The untold stories of Victoria Harbour and Central Pier

The untold stories of Victoria Harbour and Central Pier

By Jackie Watts - Chair of the Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network

The past month has seen progress on a wide range of issues with great potential to enhance recognition of Victoria’s maritime heritage. At the same time, there is ongoing lack of clarity around future plans for Victoria Harbour and Central Pier and indications of some missed opportunities. In this column, we summarise some of the latest developments.

Upcoming seminar: Victoria Harbour and Central Pier – A Story Waiting to be Told

At Magnet Galleries in Waterfront City on Saturday, May 1, from 2pm to 3pm, Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) director Michael O’Brien will be delivering a presentation which aims to shed light on the largely untold stories of Victoria Harbour and Central Pier.

In the heart of Docklands, MMHN will share the “untold story” of Victoria Harbour and the currently controversial Central Pier explaining why both these iconic maritime heritage assets are significant – and fascinating. Failure to understand such maritime infrastructure has resulted in incremental neglect and threatened demolition.

Melbourne’s maritime heritage infrastructure of all types is little understood by the wider public or by the plethora of authorities responsible for asset preservation. Two iconic maritime infrastructure assets remain in the CBD – Victoria Harbour and Central Pier. Both were recognised as technically advanced civil engineering projects at the time they were constructed; complex and complementary structures built to enable the great volume of maritime trade which generated prosperity for Melbourne and the hinterland. The “untold story” underpinning these structures – conception, design, and construction – reveals that they deserve recognition, respect and, of course, preservation.

This free MMHN seminar is held as part of the Australian Heritage Festival celebrating “Our Heritage for the Future”. It will present historical information and images and will offer – weather permitting – an optional short walk to Victoria Harbour and Central Pier.

Recently, the state government announced it will fund a $225 million upgrade of Marvel Stadium. Early designs for this project visually reflected its prime waterside location. However, despite the Victorian Government’s stated position that it will help reposition Docklands as Melbourne’s key waterfront destination, the recently announced “new” design literally “turns its back” on Docklands.

The latest AFL design focuses on refurbishing public and function areas that overlook the Wurundjeri Way side of the ground, not the harbour side. If approved, construction may begin as early as mid-2021.

The significance of Victoria Harbour is hard to overlook. It is the second-largest excavated harbour in the world, and a masterpiece of 19th century civil engineering. However, these latest developments suggest that both the AFL and Development Victoria, the government’s development arm, have decided to ignore this magnificent civic asset in their redevelopment plans for Marvel Stadium. Development Victoria, which has been “partnering” with the AFL, has been inexplicably passive in responding to concerns about the AFL about-face.

As things stand, this is a major lost opportunity. These events are a reminder of the importance of MMHN’s ongoing mission to influence key decision makers in our city and state who, surprisingly, regularly demonstrate a reluctance to appreciate, and staunchly defend, our waterways.

MMHN is still paying close attention to unfolding developments surrounding Central Pier. The future refurbishment of the pier has potential to be a focal point for the re-activation of the Docklands area, attracting both tourism and renewed local business activity. At the same time, well-designed solutions should provide recognition of the past and ongoing importance of maritime heritage and maritime industries to Melbourne and Victoria.

Despite the state government’s decision in August 2019 to permanently close Central Pier, MMHN has received assurance that the government remains committed to ensuring a future for the pier, as an important heritage asset at the heart of Docklands. We understand that Development Victoria has been instructed to continue to work with Heritage Victoria, the City of Melbourne, local businesses and the community on a long-term plan for Central Pier – one which will support the ongoing development of the Docklands precinct.

MMHN is committed to watching developments closely. We stand ready to help the state government in any way we can to deliver outcomes which will benefit the City of Melbourne and Victoria.

The Victoria Harbour wharves, and Central Pier in particular, are some of Melbourne’s greatest maritime assets. In its heyday, this key maritime heritage infrastructure underpinned Victorian prosperity – urban and regional. The civil engineering of this infrastructure was world renowned in the 19th century, delivering Melbourne its reputation as a strong go-ahead city and port on a global scale.

On a positive note, we have been very pleased to observe the progress the City of Melbourne has been making to achieve the vision of a maritime heritage precinct within the city.

For the past two years MMHN has been advocating creation of a Melbourne Waterways Maritime Trail. There is potential for a world-class maritime heritage precinct to be formed by linking together existing maritime assets along the Lower Yarra River and Docklands, with the remarkable Mission to Seafarers building and the new Seafarers Rest Park at its hub. The City of Melbourne is to be congratulated for its high level of engagement with community stakeholders in this project during recent months •

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