Melbourne Docklands is no destination

Stand in Melbourne’s Docklands on a winter day and you can easily see why the English thought this land was perfect for a penal colony.

It is cold, lifeless and windy. Actually, the word “wind” doesn’t adequately describe it. You don’t experience anything like this outside of Antarctica; in comparison, Perth’s St George’s Tce appears caressed by a gentle zephyr. This place is one huge wind tunnel. I saw a young woman blown off her feet while trying to cross Docklands Drive.

Why is so much money thrown at trying to market the Docklands as a tourism destination? The City of Melbourne provides at least $300,000 to Destination Docklands each year, plus funding from Places Victoria and from major stakeholders such as developer Lend Lease. Clearly it isn’t a destination. But it is a superb office precinct. If you are looking to purchase or lease office space, then definitely check out Docklands. More than 40,000 office workers come here, Monday to Friday. Most park their car out in the ‘burbs and train/tram in to the office. And it’s warm and comforting to look out a window and watch the freezing wind whip at the water.

You can forget about driving to/through Docklands. Motorists are not welcome. The street design deters drivers, and signage is appalling. Ambulance and fire truck drivers don’t venture in without a hard copy of the Melways open on the dashboard. So how can it be a travel destination?

It’s a bit like pretending a Volkswagen Golf is a Porsche. It isn’t. Though both are perfectly good at what they are designed to do.

A nice day in Melbourne's Docklands... Beautiful but, as usual, deserted. Picture: Greg Hackett

A nice day in Melbourne’s Docklands… Beautiful but, as usual, deserted. Picture: Greg Hackett

At least a third of the apartments in the high-rise towers are empty. A couple of good, short-stay accommodation businesses make good use of some of these, that’s a contentious issue with residents and the City of Melbourne. It’s an ideal location to live, if you want easy access to the City and public transport. And a quiet lifestyle. Just don’t expect a lot happening locally after 5pm… when the office workers go home, the place is deserted. This is where the funding should be focused: providing “green” spaces with grass (real grass, not synthetic) and trees and parks. Trees are a natural wind buffer. Start by attracting some wildlife, and then you might attract human life.

When it rains heavily in Melbourne, the Docklands’ waterfront becomes an efficient trap for enough litter to sink a New York City garbage barge. It’s not the precinct’s fault, and the litter is cleaned up, but it’s just the way it is.

Folks, this isn’t a sunny, sandy beach. It’s the end point of a bay. Where you a marina, you have tethered boats; where you have tethered boats, you have leaking of boat fuel. Much has been achieved in recent decades to minimise this, but it still occurs. And most of the large, expensive pleasure craft in Docklands’ marinas seem to be moored permanently and rarely used.

I worked for about 3 years on a little, local newspaper in Docklands. It provided a generous profit for the owner, but it was so sad to see so many local businesses go bust. These are good businesses, managed/owned by fabulous people, who deserve success, but opened in the wrong location for the wrong reasons.

Forget about making a living by catering to visitors in Docklands. Instead, concentrate on the many office workers. There lies the goldmine for retail and hospitality.

The big ferris wheel suffered too much reputation damage by being “broken” for 5 years. Now its publicists generate more spin than the wheel itself. And it stops working when the weather’ temperature climbs past the mid-30s. I know, because I overheard management discussing it over lunch at the nearby Burger Monster outlet. Which is another good business, with a great product, but tied to the languishing fortunes of Docklands’ Harbour Town. It is an outdoor shopping centre, similar to those on Queensland’s Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast. But, guys, this is Melbourne, and it’s bloody cold here for a fair part of the year. The only thing keeping the place alive is the free City Circle tram, which brings in visitors whether they want to or not. Harbour Town is, literally, another end of the line.

Look at the design of Docklands: bordered by water on two sides, cut off from the thriving City Centre by a railway line and the huge edifice of Docklands Stadium (which is smack bang on the best land for a view, but how often is a sports stadium used? And then, everyone looks inwards, not outwards) and the precinct’s northern side peters out into a windswept industrial wasteland. Maybe it is perfect site for a prison… It’s damn hard to get into, and just as hard to escape.

Melbourne’s Docklands is a good place to work. You just don’t want to visit there.

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