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Renewing the empty shops of Docklands

David Schout

Vacant shopfronts in NewQuay and Victoria Harbour could soon be filled by creatives, fledgling retailers and bespoke displays under a new program to breathe life back into Docklands. 

Social enterprise Renew Australia, who has worked on revitalisation projects in Geelong, Wollongong and St Kilda, has been tasked with convincing agents and landlords to allow rent-free use of their otherwise vacant space in a bid to enliven the local area.

Docklands is one of the hardest-hit areas in the country following repeated COVID-19 lockdowns.

The economic impact of the pandemic has forced many businesses to vacate the area, leaving a host of shopfronts with “for lease” stickers on its windows.

Renew Australia wants to change this, and CEO Angela Simons told Docklands News the end product could be a win-win for all parties.

“There’s a huge impact of taking places that’ve had the lights turned off, with dirty windows, then cleaning them up and turning the lights back on — showing some love for that space,” she said.

“Really, that’s what we’re hoping to do in Docklands.”

Getting there, however, is by no means easy.

Firstly, they must source a number of creatives, makers, retail operators, social enterprises or community groups that would like to borrow a space.

Then they need to convince agents and landlords why they should give up their empty space.

You might ask: what’s in it for them?

Well, more than you think.

Firstly, Renew ensures they’re covered by insurance and a legal agreement for use of the space within the program.

They also ensure the space remains clean and tidy throughout.

More broadly, they argue that an “activated” space showcases how the vacant space could be utilised for future tenants.

They also sought to help existing traders. 

“That’s one of our key goals here: complement, not compete,” Ms Simons said.

 

And draw activity that then generates further interest and foot traffic for the people who’ve been working really hard to keep their businesses afloat over the last year.

 

Typically, a space is rented on a 30-day rolling licence until notice is given. 

The creative, entrepreneur or small-scale retailer is provided with a small improvement fund to get them going and, from there, they simply pay for utilities. 

“It basically works to generate activity and interest. We’re really looking to bring Docklands [back] on the map to be a destination again — a reason to visit Melbourne.”

By late September, Renew Australia had interest among owners and agents, and was due to meet with more in early October.  

It’s not the first time the group — engaged for 12 months by the City of Melbourne — has worked in Docklands.

They have previously collaborated with the District Docklands to activate vacant space on Wharf St with creative enterprises in the Docklands Art Collective.

One of those was Magnet Gallery, a creative space that has remained open ever since. 

“That [Magnet] is an example of what we do and why we do it, because if we can find the right place, not just for temporary activation, but hopefully we’re finding businesses or creative entrepreneurs who really want to become part of the broader landscape and participate in Docklands on a long-term basis.”

Ms Simons, who lives nearby in Melbourne’s inner-west, said she was well aware of the area’s potential. 

“I’m an inner-westie, so Docklands is my entrance to the city,” she said.

“We really want to see Docklands become a gateway to Melbourne. We’re not looking to go to Chadstone, we’re not looking to travel across the city. We really want to be able to go down Dynon or Footscray roads and be somewhere super convenient, but also really beautiful, in 10 minutes. So, it’s about engaging Docklands residents, but also reminding people who are on the doorstep how lucky we are to have a pristine, waterfront part of the city and how can we better engage the Melbourne population.”

She said as a modern suburb, Docklands had an advantage over other areas in the city. 

“It’s one of the few areas in Melbourne that has accessible spaces. A lot of these buildings were built within the era when there are ramps, there are disabled toilets, there are loading docks — those things that some of our traditional main streets lack in terms of infrastructure. So, we’re really excited about Docklands.”

Interested creators, makers, artists, and entrepreneurs are encouraged to submit an expression of interest in the Renew Docklands program, which is now open •

Renew Australia has previously worked in the local area, providing studio space for creative retailers while the District Docklands underwent refurbishments.

For more information: renewaustralia.org

Docklands: It’s time for a plan

Docklands: It’s time for a plan

September 29th, 2021 - Sean Car
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