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Harbour Esplanade – the real story

01 Apr 2015

Editorial comment by Shane Scanlan

It’s taken me months to realise that the future of Harbour Esplanade has minimal connection with the document known as the ‘Harbour Esplanade Master Plan Report’.

In my view, it is a form of deceit to “consult” and then produce such a report without ever asking: “How much of this land should we trade to developers to pay for the new infrastructure?”

If you, like me, assumed that everyone thought of Harbour Esplanade as Docklands’ great public space, then we have been naïve because the authorities see the land as yet-to-be-realised capital.

It has become common for the City of Melbourne to approach public facility development on the basis of a land-for-paid-infrastructure swap with developers.  The council did this at the Boyd School site in Southbank and is gearing up for a similar exercise to redevelop the Victoria Market.

It’s hard to put a date on the exact time that Places Victoria stopped thinking about Harbour Esplanade as a continuum of “public” facilities.  This change of thinking has certainly been since 2008 when there was no suggestion that Vic Urban’s (PV’s former iteration) “verandah” concept would be funded by anyone other than government.

The verandah project went into the bottom draw when it was realised that there was no money to fund it. So, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at what is happening now.

But, while, the authorities have evolved to a new way of thinking, there has been no such conversation with the public.

So why has this conversation not taken place?  Perhaps I am wrong about their intent?  Or perhaps it is just too unpalatable to talk about the elephant in the room.

There are small clues in the 58-page report, which is understandable because there is precious little detail anyway. The report is a high-level design concept and is purposely “flexible” so as to make itself a smaller target.

On my first reading, I felt myself nodding and agreeing with its rationale and alignment with Docklands’ aspirations.

It wasn’t until I got to the part where it talks about using half the available space for buildings that alarm bells started ringing.

How could it be in any way desirable to take away 50 per cent of the existing (what was assumed to be “public”) building zones and block out the water with structures?

In 2000, the then major projects minister John Pandazopoulos celebrated the removal of waterfront buildings, saying in a press release: “Around 400 metres of public waterfront between Colonial Stadium and Victoria Dock will be opened up under the plan.”

The “master plan report” justifies the extent of the built form largely as a defence against Docklands’ winds. But, as Digital Harbour developer and report critic David Napier points out, you don’t need buildings to stop the wind.

And the height of three of the to-be-reinstated wharf decks provides a further clue.  Only large permanent structures need be built at RL+2.4 or RL +2.6 metres above the waterline.  If modest structures were proposed, Harbour Esplanade could be aligned at the same RL +1.4 metres such as currently exists at the Cow up a Tree rebuilt wharf deck.

The “master plan report” talks about a “continuous waterfront promenade” but, under the multiple-height proposal, a pedestrian will need to either climb or descend more than a metre no less than six times along the distance.

This is clearly ridiculous, unless viewed in the context of the scale and form of future buildings.

But there are only fleeting references to buildings in the “master plan report”.  In one place, it says: “The addition of new built form within the precinct is encouraged and will bring new attractors and activity to the harbour’s edge.”

It goes on to talk about possible markets, restaurants, galleries, event and performance spaces.

The only reference to how these structures are to be paid for can be found at the very beginning when it says:  “Through detailed site and opportunities analysis, a clear and purposeful set of layouts and objectives are defined herein. Importantly though, these remain inherently flexible to accommodate different modes of delivery, whether through public or private means.”

This paragraph contains both grand fabrications as well as a snippet of honesty.

The lies are that the report is detailed, clear and purposeful.  

The use of the term “mode of delivery” is a set of weasel words that means how the project is going to be paid for.  The snippet of honesty is the admission that the private sector is at least in the mix.

In my view, the “master plan report” needs to be put on hold while a new, honest and open public discussion is conducted about how this “public” land is to be traded.

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