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It’s back to the future for Claire

29 Nov 2011

It’s back to the future for Claire Image

New Victoria Harbour project director Claire Johnston has been here before, having cut her property development teeth as a junior manager on Docklands’ NAB building in 2001.

And she’s done some interesting and relevant things with Lend Lease during the intervening eight years which have qualified her superbly to oversee the precinct’s final development.

In particular, Ms Johnston’s experience and interest in sustainability and community building will be welcomed by the new and emerging Docklands community.

She was a human resources manager in a previous life.  She also had qualifications in commerce and industrial relations before coming to work in Docklands when she also juggled an MBA in property development.

Her early work in Docklands included negotiating the original commercial leasing of the Harbour Kitchen and Watermark.  So she knows the business from the ground up.

“When I left we were just half way through Dock 5,” she said.  “When I first got here we used to play touch football in the park and all the kids would be coming from the raves after Sunday night on Monday morning, dragging themselves up the street.  It was a very barren place to be.”

“But now it’s truly an extension of the CBD.  It’s really quite astounding to see that in such a short period of time that such an extension of the city has started.”

After completing the NAB project in 2003, Ms Johnston trekked Nepal for a brief moment of reflection about her career and the industry she was in before plunging into the Hornery Institute for the next three years.

The not-for-profit institute was established by former Lend Lease CEO Stuart Hornery and is dedicated to delivering sustainable property solutions.  At the time, its Melbourne base was at The Hub in Docklands and part of Ms Johnston’s work was with Docklands Skilling and Employment – an ambitious project which successfully placed 16 youths into local jobs.

“We were involved very early on in developing community frameworks with VicUrban,” Ms Johnston said.

In 2006, Ms Johnson took on a role in the USA, developing a massive community for the US Army in Hawaii.  The Lend Lease project was to not only finance, design and build 5300 new homes, it also involved ongoing community management for 50 years.

“I wanted an opportunity to apply the thinking I had learned from the Hornery Institute,” she said.

After five years on the project and having a baby, Ms Johnston wanted to come home and was offered the Victoria Harbour job.

“I had a range of options with Lend Lease around Australia and America, and Victoria Harbour seemed most aligned with what I wanted to do and where we wanted to take this business in terms of community and delivering community outcomes,” she said.

“The opportunity to come home and continue on with Victoria Harbour through its last phase is really exciting for me because I have been here before.”

Ms Johnston said her focus was to instil a sense of community and place at a local neighbourhood level.

She said Lend Lease had been very successful at delivering residential and commercial buildings in Docklands.

“But now we are about 50 per cent through but we really have to now start to pay attention to what happens at a street level.  The buildings are great but what happens at a street level is as important for fostering a sense of place and sustainable community,” Ms Johnston said.

“And that’s really important because the next part of our project has about 2000 residential dwellings to be delivered in the next 10 years and people want a place where they can feel comfortable, where they can feel safe and they can be engaged with their community.”

“In the five years that I’ve been gone, there’s been an enormous evolution at a really grass roots level in terms of community groups and that’s what you need to start building a critical mass of culture in a place. And, to the extent that we participate in that, we’ll respond to the community.”

Ms Johnston said it was relatively easy to pick up and direct the project despite not being involved in the most recent Victoria Harbour master planning.

“One of the reasons is that the master plan has been so well done, it is very clear to see what its objectives are and what it is going to be delivering,” she said. “It’s very clear to see what the ambition is so it hasn’t been difficult for me to come in at this point.  The vision is there and it’s a matter of executing it in a manner that has integrity for the community.”

“Getting down into the fine grain is what I like to do.”

Ms Johnston said Lend Lease was committed to Docklands as a whole and was constantly looking for ways of connecting with the suburb.

“We believe in the Docklands.  We believe in the value of it as an extension of Melbourne’s waterfront.  We will be here until at least 2021 and it is our responsibility to jointly ensure that this suburb thrives, grows and continues to prosper,” she said.

“This place has to reflect that it is part of the City of Melbourne but also needs to be distinct as its own community.”

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