Stop ‘‘choking’’ us: Central Pier saga drags on

Stop ‘‘choking’’ us: Central Pier saga drags on

By Sean Car

More than a year after Central Pier was shockingly evacuated and closed due to safety concerns, the director of the pier’s anchor tenant has vented his anger at Development Victoria’s (DV’s) continued lack of support for businesses.

On August 28 last year, diners at the Woolshed were famously interrupted halfway through their meals as DV gave evacuation orders to tenants, claiming that the pier was no longer safe for occupation. It was the last time any business would be done on Central Pier.

More than a year later, the CEO of the pier’s anchor tenant Atlantic Group Hatem Saleh told Docklands News that businesses were still seeking answers from the government agency and were no closer to resolving the issue.

With five tenants having launched a $100 million Federal Court action in October last year, accusing DV of “misleading and deceptive” conduct, Mr Saleh last month slammed his landlord for trying to “choke” and “financially weaken” businesses.

He added that while the devastation of COVID-19 had only caused more pain and suffering for the businesses and 1300 staff who had lost their jobs as a result of the pier’s closure, he said the pandemic had come at a good time for DV to continue “dragging out” the matter.

“We’re not going away,” Mr Saleh said.

“If choking people and trying to financially weaken them by dragging out a process is the right way to conduct itself, they’ve got to have a good look at themselves.”

“Our people were caught up twice in losing their jobs until February and now they’ve been paralysed by COVID.”

“My feeling is DV is relying heavily on its lawyers to drag out the process. There’s no genuine attempt to find a solution, only to drag out the process. They’ve never put a figure on the table to support us.”

While the pier was evacuated on August 28, following a series of safety reviews by engineers, it was eventually permanently closed on January 3. This coincided with DV releasing a “summary fact sheet” estimating 50 per cent of piles underneath Shed 9, and 15 to 20 per cent underneath Shed 14, required repair.

But complete information, including details of engineering works and reports that had led to the pier’s closure, have never been publicly released. Docklands News had sought the documents under Freedom of Information (FOI) but was ultimately unsuccessful.

Following a more than six-month FOI process, which included a refusal from DV and a series of reviews with the Office of the Victorian Information Commissioner (OVIC), Docklands News was only ultimately successful in obtaining a letter sent from engineers KBR to DV advising it to close the pier. The newspaper continues to assess its options for launching a fresh FOI request.

“If you look at our claim, our claim is misleading and deceptive conduct. I think you can make of that what you wish,” Mr Saleh said.

“We’ve invested more than $45 million into that pier and we’re still paying off the bank. It was a derelict pier, it had no sewerage or water. We created it and fitted it out. For more than 10 years it was attracting more than 1.3 million people a year.”

“The risk that DV took in not maintaining it properly leaves me baffled about the lack of safety that they allowed to exist with that many people visiting the pier every year. Ultimately, DV has been negligent.”

“It still seems incredibly surreal that the evacuation happened. Particularly for a government agency that should have had measures and strategies in place to ensure the heritage structure was able to be safely managed.”

“Ultimately, DV were accountable. They had the engineering reports. There’s been multiple engineers on that pier. They had a responsibility to maintain the lease in place until December 2026 and basically, they haven’t.”

While DV had initially sought advice to demolish the pier following its permanent closure in January, any such action requires Heritage Victoria’s approval and DV told Docklands News that discussions remained ongoing.

In response to Mr Saleh’s claims, Group Head, Precincts at Development Victoria Geoff Ward said it was unable to comment due the matter being before the courts.

“Development Victoria is in discussions with Heritage Victoria regarding the future of the pier,” Mr Ward said.

“Planning will involve extensive engagement with the community and key stakeholders to create a vision for Victoria Harbour and Central Pier as part of Docklands’ continued development.”

“Separately, Development Victoria is working with the City of Melbourne on an activation strategy that will identify a range of opportunities for Docklands.”

But Mr Saleh said in spite of DV’s investigations around a new activation strategy for Docklands, there had already been a “live and active” pier there already, which businesses had established over more than 11 years.

With the courts still closed due to stage four coronavirus restrictions, he said he believed it wouldn’t be for a further 12 months before a new date would be established to continue proceedings.

But his message to DV and the state government, remained clear.

“Reimburse us for our expenses,” he said. “We want to rebuild our businesses and get our staff back to work.”

“One of my hopes has been that the state government intervenes and tries to insist that there is a common-sense solution that is put in place, but unfortunately from the CEO and chairman of DV, there has been no genuine attempt other than using Geoff Ward as their spokesperson, to find a genuine solution.”

“We’re significantly out of pocket. The issue for us is that we had a vibrant precinct taken away from us.”

“We want to be repaid what we’re entitled to in order to recover our costs and recreate what were great businesses once more. The investment that went in, the time and the effort, constantly doing the right thing, the marketing, is what led to it become such a vibrant part of Docklands.”

“The problem with Central Pier is that it continues to sit there and rot with no possibility of being able to reactivate. We weren’t given a chance.”

“Overnight it was taken away from us by Development Victoria. It’s disheartening that they can be so negligent and not take accountability. We’re all in debt.” •

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