The complexity of Fishermans Bend: An interview with Rob McGauran

Fisherman’s Bend has a long history as an industrial, commercial and scientific precinct close to but disconnected from Melbourne’s CBD. Towards the end of the previous State Government’s term, the then Planning Minister, Matthew Guy, rezoned part of the massive precinct capital city zone. This was prior to any formal structure plan being put in place. The consequences of this is that very high density residential development was suddenly permitted and the property prices within the area increased dramatically in response.

The new planning Minister Richard Wynne is now trying to direct this ‘free for all’ approach into a considered plan, which will hopefully allow this vitally important site to become a high quality place where people want to live. To do this he has put in place interim height controls and formed an expert advisory committee to formulate a long term strategy.

Rob McGauran is a highly regarded architect and leader in urban design thinking. He is a director in the very successful architecture and urban design practice MGS Architects. Earlier this year McGauran was appointed to the Fisherman’s Bend Advisory Committee where he will be working through the complexity of this site and making recommendations for the Victorian government to act upon.

Architect Rob McGauran

Red + Black Architect – How would you describe the process of turning Fisherman’s Bend, an industrial precinct into a new residential suburb, how would you describe the planning process so far, up to this point in that transformation?

Rob McGauran – I think the process so far has been a little confused. I get the sense that, for most of the parties involved at a government level, in the days before the current government there was not necessarily an understanding of the depth of complexity that such a big precinct presents. We are now looking at an area of 455 hectares including the employment precinct, and even without the employment precinct it was well north of 200 hectares. In comparison, the CBD grid is less than that.

Within this precinct – the complex geology, the important existing land uses, the land ownerships, the infrastructure available and the complex underlying history- present a range of challenges at the scale that they are that is unprecedented in Melbourne. It’s also probably fair to say that some things were done a little more hastily than might have served everybody best.

Fisherman’s Bend precinct map showing the interim height controls

R+BA – We have seen the Dockland’s precinct develop over the last 15 years or so. How does Fisherman’s Bend as an urban renewal project differ from Docklands?

RM – Well, I think in a number of senses. Docklands has the benefit of being a very well connected extension to the city. The natural extensions of La Trobe, Lonsdale, Bourke, Collins, and Flinders all presented opportunities for investigation of potentially integration in to Docklands, and some were.

Due to nature of the tyranny of distance, Fisherman’s Bend is on a peninsula and it’s interface with a lower-density predominantly residential neighbourhood to its South rather than a CBD neighbourhood, it is quite distinct. Also the fact that its interfaces with areas of growth are narrower and it has got a big freeway running through it, all pose challenges of connection that Docklands didn’t have. They are all issues that individually will exercise a lot of people’s minds, and have already.

R+BA – There is a perhaps simplistic view out there, or maybe it is more complex, that the ideal for Fisherman’s Bend is of a medium rise, predominantly 6 storey high or thereabouts suburb. RMIT has done a lot of work in that area about a higher density but with a medium density of buildings rather than the very tall towers. In your view, is this the ideal? Is this the goal that we should be going after, and secondly is that actually achievable?

RM – Look, I think that it’s great that you’ve got groups like RMIT and I know senior level students at Melbourne University in previous years have also done explorations of Fisherman’s Bend. I think the more discussions around it that are voiced, the better.

There’s not a simple answer to your question. And, in fairness to all of those task forces being charged with assessing what’s possible and what’s not, I think I’d hold fire on that.

I know that from my own review of all the technical documents, it’s been sobering in terms of the complexity of the challenges. The complexity of environmental repair; building in areas of high geological difficulty; our famous Coode Island silt; financing; social infrastructure; and doing that in a city where there’s competing challenges for access to funds. None of those things are easy, and they’re also where people have been acting in good faith, on the basis of what planning provisions are there, what they’re allowed to do with land in those situations and so on.

I think the minister would want to weigh up a lot of things before jumping to a conclusion that any one model is, in itself, definitively the right model for Fisherman’s Bend. I think, to his credit, he’s looking for a robust evidence base to drive future decision making and our job as a panel has been to help him, first to identify where there’s been gaps in the previous information. After the assessment of that and after the work of the current task forces, I think there will be a clearer window on what’s possible and what’s not possible, and engaging community in that discussion as well.

R+BA – The Capital City zone was put in place by the previous government, prior to a structure plan or anything similar for the area. This saw a flood of high density proposals. How much have those proposals changed what is possible at Fisherman’s Bend?

R: Well there’s a number of proposals that have legal approvals, and might, for all we know, be in a position where they are ready to start digging. I have no inside information to know who’s ready to go and who’s not, but it would be surprising if none of those were to develop. So, I think you’ll always have to assume that anything that has a legal approval might happen, and there’s no reason to think that it might not happen. Certainly one of the options that has to be considered is that all of the projects that have got approvals could be built. I think both the task forces and the committees would be unwise to develop advice based on it not happening.

R+BA – Do you think the capital city zone should be changed to either a residential zone or a mixed-use zone, rather than a blanket capital city zone?

RM – I think you need to look at the sheer scale of Fisherman’s Bend, it’s such a big area. I mean we’ve just started work on the employment precinct for the first time, and some would argue that employment is the biggest challenge facing Victoria. As big or a bigger problem for future generations as housing. Others would argue they’re both in crisis. But again there’s not a simple blame game here to say that assigning a different zoning to some of it, all of it, or part of it would necessarily fix the problem. I think a key aspiration, for example of the earlier work, was that there would be substantial jobs. There has been talk about 30 or 40 thousand jobs in what most would be saying is predominantly a residential precinct, but that’s a very large number of jobs. That alone would suggest that a residential zone wouldn’t be the appropriate application. There’s a lot of very viable businesses, that are providing important jobs for Victoria that are already in those areas, that I think most of us would say we don’t want to see randomly expunged from the area either.

