footings.” However, speaking to 774 ABC Melbourne radio on August 29, she said she didn’t have the detail as to how many were of concern.

“I can’t comment on the engineering issues,” Ms Skandarajah said. “The advice changed as of yesterday. As soon as we heard that advice we needed to act on it.”

Associate professor from the University of Melbourne’s department of infrastructure engineering Lihai Zhang – an expert in pier construction - said deterioration was typically the result of marine borers and fungi causing reduction and cracking of the timber piles.

“The most common solution to date has been to build a custom-sized fiberglass form, placing it around the pile and filling the annular space with grout but this offers limited structural strength,” he said.

For a pier as large and heavy as Central Pier’s, associate professor Zhang suggested these types of solutions were largely stop-gaps. It appears more drastic measures are inevitable in order to save the pier.

In the meantime, the Docklands community rallies around the businesses and employees affected by the disruption to the pier’s operations. A statement issued by Atlantic Group said that safety of its customers, clients and staff were its “number one priority.”

“We have been a proud part of the Docklands community since 2007 and we will continue to employ the 1000 Atlantic Group staff who work on Central Pier as we work to resolve this issue,” the statement read.

“We will work with Development Victoria to understand exactly what has occurred and we will seek clarity on when we will be able to return to our venues on Central Pier.”

For now, Ms Skandarajah said it would remain closed for at least one month while engineers assessed the best way forward. However, one can’t help but feel that long term, the writing is on the wall. The question of compensation for lost business earnings also looms large.

So, does the government make the significant, and possibly futile, tax-payer investments required to keep propping it up? Does it dismantle it and replace it with something more robust? Or does it sell it off to private interests for redevelopment?

These are questions that, for now, remain unanswered as a result what can only be described as a systematic failure of process by a government that has allowed itself to become hostage to a risk assessor, who are, in turn, hostage to professional indemnity insurers.

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