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Revival plan up in the air

By Brendan Rees

The implementation of a major strategy to revive Docklands, including a long-term vision for the 100-year-old Central Pier, continues to be hampered by COVID-19 with authorities saying it remains a “working document”.

With Docklands being one of the hardest hit areas by the pandemic in Australia, desperation is growing for the precinct to find a way forward once it emerges from devastating lockdowns.

In response, an activation strategy – a joint initiative by Development Victoria and City of Melbourne – was announced last July in a bid to identify new opportunities and events in Docklands as well as a sustained activation of its waterways to encourage visitors to “enjoy all it has to offer”.   

As part of the first phase of the strategy, events company Alto Cibum – whose projects include Puffing Billy, South Melbourne Market and Luna Park – was engaged to consult stakeholders including Docklands News to inform an activation report.

In addition to revitalising the precinct, issues such as a lack of car parking, community infrastructure and connectivity between the major precincts were also believed to have been discussed.

The Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network also made a submission to the strategy by proposing a new Maritime Experiential Centre, which it said would trigger much-needed activation and visitation to Docklands.

It’s understood a draft strategy was due to be released in the months following before being pushed back to this year – but Development Victoria has since confirmed the strategy had always remained a “working document” between its organisation and the City of Melbourne.

It said consultation with a range of stakeholders in Docklands in 2020 had been completed – with feedback to be used in developing the activation strategy report while consultation regarding Central Pier, including a redeveloped waterfront, would begin later this year.  

Docklands News understands the strategy had been signed off by Development Victoria earlier this year, until it was held off after the City of Melbourne wanted to ensure “additional measures” were included to help activate the precinct in the short-term.  

Meanwhile, it remains unknown whether the activation strategy (not including Central Pier) will be finalised for further stakeholder engagement, with Development Victoria saying the working document was being used to inform activation initiatives in Docklands.

Stakeholders now fear they have received mixed messages after being given assurance they would be sought for further comment by Development Victoria once the strategy had been finalised – but this has yet to occur.   

Development Victoria declined to say what recommendations – if any – had been used to inform the strategy at this stage. Instead, Group Head of Precincts at Development Victoria, Geoff Ward, said Docklands’ activation strategy was “designed to create a range of events and opportunities to encourage people back to Docklands”.

“We remain committed to the strategy and we will keep looking for opportunities to support events and initiatives to bring visitors to Docklands,” he said.

“We have worked closely with the City of Melbourne and stakeholders such as the Docklands Chamber of Commerce to support a range of initiatives, including Docklands Dollars, and events such as the ‘Wonderland’ family event during the school holidays earlier in the year.”

In the meantime, Development Victoria said an “Activation Working Group” from the City of Melbourne and Development Victoria had been established and was “meeting regularly to identify opportunities for Docklands”.

In July, a City of Melbourne spokesperson said it had welcomed feedback from Docklands residents and businesses in “guiding our activation of the area”. However, when asked if the council was collecting submissions from residents to inform the strategy, it declined to comment, saying Development Victoria was the leading authority behind the strategy.

Docklands Chamber of Commerce president Johanna Maxwell, who declined to discuss the strategy, said Docklands needed to be reinvented and “we’re focussed on it being a destination rather than just existing to service the big corporates”.

“Long term, permanent activation of the harbour and short-term regular activations of the promenades will be our focus in the coming years,” she said.

Docklands News has been told by sources working on the strategy that there needed to be a “balance of real action” to give sustainable support for businesses rather than pitching ideas “for the sake of doing something”.    

A source from Alto Cibum, who requested anonymity, said it had sent “quite a few” recommendations to Development Victoria.

“We gave it to them on time, there’s no delay from us … we’re out of it. It’s over in their court and I don’t know what’s happening,” they said.

“We remain on hand to support them in any efforts or discussions they want with other stakeholders – we’re happy to facilitate those and we’re happy to facilitate any actions that they need done.”

“We’re emboldened by the amount of opportunity that sits in Docklands and undiscovered opportunity because it is a great space.”

Asked when consultation would take place for Central Pier, the source said, “We’re not briefed on it at all and it’s not part of anything we’ve been involved with”.

City of Melbourne councillor and creative Melbourne lead, Jamal Hakim, who is also a passionate Docklands resident, said it was his understanding that a draft strategy or recommendations “should be coming up pretty soon for discussion at council.” 

He said while the council had supported Development Victoria “we did take any guidance from stakeholders and residents”, and he had not yet seen any feedback from the community.

Cr Hakim said repeated lockdowns had “really hurt Docklands” and City of Melbourne’s partnership with Development Victoria was “critical for making Docklands really happen”.

“It’s through combined efforts because we want to make sure Docklands is activated and we bring that buzz back to Docklands,” he said.

“There’s a keen eye on seeing Docklands succeed and supporting it and obviously there’s some fundamentals that need to be worked through.”

In terms of strategy report, Cr Hakim said “we haven’t really been briefed on it just yet,” but added any event, activation, and ways to attract business in Docklands was “going to require a concerted and quite a focused effort”.

“I imagine the strategy is more of a framework and then the things that activate it will be things that will be discussed with community rather than directed from the strategy,” he said.

“[It’s also] thinking about who really gets the benefit out of Docklands and how we curate that calendar, and I think families are a big part of that.” •

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