The horse bolted on concentrated commercial development in Melbourne's CBD long ago

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In a word: Docklands. Oh, and Southbank. Long gone are the days when the major development projects in the CBD were dominated by office uses.

I vividly remember as a young boy, trips to the CBD with giant commercial builds dotting the skyline. 101 Collins Street, 120 Collins Street, 333 Collins Street, 530 Collins Street, 500 Bourke Street, 360 Elizabeth Street, 242 Exhibition Street and 2 Lonsdale Street were all under construction over the last few years of the 80s and early 90s.

In fact, four of those towers listed above - 101 Collins, 120 Collins, 600 Bourke (a.k.a. Bourke Place), 360 Elizabeth (a.k.a. Melbourne Central) - coupled with Rialto which was built earlier in the 80s, remained visual anchors for Melbourne CBD's skyline for years to come.

The next boom which occurred around the turn of the millennium saw uppity residential projects take the height crown from Rialto. Eureka Tower and 1 Freshwater Place were constructed simultaneously, and not only did they take the cake for scale overall, it was the start of a push outside the CBD.

The early 2000s cycle still witnessed a fair whack of commercial towers developed: Bourke Street's former Southern Cross Hotel made way for a dual-tower development tenanted by State Government departments and Australia Post; Freshwater Place saw a 160m tower built which was originally tenanted by PriceWaterhouseCoopers, 8 Exhibition Street whose Ernst & Young signage hasn't changed since it completed construction and the Urban Workshop, squished in between Casselden Place (2 Lonsdale Street) and Telstra's HQ (242 Exhibition Street).

It's true, in this long-cycle that we're currently in, residential is dominating in the CBD but there are some commercial towers on the cards; the most high-profile of which are 80 Collins Street and 477 Collins Street.

But Docklands happened, and Fishermans Bend is about to happen

Docklands is many things: an extension of the traditional Central Business District, multiple new residential areas, a leisure and entertainment precinct as well as a new sporting precinct. People will debate if it's still bad or is much better than what it was previously during its haphazard development, but overall it has sucked most of the major new commercial development out of the traditional CBD: the Hoddle grid.

At the same time as the 8 Exhibition Street, Southern Cross and Urban Workshop projects were underway, so too were NAB's campuses at 800 Bourke Street, followed by ANZ's new headquarters down the Docklands end of Collins Street. Fairfax media ditched an old campus that used to house its printing presses on one side of Spencer Street for a brand spanker on the other side of the street not all that long ago too.

They're all giant 'groundscrapers' designed around larger open-plan floorplates, the type of footprint that used to be exclusively in the purview of suburban business parks; they've won awards, they're definitely 'greener' than the towers built in the early 90s commercial tower boom yet at a fundamental level, their giant footprints only have critical mass of activity around business hours. Most of the retail components in these buildings work on these hours as well.

More land consumed, little use of the precinct outside of business hours. Contrast that with the CBD and the large skyscraper offices that have existed since the 60s and 70s: less land consumed, more diverse uses at ground level and in adjoining properties.

Yes, I can already hear the keyboards bashing away ready to blurt out "but it's a business district" however are offices solely responsible for the massive amounts of activity in the Hoddle grid? 20 years ago one could argue yes, these days? We have far more diverse uses for the spaces in the CBD that are used well beyond the Monday to Friday 9-5.

Looking ahead

One of the more unexpected things to happen after the Andrews Government came to power a little over two years ago, was for the Planning Minister to enlarge the Fishermans Bend urban renewal area. Ditto, the purchase of the former General Motors site in the precinct was also… interesting.

The expansion of the urban renewal area is focused solely on jobs and to date, early renders that have floated about the internet depict the former General Motors site to be developed in much the same way as commercial developments sprung up in the early days of Docklands.

We're lucky to be at this early stage of the development, where structure plans can incentivise and guide specific types of development into precincts, but one thing's for certain: if we're going to be getting new 'employment spaces' in Fishermans Bend in the form of campus offices, expect more Docklands. Not postcode 3000.

And overall, this comparatively cheap land in Fishermans Bend will attract the eyes of many developers and new large-scale corporate tenants looking to upgrade. The pull away from the CBD is not going to cease.

Therefore it's imperative that we properly service the expansion of central Melbourne with the right level of public transport, so it integrates fully with the CBD. This means plans like the second Metro tunnel should be well advanced as the first piling rigs for the new wave of commercial development start driving into the ground in Fishermans Bend.

The best bet the City of Melbourne can hope for in the CBD is more projects like Collins Arch - residential, office, hotel and retail all contained within one building, creating a micro 24/7 precinct - and this is what we should be aiming for throughout Fishermans Bend too.

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