Melbourne Docklands

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Negotiating Melbourne’s Docklands

Testing ‘non-prescriptive’ systems of major development procurement, the Authority is juggling diverse and ambitious schemes to extend the city west to the Yarra River. But Anthony Styant-Browne is concerned about the scene so far.
It was easier for Haussman in Paris and Moses in New York. When they needed to make major changes to the city, they just did it. But things are different now: the participatory planning movements begun in the sixties have democratised the planning process; the diminution of the resources and power of the public realm has stripped government of its ability to conceive, execute and regulate large urban redevelopment projects, and the abject failures of numerous grand city visions have left urban planning and design with an apparent loss of nerve.
The groundswell for Melbourne’s Docklands redevelopment had its genesis in the hubris of the eighties real estate boom. It was facilitated by the relocation of port activities further downstream and ideologically fuelled by a global movement to reconnect cities with their associated bodies of water. Boston, Baltimore and New Orleans all did this in the seventies and eighties. As debate and propositions for development proliferated to fever pitch, the city and the state plunged into a deep recession. Victoria became, in Senator Robert Ray’s words, ‘the Albania of the south’. The Labour government was dumped and a new ‘fiscally responsible’ conservative government was elected in a landslide. It seemed at the time that decades would elapse before economic conditions supported the Docklands development. But the Kennett government, defiant, made it an integral part of its plan for the revitalisation of Melbourne. In 1995, the State Government adopted the development strategy of the Docklands Authority. Ownership of the site was transferred to the Authority and an amendment to the Melbourne Planning Scheme; passed in October 1996, became the statutory control for Docklands.
A conventional development process would have the Authority decontaminate the site, design and construct the servicing and vehicular infrastructure, provide community facilities and parks, subdivide the remaining land and sell it off for development subject to rigorous urban design and planning controls in the service of a clear end vision over 25 years. This is not the Docklands process—and that’s what makes it so interesting. A mixture of philosophy and pragmatism has produced a unique laissez-faire development process inconceivable prior to the Reagan/Thatcher years. Government funding for infrastructure was out of the question, given the state of the public purse; confidence in the ability of conventional planning processes to deliver a successful outcome was low; and there was a born-again faith in the market as the driving force for urban development.

top The Stadium precinct with Melbourne Docklands visions for surrounding sites. above The Victoria Harbour retail, hotel and export centre.

