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What’s the future vision for Docklands?

Sean Car

A summit, involving key stakeholders from government, business and the local community, will soon pose this very question; an increasingly important one as Docklands continues its slow recovery from the pandemic.

It’s a question too seldom considered by the custodians of Docklands with any meaningful sincerity. Engaging in consultation and devising plans only takes you so far. What does Docklands see for itself? What does the vision look like?

While this proposition is often discussed in silos under the guise of vested interests, it’s never been collectively contemplated “around the table”. Too often, we see bursts of vision and ideas, but nothing knitting any of it together.

This will be the almighty challenge the City of Melbourne and other key stakeholders look to address when it stages a Docklands Summit, and while a date for the high-level talks is yet to be determined, it’s an initiative that is well overdue.

The council first announced it was planning for the initiative back in February when it heard an update on its shopfront activation program from director of economic development Andrew Wear.

“Significant investment has been directed to short-term activations within Docklands, such as shopfront activations, the Drone Show and other innovative activations. However, these activities alone will not resolve the long-standing structural issues impacting Docklands,” the report tabled at the February 15 Future Melbourne Committee meeting said.

“A fundamental review of the precinct is needed to establish a new vision and direction for Docklands post COVID-19. A Docklands Summit hosted by the Lord Mayor and relevant Minister would elevate the urgent need for action and generate enthusiasm for the regeneration of Docklands.”

 

Such a summit would discuss ideas to address the state of Docklands physically, socially and economically and identify immediate and longer-term interventions that would support regeneration and determine a way forward.

 

In acknowledging that “during COVID-19, Docklands has been one of the hardest hit precincts in the country”, the council under the leadership of its CEO Justin Hanney and Docklands resident Cr Jamal Hakim are busy fine-tuning the timing and scope of the talks.

But the question surrounding vision is a complicated one. Geographically, Docklands is a suburb made up of “precincts” which don’t interact well with each other.

The council is also still stuck in a power-share with Development Victoria (DV), and with an upcoming state election to be held in November, the prospect of getting politicians to the table would appear a major hurdle this year.

As previously canvassed in an editorial from the October 2021 edition of Docklands News – “Docklands: it’s time for a plan” – this power-sharing arrangement between DV and the City of Melbourne continues to see Docklands operate within a state of paralysis.

The council’s current “Participate Docklands” project seeks to provide the local community with some shred of certainty as to its future as it embarks on new neighbourhood plans under the leadership of its newly appointed neighbourhood partner Fadi Qunqar.

But despite its best intentions, the feedback from locals as to how the process has fared for them so far has been mixed to say the least. “Butting our head against a wall” was the sentiment shared by one resident.

The council is to be generally applauded for its efforts with Participate Docklands. While the ways in which it engages with locals will forever be a moving space, the intentions are good. However, when it comes to planning, the elephant remains in the room.

It’s the same challenge any Docklands Summit is going to have to try and overcome. Unless the council and DV can come to an arrangement which provides the local community with some degree of confidence that they can coexist for the good of Docklands, then it’s time to ask some hard questions.

With Docklands now very much built out, DV’s role as managers of urban renewal seems increasingly obsolete. While its exit from Docklands would undoubtedly aid in easing decision-making paralysis, its group head of precincts Geoff Ward told Docklands News that “there is still more to do.”

“We’re delivering the urban renewal of Docklands by facilitating infrastructure, stimulating development, navigating planning and working with key stakeholders,” Mr Ward said.

 “We know there is still more to do in Docklands – which is why we’re continuing to look at opportunities and events which will entice people to the area and support local businesses.”

“We continue to collaborate with the City of Melbourne to create one of Australia’s premier waterfront destinations – and ensure Docklands is rejuvenated in a manner that reflects its heritage well into the future.”

The long-term vision for Docklands must embrace its waterfront. It’s a vision yet to be anywhere near realised.

While this ambition isn’t lost on DV, Mr Ward said the long-term view for Docklands was to deliver sustaining benefits to the economy, the Victorian community and the overall precinct.

So, what’s the plan for achieving this? And where does DV continue to see its role in “filling in the gaps” that the council and ordinary planning process couldn’t otherwise fulfill?

Looking around Docklands, NewQuay’s two remaining sites are well advanced in terms of their development plans, AsheMorgan’s plans for Waterfront Way are now approved, and so too are City Harbour’s.

Moving across the precinct, Lendlease still has a little way to go at Collins Wharf, while Mirvac only has a few projects left at Yarra’s Edge.

 

So, what’s left for DV to do here as far as the Docklands community is concerned?

 

The two obvious projects, which sit right at the centre of conversations around “embracing our waterfront” and providing vital civic spaces, are Central Pier and Harbour Esplanade.

DV says it continues to work with Heritage Victoria, the council, local business and the community on long-term plans for Central Pier. But, just how “long-term” remains the biggest question, with the rotting eyesore continuing to sit idle in Victoria Harbour and halting Docklands’ recovery efforts.

That leaves Harbour Esplanade – the most important piece of community infrastructure the Docklands community has left.

While the community went through a consultation process nearly 10 years ago, it’s been left completely unaddressed since.

So, what does DV plan to do with it?

It’s a question that went unanswered when put to DV by Docklands News last month. But one would assume that given its importance in “knitting Docklands together”, it, like the Bolte West site at Yarra’s Edge, should ideally be handed over to the council to realise its potential as a waterfront civic space.

The Docklands Representative Group reiterated its desire for this vision, which it said was at risk of descending into “commercial blandness” without better stewardship.

“Impressions of a city are very much influenced by the quality of our public spaces,” a DRG spokesperson said.

“But more than this, these spaces provide opportunities for a community to interact and build connections – both with people and, if we are lucky, nature.”

“Harbour Esplanade and Victoria Harbour are such – rare – public spaces in Docklands. And the benefits they offer are so needed by those of us who do not have spacious homes and gardens to retreat.”

“But without better stewardship, Harbour Esplanade and Victoria Harbour will likely just descend into commercial blandness.”

“Better stewardship” continues to be the prevailing desire among Docklanders. How that’s achieved while both chefs cook in the same kitchen will be a big question for the Docklands Summit, whenever it’s held.

But that can only start with a real plan, underpinned by real vision. Whether those in the positions of control have the courage to compromise for the sake of whatever that vision turns out to be will be the key in determining a successful future for Docklands.

So, what does success look like to you? What’s your vision for a thriving Docklands?

Email your thoughts to [email protected]

Balance

Balance

May 4th, 2022 - Abby Crawford
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