What no plan means for the Docklands brand

Julian Smith

Every Docklands resident, particularly property owners, should be concerned about the chronic lack of a statutory Docklands vision. One that’s supported by a formal mandated development plan and timetable, with judicious oversight. In the absence of that, there are major implications for our uniquely convenient, city-edge lifestyle.

The October 2021 and May 2022 editions of Docklands News led with eloquent but exasperated front-page articles on this issue. Both lamented the lack of a formalised vision, the absence of which creates uncertainty that blights the future of Docklands. This lack is like rainwater: it runs unabated to the lowest point of the landscape, then sits in stagnant pools.

These sober reflections occur to me — a Docklands resident-owner for five years — as my return to northern climes draws near. I arrived here in mid-2017 and I’ll leave with mixed feelings. But it’s my intention to hold onto my apartment with its wonderful water view. So, I’ll have a continuing interest in Docklands.

Our suburb has much to offer, and I’ve enjoyed living here, mainly for the practical convenience. But I could have enjoyed it so much more had there been a firmer hand on the planning, vision and management tiller of the good ship Docklands. I think it says a lot about our locale that Melbourne Lord Mayor Sally Capp moved here a few years ago.

She resided in a Victoria Harbour apartment and proclaimed her love of the waterfront lifestyle. But she moved out after a year. In doing so, she was hardly atypical. Our Lord Mayor now resides in a more storied CBD-contiguous enclave: Carlton. Still only a short tram ride from the mayoral office, but much more amenable in many lifestyle-related ways. As Melbourne’s epicentre of cool cosmopolitan academia, Carlton has enjoyed more than a century of proper planning and development. Its denizens reap the lifestyle rewards. Carlton has soul — and a highly desirable brand image.

I come from an advertising and marketing background, and I can’t help thinking what all this says about the Docklands brand. It seems to me that Docklands was created as a practical extension of the commercial function of the CBD and funded by 25 years of residential development. Apparently, there are around 12,000 of us who live here in Docklands, with a pre-pandemic daily influx of up to 100,000 office workers. The way Docklands runs seems to be focused more on serving that transient working population than the permanent stakeholders: the residents. This gives Docklands a sort of Jekyll and Hyde quality. The placid daytime experience is subverted by the nocturnal reality.

To illustrate, let me run an informal marketing exercise past you …

We’re all familiar with the notion of brands and branding in popular culture. In approaching a branding task, one of the key disciplines involved is to develop what’s known as a “brand personality”. This is a short piece of prose, written as if the brand was a person. Two versions are created: the existing (the reality of how the branded product is seen at the start, before it’s promoted) and the desired (how it is ideally seen in the future, after a brand development plan has been implemented). The contrast between the two defines the active effort required for the brand to grow into the desired vision.

I’m going to depart from convention here and give you my draft of the desired version first. This articulates a future Docklands brand whose potential will be fully realised:

“I am a place unique in Australia’s most liveable city. A clean, green, modern, exciting but relaxed and informal near-city waterfront suburb. People of all ages are instinctively drawn to me because of my relaxed, easy-going contemporary lifestyle. My youthful, diverse vibe — juxtaposed with the energy and enterprise of the historic Melbourne CBD — is a stimulating mix. I love sharing my placid, lake-like water outlook with its boats moored around the edges. So much is at my doorstep here: a variety of good places to eat, two Woollies supermarkets, interesting things to look at, wonderfully relaxing waterfront walks, even a ferry to the near-western coast for a non-driving day out. All my neighbours love living here because the outlook is pleasant, and the amenities are great. There’s even a school now, which has drawn growing families who give an exuberant village energy to these environs. And it’s so convenient to be able to hop on a tram or train to get here, or to travel anywhere quickly. I’m proud that my cultural and aesthetic appeal draws visitors.

“They appreciate the mix of architectural modernity, history and events that are always on show. My visitors also respect the fact that this is a residential area, so they carry themselves with restraint and decorum. Melbourne has a precious asset in Docklands, and I know it’s in good hands, with sound planning and management securing an exciting and assured future for us all.”

 

As the old song from My Fair Lady says, wouldn’t it be lovely? Now consider the reality: the existing brand personality of Docklands:

 

“I am a beguiling place, attractive to newcomers. I’m that curious addition to Melbourne CBD’s western flank. I offer water views, broad uncrowded spaces, free tram travel, history next to eclectic modern architecture — what’s not to like? This place is development central — there’s been continuous building activity (with all its noise day in, day out) for decades.

“But I have a split personality. There’s a hidden side you never see unless you live here. At night, I become a party boy. And don’t the young people of wider Melbourne know it! They flock here, especially at weekends, because they can carouse, get drunk and discharge their noisy party energy with impunity … yep, the singing, shrieking and yelling often goes right through until dawn on Saturday nights. Has done for years. On weekends, boats full of party people drift in and slowly cruise around my waters, belting out singalong music that bounces off my towers. Sometimes even on lazy Sunday afternoons. People certainly don’t come here for the food, but my half-dozen big restaurants regularly get booked out for major events attracting big noisy crowds. Loud music with louder commentary are broadcast over cranked-up speakers. You can hear it clear across the water, until late. Then there are the blow-ins who occupy the short-stay apartments throughout Docklands. These include people who host sex parties (as reported in the Docklands News May edition) and even drug dealers (my tower has at least one, known to management, on one of the high floors).

“I’m Melbourne’s top hoon destination too! Loud motorbikes and souped-up cars all regularly redline their engines along my quiet streetscapes, from the post-peak until the late hours. Their strident engine notes bounce off my rows of tall towers, and drivers know they can rev out with impunity, because the police rarely show up. These rev-heads sometimes hang around for hours. I’ll tell you who don’t come here though — friends and relatives of the people who live here. They reckon it’s too hard. Too much traffic and nowhere to park.

“My promenades are graveyards of failed eateries and windows full of ‘To Let’ signs. The air around here can get a bit stinky at times too — it drifts in on the breeze from the industrial near west. All in all, people either love me or hate me. But you can’t deny my appeal to my chief cheerleaders… the party people!”

Sound familiar? Admittedly, this profile is biased to NewQuay, the commercial epicentre of our suburb. But to some extent, these problems exist right across Docklands. All are a perpetual blight on our quality of life and the Docklands brand. Because we live in vertical communities — rather than wide, horizontal suburban tracts — this barrage of nocturnal noise travels straight up and impacts thousands of us at a time. It would never be tolerated in any other residential suburb. I can feel you all nodding ruefully as you read this.

In terms of those polarised brand personalities, the situation will never skew upward from the existing version articulated above while this deeply flawed status quo exists.

We’re stuck with it until the application of firm authority with dedication, focus and a continuing resolve for planning and policing a better vision allows Docklands to finally fulfil its undoubted potential. •

 

Julian Smith is a resident of the NewQuay precinct in Docklands

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