The foundations for the Docklands development strategy are financial and market-driven. Property consultants JLW Advisory first carried out a market demand assessment of the site. On the basis of this, the Docklands Authority identified preferred uses through testing propositions against market demand. This became the basis of the subdivision of the huge site into seven development precincts— Business Park, Victoria Harbour, Yarra Waters, Batman’s Hill, Technology Park, Docklands Stadium and West End. Five of these precincts have been thrown open to the market for development proposals through an iterative process of initial registration of interest, assignment of five to seven developers per precinct, culling to two, then appointment of the preferred. Development proposals are evaluated on five criteria—design and public amenity, integration with other precincts and the city, financial risk, viability and other factors. In addition to paying for the precinct and providing its internal infrastructure and amenities, developers make a contribution to the infrastructure and amenities for the whole Docklands area.
Assessment of design quality is performance-based in a ‘permissive’ rather than a ‘proscriptive’ environment. In order to assist initially uncomfortable bidders in this environment, the Authority commissioned a study by Ashton Raggatt McDougall to complement the Planning Scheme. ARM produced the Conceptual Planning and Design Framework and Visions document in November 1996, which provides an urban design analogue to the JLW Advisory market assessment. This excellent study defines a contemporary urban fabric for the New World which, while integrated with the Hoddle grid, makes a separate place. To guide designers, it employs patterns (called frameworks) similar to Christopher Alexander’s, which are combinations of text, diagrams and images.
Interestingly, one of these (illustrated with an ARM project) argues for the importance of commissioning talented, proven designers for all buildings, and advocates competitions for key sites among recognized good designers. The open structure of the ARM concept, and the emphasis on designers of quality, is consistent with McDougall’s proposal as early as 1989 in an RAIA Docklands Design Workshop. Reactions of designers for bidding developers to the document, though, are mixed. Bids are evaluated by technical specialists and reviewed by two panels—Design, Amenity & Integration and Finance, Risk & Viability; both of which are supported by advice from technical specialists. Recommendations are made to a steering committee advising the Authority, which then submits its preference for precinct developer to a Cabinet sub-committee for approval. Under the Planning Scheme, the Minister for Planning is the Responsible Authority. Planning approvals for land use and subsequent development are required in the usual way.
The Docklands Authority expects the first build of the entire site to be completed in 10 to 15 years—a relative moment in comparison to Melbourne’s downtown development period. Instant City is fast becoming a reality and the current state of play is this: Developers have been appointed for the Docklands Stadium and Yarra Waters precincts. Two developers have been appointed to proceed with an integrated precinct for Business Park. A preferred developer has been selected for Victoria Harbour, subject to Authority requirements. Two developers remain in the running for Batman’s Hill and both have been asked to ‘strengthen their bids’.
The 52,000 seat Docklands Stadium, by Daryl Jackson with Bligh Lobb, is under construction and expected to open in February 2000. Three corner segments of the stadium precinct are being tendered: the north-west area has been awarded to Docklands Stadium Consortium for Channel Seven’s new headquarters, with The Buchan Group as architects; the south area has the same consortium and architects proposing a mixed-use development, and the north-east corner, said to be “the poor cousin”, has not yet been offered.
As the two competing proposals for Business Park appeared to individually rattle around on the huge site, they have been amalgamated. Entertainment City, being designed by Landmark Parsons and Hassell for a consortium led by Viacom, is a movie theme park with film studios. Beside it will be the Yarra Nova 24-hour city: a mixed-use development including residential, office, retail, restaurants and marina; being designed by Nation Fender Katsalidis and Synman Sushin Bialek for a MAB-led consortium.
Victoria Harbour, to be developed by a Walker Corporation consortium with The Buchan Group and Ted Ashton as architects, features an international
business centre along with a health-care complex and associated residential, hotel and entertainment uses.
Yarra Waters, designed to date by HPA, Bates Smart and Ashton Raggatt McDougall for Mirvac, is a linear housing development mixing high and medium-rise buildings to take advantage of the north facing water frontage.
At Batman’s Hill, the money is on Bruno Grollo’s Melbourne Tower, to be the world’s tallest building, designed by Denton Corker Marshall. Cox Sanderson Ness has designed for YarraCity a low residential and mixed-use precinct including home offices and preserving the historic TEC Shed on the site.
Activity in the Technology Park precinct is quiescent following the withdrawal from the single bidding consortium of a number of key educational institutions, but interest is sufficient to sustain a bid launch by the end of the year.
West End precinct, site of the Spencer Street Railway Station and a key link between the grid and Docklands, will be offered to developers in the future.
The first stage of Trunk Infrastructure, comprising design and construction of roads, bridges (including the Bourke and LaTrobe Streets bridge) services, and landscaping works, has been let to Transfield-Powercor.
The Docklands game is a fast game: so fast that the Authority itself has difficulty recording and documenting its evolution. As material is released, it is obsolete. Many of the players remark on its constant state of flux—some enjoying the wild ride and others finding it frustrating. The stakes are high and each developer has a lot riding on the bid and, if appointed, the development itself. All of this seems appropriate to a millennial enterprise in a post-modern global environment located in a state whose economic resurrection has been fuelled by gambling.
