The Docklands: A Windswept Failure


Placed at the edge of Melbourne’s CBD city with harbour views, cafes, hotels and apartments, Docklands has the potential to promise so much. Yet, it would be an understatement to say that the area is underutilised by Melbournians and tourists alike. 

Dried up and rather barren in its offering, Docklands once had big plans to host tourists and a bustling city atmosphere by the Yarra. Where did it all go wrong? 

Image source: Big Bus

The Concept for Docklands 

In 1989, architecture firms were invited to pitch ideas to bring Docklands to life. In 1990, the Docklands Task Force came together to establish an infrastructure strategy in consultation with the public. 

At this time many ideas were floating around, such as one proposal to turn the Docklands into a technology city, named Multifunction Polis. Another proposed to develop a sporting complex to bid for the Olympic Games. There were several plans for Docklands that went awry, including the notorious Grollo Tower

The construction of Docklands was finally brought to life in 1997. At this time, plans imagined the area completed in 2025. The vision was to make Docklands ‘Melbourne’s Millennium Mark’, similar to Sydney’s Darling Harbour. The key criterion for successful builders was that they could start the project by 2000. 

Docklands Stadium. Image source: Populous

The Docklands As We Know It 

Driving along the West Gate Bridge, you’d only have to look east to spot a few of Melbourne’s most memorable landmarks.

The No. 2 Goods Shed, once known as ‘A Goods Shed’ was built in 1889 and is considered a heritage building. Today it is a mixed-use development that houses commercial office space and was developed by Walker Corporation. 

The construction of Docklands Stadium, presently known as ‘Marvel Stadium’ began in October 1997. The stadium was completed by Baulderstone Hornibrook in the year 2000 for $460m. 

The ANZ building is 85,000 square metres tall and was built over a decade ago. In 2019 it was announced the tower would see a $600m overhaul developed by Donald Cant Watts Corke. 

Separating the harbourside precinct from the CBD is Southern Cross Station. First opened as Spencer Street Station in 1859, in the early 2000s the station saw redevelopments undertaken.  

The modernisation of the station was designed by Grimshaw Architects and Jackson Architecture and undertaken by Civic Nexus consortium. The station now features an undulating roof and is used by thousands of commuters every day.

Sitting adjacent to Southern Cross on the corner of Spencer and Collins Streets is The Age headquarters. Also known as ‘media house,’ the building was purpose-constructed by Grocon in 2009 for $110m. 

In 2007, plans were in place for a $1.5 billion scheme to redevelop Collins Street. Investment company Sama Dubai and renowned architect Zaha Hadid would construct four new buildings including what would be Docklands’ tallest tower, with civic spaces spanning two sites and overlooking Wurundjeri Way. 

This tower would rise 60 storeys tall, however plans for this development did not go ahead and VicUrban put the site back out to tender in early 2011. 

With such iconic buildings (both built, re-imagined and planned) and the impressive builders involved, the question is why does Docklands continue to underdeliver on its aspirations?

Melbourne’s answer to the London Eye: The Star. Image source: Courier Mail

The Star Observation Wheel

Possibly the city’s most notorious white elephant, the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel was designed to resemble the seven-pointed star of the Australian flag. Standing 120 metres tall, construction began on the $100 million wheel in 2006. The Star had promised Docklands the much-needed tourism it craved and was designed to be Melbourne’s premier tourist attraction. It was expected that the Star would bring in over 1.1 million tourists per year.

Since the wheel has been in motion it has started and stopped on a number of occasions, thanks in large part to its construction. In 2009, the Star was closed indefinitely and was disassembled in an attempt to repair potentially catastrophic structural deficiencies, costing an estimated $20 million. 

Since this time the safety of the wheel has been called into question a number of times. In 2018, five days after reopening to the public, the wheel ran into more technical issues with passengers on board. Perhaps the Star has not been as popular an attraction due to its poor construction or perhaps even more likely, its location in the heart of Docklands was a recipe for disaster. 

Image source: Hangry by Nature

Did Docklands Deliver on its Promise?

Despite sporting matches and live entertainment held in the area and hotels and bars populating the space, many Melbournians avoid frequenting Docklands, or as some call it, Darklands. The Docklands development has been called a windswept failure, soulless and alienating.

Kim Dovey is an Australian architectural and urban critic who has openly discussed the rise and fall of Docklands. According to Dovey, Docklands was once on the top of the state government’s agenda. Poor construction and the condition of the wharf infrastructure meant that further investment was required than was initially budgeted for, which the government at the time could not afford. Dovey has published his critique of Docklands in his book, Hype and hope: Imagining Melbourne’s Docklands. Dovey said ”the first stage was so badly done that [to revive Docklands] you need something a bit more dramatic, you don’t really want a break on innovation in the next phase.”   

