The Docklands ‘‘sleeper agent’’ is never too far away!
By Sean Car
After 10 years helping shape Docklands, Development Victoria’s (DV) development director Ronan Mellan is moving on to help build the vision for neighbouring renewal in the Fishermans Bend and Arden precincts.
But the self-described “sleeper agent” of Docklands is never too far away from the action as far as this community is concerned! He said part of the impetus for his decision to switch roles was actually to benefit Docklands.
“I agonised over it [changing roles] because I have such an emotional connection to Docklands, but I partly felt 10 years in the same sandpit was probably enough. I’m so passionate about Docklands,” he said.
“We joked about me being a bit of a sleeper agent for Docklands and I think that it’s kind of useful for a whole bunch of reasons, like knowing what worked well and what we would have done differently with Docklands.”
“We can apply that knowledge and that experience to these emerging regeneration projects in Fishermans Bend and Arden. But equally, having an intimate knowledge of Docklands helps by then understanding the strategic context in this corridor which is like the western belt of Melbourne. So, as much as we can apply the lessons from other projects, we can create and curate other projects so that they benefit Docklands.”
The Scottish-born urban planner had long aspired to help shape Docklands before he’d even set foot in Australia for the first time 12 years ago.
As a student in the late ‘90s studying town planning and economic development, Mr Mellan said the Docklands project led by what was then VicUrban (now DV) was, and still remains, as an internationally-renowned model for urban renewal.
While that is a fact some Melburnians may find difficult to believe, Ronan said critics of Docklands were often heavily misinformed.
“Most cultures have the tall poppy syndrome but as an immigrant I recognise Australia really does have a chip on its shoulder at times. Any other regeneration that has had the success of Docklands would be crowing about it until the cows come home,” he said.
“We’re sitting here and that [Marvel] stadium was coming out of the ground in late 1999; it’s unbelievable.”
“Sometimes it [Docklands] can be a dirty word and I love nothing more than confronting that and saying let’s deconstruct that for a second – usually the person using Docklands as a punchline is only equipped with around 15 or 20 per cent of the information and you just start providing them that background and information and they recognise that it’s more than just about how windy it is.”
“So those are the superficial arguments but then you have conversations within the public sector, the huge financial benefits and how much money was directed into community outcomes like Ron Barassi Park, the library and so forth.”
But while he might be a staunch defender of Docklands, he’s certainly under no illusions as to how things could have been done better and he’s looking forward to taking some of those lessons and principles into Arden and Fishermans Bend.
Complementing Parkville, the Arden precinct, shaped largely around the new underground Metro Tunnel station in North Melbourne, will form a new community shaped around an employment cluster built on life sciences and medical innovation.
Fishermans Bend – Australia’s largest ever urban renewal project – is two-and-a-half times the size of Melbourne’s CBD and will incorporate four new residential precincts, as well as a new employment precinct, which is where much of Ronan’s efforts will be centred.
The former General Motors Holden (GMH) site, which is located within the City of Melbourne, was purchased by the state government in 2016 and will be focused on driving innovation largely around advanced manufacturing and logistics. The University of Melbourne has already bought into the government’s vision by purchasing land in the precinct for a new engineering and design campus and RMIT University is expected to follow suit.
With both precincts bearing many similarities to Docklands, Mr Mellan said the focus was now focusing on learning lessons of the past around what could have been done better – namely, “fine grain” details around heritage and activation.
He added that while Docklands had been largely driven by the private sector, the government was looking to take a more “curatorial role” in Arden and Fishermans Bend by retaining a greater controlling interest.
“The creation of the other precincts both metaphorically and physically repositions Docklands on the map. So, it becomes more of a connecting hub rather than a terminus,” he said.
“The benefits of that are greater visitation, greater economic activity and given its more centralised location in that context it becomes a more desirable place to live and meet.”
“Something that we could have done better is celebrate Docklands’ maritime heritage. That’s one thing that we’re really taking with us to Arden is to celebrate the indigenous heritage of the area much more materially and much more genuinely.”
“If you look at some of the old pictures of Docklands through the late 1800s to the 60s it’s just such a lost opportunity to have retained a bit more of that fabric. That’s what we’re looking to bring in Fishermans Bend at GMH as well by looking at the automotive and industrial heritage down there.”
And while he was happy to see Docklands Primary School finally open last month, he said such catalyst projects had taken “way too long” and those mistakes were already being rectified in the new precincts.
But with COVID-19 presenting many unprecedented challenges to Melbourne, he said the far more “matured” Docklands was equipped to turn any such challenges into opportunities.
“You’ve now kind of got a more mature public space that is bedded in here. The challenge that we always knew we had and what was always apparent to me as an immigrant to Australia was that Melbourne expects authenticity in its space and it’s very hard to create authenticity from scratch,” he said. “So, there was an element of that but we just had to get Docklands out there and let it kind of weather and let it kind of rust and let it breathe.”
“It won’t be as simple as office workers returning after COVID. There was always a criticism of Docklands that we catered too heavily to the commercial activation and the office worker.”
“The services then grew up alongside that hive of activity and benefit from that. But assuming that criticism is valid, then we have an opportunity to readdress it rather than just reset and get office workers back and get back to the criticism of 2019.”
“I say that with acknowledgement that there are loads of small to medium enterprises in Docklands that depend on that business so we need to be cognisant and supportive of that, but at the same time, the residents have always felt we put workers first so here’s also finally an opportunity to recognise your ‘new local’.” •