Is it possible to judge the quality of the product of the Docklands development process now? Any evaluation in depth will have to wait until there is a critical mass of the fabric on the ground but some provisional conclusions can be reached from an examination of the Authority’s published graphic material, conversations with participating architects, the Authority’s Divisional Manager, Planning, Design & Public Affairs, Bill Chandler, and others with an interest in the site, and following Docklands reports in the media. There is a disturbing quality to the visual material emanating from the Authority. Representations are plans and aerial views of the whole development, showing alternative combinations of bid proposals as well as detailed aerial views of particular precinct proposals. These are computer-generated images in colour, washed with an unnaturally even bright light which imparts a hyper-real quality to the scenes; reminiscent of a Doris Day or Pedro Almovodar movie. The impression is of a lack of conviction in the design, and that the ease of automatic image generation is leading to facile architecture. Gone are the charged visions of a Sant’ Elia, a Le Corbusier, a Hugh Ferriss or even a Krier or two. In their place is an architecture and urbanism apparently drained of content. The hope is that the representation has trivialised the architecture and that the designers for the successful bidders will now have a chance to develop their proposals with some rigour and depth.
The Stadium is a massive anchoring volume at the centre of the Docklands ensemble. It is intended to be situated in urban fabric—a Colosseum, not an MCG, but the images show a circular mass in an uneasy relationship with four corner buildings surrounded by roads—hardly the fabric/object relationship of the Colosseum to Rome, despite the presence of buildings on the other side of the street.
The least promising precinct appears to be the Business Park, with little discernible urban order in comparison to the stronger geometries of Victoria Harbour, with its annular buildings over the water, speaking to the Stadium. The attenuated truncated pyramid of the Grollo Tower for Batman’s Hill is either presented as an artifact, like a dining centrepiece on the Docklands table, or photographed attached to its developer with the obvious allusion—in both cases disengaged from reality so that its impact is difficult to assess. It too suffers from the same uneasy relationship to its surroundings as the Stadium—it is neither a tower in the park nor a tower in the city.
Yarra Waters is the most developed precinct, with an inventive street pattern comprising short streets perpendicular to the river, counterpointed by long sweeping curves. High-rise towers on podia cluster at the east end, with a further pair bracketing the Bourke Street axis to the west to punctuate a rhythmic set of medium-rise blocks. In defence of the other precinct designs, it should be said that this site is the easiest to develop and appears to be further along in its design.
The permissive Docklands process has produced a collection of singular and disparate precincts, each with its own urban pattern, program and typology. For the area to be read, understood and experienced as a place, the common areas—circulation networks, community facilities, public open space—must link the pieces together. The site already provides two major unifying elements—the river and the great aqueous plaza of Victoria Harbour. These alone are not enough. They need to be supported by careful attention to linkage at interfaces between precincts, common attitudes to the waterfront edges, a considered system of public open spaces, a tree-planting program and the nature of connections (physical and visual) to the CBD. There is a worrying lack of clear information about intentions and progress in the design of the public realm which the Authority sees as comprising trunk infrastructure, public space common to all precincts and public space within precincts. The Design Frameworks document is currently under review by ARM, EDAW and Wood Marsh. The work of Wood Marsh, novated to Transfield-Powercor, on a pedestrian bridge extension to Bourke Street across West End to the stadium, studies of a vehicular extension to Latrobe and other advice on road design provide a glimmer of reassurance; but these proposals have yet to be publicly released. Unless the design of the public realm is successful here, the Authority’s new laissez-faire model of urban development may be short-lived.

above The Yarra Quays/Yarra Waters scheme.

Paradoxically, the Docklands—an enterprise of monumental proportions —is a chimera in the city’s consciousness. Melbourne’s citizens, usually vocal about their built environment, are relatively quiet about it. Is it just too big to grasp? Melbourne’s design community, known for its vigorous discourse, is strangely subdued. Is that a carry-over from the silence of the bidding period or are so many of the city’s professionals involved in the production, evaluation or regulation of Docklands that debate is gagged?
And design is not the only issue. Local media has been full of speculation about who will actually govern the Docklands—the City of Melbourne, the Authority or some other constituted body. If control does not cede to the City of Melbourne, what are the implications for the future of the city of dual authorities operating central Melbourne? These are matters of great civic moment which demand critical attention and participation if Melbournians are to function as true citizens of their city.
Anthony Styant-Browne is the principal of an architecture and urban design practice in Melbourne.

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Last modified: 4-Oct-98.



Published online: 1 Sep 1998


Architecture Australia, September 1998

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