Journalist Royce Millar has written about the lost potential of Docklands in The Age. He posed a number of questions, such as do the buildings in Docklands add to the rich diversity of Melbourne or dilute it? And do the designs of the buildings capture the attention of others overseas?  

Millar ultimately concluded that although Docklands was not a failure, it was most definitely not a work of art nor an asset of Melbourne’s cultural fabric. The Age has discussed the concept of the “instant city” approach, coined by developer Morry Schwartz. The instant city approach is hard to pull off. It takes precise planning, big budgets, consultation with the public and most importantly, time. Cities take hundreds of years to build, and authentic city culture can take even longer to cultivate. No great city was built overnight. 

“They should blow [Docklands] up and start again.”

Terry Burke, Swinburne Housing Research Professor

Professor Burke contributed to the Kirner government’s 1992 Docklands strategy and has argued the lack of social mix in the area has and will continue to pose problems in the future. 

Ultimately, all critics can agree that Docklands was rushed and did not deliver its promise.

The Future of The Docklands 

With over nine hectares of parks and open space and 68 pieces of public art, there is a great opportunity to still activate the space. The City of Melbourne has put together a Public Realm Plan to encourage more Melbournians to the area. 

In 2018, the construction of Docklands Primary School began. The vertical school will be located on the corner of Footscray Road and Little Docklands Drive in New Quay and rise three storeys high. Valued at $18.8m, the school will be completed in early 2021 with room for over 500 new students.  

Render of Melbourne Quarter’s sky garden. Source: Build Australia

The $2.9 billion Melbourne Quarter urban renewal project promises Docklands the fresh start it desperately needs. Spanning 2.5 hectares, the project will offer a link between Docklands and the Melbourne CBD via Flinders and Collins streets. When completed in 2024 it will feature a sky park and three apartment buildings. 

Melbourne Quarter has been anticipated as a vibrant commercial, residential, retail and cultural project. The development will provide a major public square on Collins Street, a new neighbourhood park off Flinders Street and open spaces for Melbournians and tourists to frequent. 

Recently Conecta reported that Marvel Stadium is set to receive upgrades to the value of $225m. The AFL and the state government announced these would boost the Docklands precinct and ensure Marvel is one of the best sports and entertainment destinations in the world. The new stadium upgrades will also accommodate night markets and improved entertainment outlets, encouraging people to enjoy Docklands, and see it as more than just a place to watch the footy.

A rumoured additional Docklands revamp costing millions is said to be inspired by Hong Kong and Dubai’s popular tourist precincts. It has been reported that six sculptures and laser light shows valued at $15m will be built around the Bolte Bridge and Victoria Harbour. These plans are estimated to generate $300m in tourism.  

According to Docklands News, The reconstruction of Central Pier, urban renewal of E-Gate and the delivery of a tram link to Fishermans Bend have all been nominated as priority infrastructure projects to complete following the city’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

Recent projects completed in the Docklands this year include;

– 218 Harbour Esplanade at Digital Harbour, a container-inspired apartment block, 

– Market Lane, Melbourne’s newest fresh food precinct, 

– The District Docklands, a revitalised shopping centre, 

– The Woodwork Building, a six-storey cross-laminated timber office building adjacent to the Star, 

– Quest and Elm & Stone’s NewQuay hotels, and, 

– The AC Hotels by Marriott in Fisherman’s Bend. 

Hickory Group, Hutchinsons and Crema Constructions have all worked on these projects.

Proposed developments for Docklands. Image source: Herald Sun

What Can We Learn From the Docklands?

We can take away many things from the lack lustre Docklands precinct outcome.

We learned Government support, coordination in infrastructure planning and consultation with the public is paramount when building such a large ‘instant city’ and that quality developments are best never rushed. More than anything though, we learned poor planning can undermine even the best concepts.  

Food for thought is that possibly a slower approach best suits our city; allowing such an asset to grow with Melbourne as we ourselves grow and change over time. 

It’s not necessarily a single developer, concept, design, task force or construction issue to blame when projects do not make the cultural impact sold to the city by the visionaries, but possibly a lack of ‘togetherness’ in our delivery.

The Docklands has best of all gifted us the time to stop and reflect, to learn from our collective missteps and move forward together to create a bigger, better, more cohesive version of the Docklands in the future.

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