No other Melbourne development draws such starkly contrasting opinions as the much-maligned Docklands on the city's western edge.
Love it or hate it, for many the Docklands stands as a blueprint for what did not happen.
Here was a rare opportunity to create a new urban space on the city's fringe; to transform the gritty industrial landscape and offer a waterfront lifestyle that could compete with urban rivals like Sydney and Vancouver.
Yet two decades on, the Docklands precinct continues to draw scathing criticisms for failing to fulfil that dream - as well as a variety of other sins.
It has been ruled a soul-less, bleak and windswept failure. Melburnians tend to shun the gusty waterfront in favour of nearby Southbank with its Casino complex.
But is this assessment entirely fair? Not really, says RMIT waterfront renewal expert Associate Professor Quentin Stevens, who has studied many similar developments in Australia, Europe and Asia.
Not blind to its faults, he says the Docklands is still unfinished - slowly unfurling as it enters its third decade of development.
His research - both here and overseas - has included extensive analysis of the design and use of public open spaces, particularly in terms of connection to the water, and development approaches for former industrial waterfronts. Drawing on this, Stevens believes the precinct has the potential to evolve into a vibrant inner-city neighbourhood.
While Docklands has proved attractive to big corporate players like Myer, National Australia Bank and Medibank Private, which all have national headquarters there, it is criticised for its lack of community and soul.
When it comes to urban renewal, Stevens says the development should not be judged too early. Cities take time. They are not instant. They grow up gradually over decades, which results in different types of development.
"These areas are dynamic and constantly evolving and can't just be criticised for not working straight away," he says. "No one should expect an area this big that was so disconnected from the central business district to become lively within one or two decades."
Stevens points to London's Docklands, which did not prosper until well into its second decade and only after it was connected to the city's underground rail network.
With a background in architecture and urban planning, he says attention should turn to how the Melbourne project could be redeemed and reshaped in the next stages of development.
Many of the issues the Docklands faces are common to redeveloped urban waterfronts he has closely analysed elsewhere, including the Southbank precincts in Brisbane, Melbourne and London.
The biggest challenge, he says, is the vast scale of the area. Smaller intimate spaces and better connections to the seven kilometres of waterfront should form part of the next major overhaul.
"The more it's broken down into small pieces that can develop in different ways at different times, the more it will actually take on the richness of a real city district, and not be so sensitive to movements in any one economic sector."
His view has been closely echoed in a recent report by international planning experts Gehl Architects, which emphasised breaking down the large blocks and open spaces in Docklands "into smaller, more distinct and characteristically diverse space" to reduce the impact of wind and attract more foot traffic.
The paucity of passing trade is another bugbear. Unlike Southbank, the Docklands sits at an edge - a dead-end of sorts. Although it is within easy reach by tram, it doesn't reap the benefits of people passing through.
"Apart from the water view, there's not much else that really has uniqueness or pulling power to draw people into the precinct. It has to be a worthwhile destination," Stevens says.
Structures like the beleaguered Melbourne Star Observation Wheel can help put an area on the map but they aren't destinations that people go to regularly.
Yet, as Stevens points out, there's a lot more to come at the Docklands. Only 44 per cent of its total area has been developed. A $20 million Docklands library and community centre is due to open this month and plans are under way for the $18 million Western Park, which will include a football oval, community pavilion and children's playground, near the Bolte Bridge.
These, along with the spate of high-density housing development in the west end of the central business district, are encouraging signs of its future viability.
Story: Elisabeth Tarica
Photo: Carla Gottgens
This story was first published in RMIT's Making Connections magazine.
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