Ultimately the zonings have to support that combination of jobs for the future, retention of a secure future for businesses that are already there, and ones that we know are logically attracted to those areas. Zonings will also have to support housing that meets the needs of a range of household groups in the future along with all the other things we need in those areas. Part of our job, and part of the job of the taskforces is to ensure that the right tools are in place in a planning sense to facilitate all of that. This includes the right targets for how many jobs, how many dwellings and what infrastructure is needed to support that. As we’ve started to drill in to it, the complexity of that, and the potential scenarios too, are quite, well they’re both exciting but also complex. I think it’s way too early to speculate that a zone will fix anything. I’d say certainly a residential zone alone wouldn’t be the right zone given that Fisherman’s Bend also has a major jobs role.

R+BA – I wonder if you could elaborate on the effects of the contamination issue in Fisherman’s bend on the future development of the suburb. How big a problem is it?

RM – There will be hot, medium and cold areas of concern in that area. Mostly according to what have been the prevailing land uses in different parts of the site and what industries are there. We also need to consider what is the site’s proposed future as well and what sort of buffers do they need around them and so on. There is a series of expert reports that are public and on MPA’s site, so people can get a desktop understanding of the history of Fisherman’s Bend. For example it has been an important part of our development of the chemicals industry in Melbourne. It’s had quarries and landfill, there’s been fill put on parts of the site, all of the issues from the opening up of the port as well as dealing with the very low ground levels. So all of those present different challenges in different parts of the precinct.

Whilst people have an understanding of some sites, there is still an emerging understanding of the whole as a map of these things. I don’t think, from the information that’s been provided to date, that this understanding is comprehensive because obviously some owners aren’t even contemplating any change, so why would they be getting soil tests done. It’s still a work in progress.

The contamination issues will present significant challenges for some sites. It may present more challenges for landscaping into ground in some areas, depending on the types of uses that are envisaged. It will potentially drive certain housing responses in some areas that might require a higher density rather than a lower density backyard sort of approach for those reasons. Again, my review of the documentation to date is that it is incredibly diverse across the precinct. So you can’t say it’s all got a problem, but certainly some areas you’d say well that’s a higher risk area than another area.

R+BA – So you’ve already highlighted that one of the greatest challenges for Fisherman’s Bend is the connections, and the transport issues. Do you have a feeling yet as to what sort of transport infrastructure will be needed throughout Fisherman’s Bend to make it work?

RM – We know that Fisherman’s Bend, and I think this is what the reports have all said to date, won’t be able to be dependent on the motor vehicle as the only mode of transport. Already you would argue that the Eastern end has light rail in place, for example the Montague precinct. There is also the potential for some water-based transport for some parts of the precinct. Fisherman’s Bend has some great wide streets and an unrelenting flatness to the precinct that lend themselves to giving great flexibility with how we apportion the distribution between pedestrian space, cycle space, road space and other modes of transport at-grade.

The big question is going to be how many jobs and how many people are in Fisherman’s Bend, in what concentrations, where are those concentrations, and can those concentrations warrant one or another form of mass transit. I think they’re the scenarios that those task forces and governments will review, as part of an inner Melbourne story as well. We’ve had previous governments flag maybe there should be a railway station down there, we’ve had discussion about there should be light rail, but both of those excluded the employment precinct in their considerations.

I think one of the challenges will be, now that the employment precinct is in there as well, is what is the appropriate transport network. It’s early days, but you’d have to think that there will be multiple modes of transport in to the future for a 21st century city. Clearly we have views as a panel as to some of the opportunities and some of the gaps in the information to date. The clearest gap is that no one’s considered the employment precinct yet. That’s not a criticism of anybody, it wasn’t in the previous plan. The challenge will be, now that it is, what should that transport plan look like?

R+BA – Given that a lot of Fisherman’s Bend is privately owned, how do you think it will be developed over time? Ideally it would be precinct by precinct, you generate one precinct, rather than having the majority of Fisherman’s Bend unfinished at one time. Is there a strategy, or are there levers that can be pulled to generate a sequential development process, or is it going to be left up to individual land owners to see what they want to do?

RM – Your question touches on one of the issues that been raised to date, that there hasn’t been a clear signal to the industry of where development would be predominantly focused. Although it’s fair to say that the majority of the approvals and applications have been as an extension of Southbank or Lorimer Street. So taking your point, the development industry has primarily concerned itself with opportunities to extend the city, if you call the city Southbank and Yarra’s Edge.

I think the challenge is how to align government investment in a timely way with private investment so that you can create the sort of infrastructure that will support some growth, and I’d have to say that it’s a work in progress. That’s something that I’m sure the task force is exercising its mind with now, because it’s been raised by a number of people. I’m sure the Minister will be considering that, and certainly his cabinet colleagues will be.

On the other hand, there are areas of this precinct that perhaps we shouldn’t be thinking of as ‘start-again’. As I said before, there’s a lot of jobs already down there. I think there’s this idea that one thing stops and one thing starts, but, for instance you could argue that the employment precinct which already employs many thousand is just about evolving that employment, not about a dramatic transformation. Yes, a Holden car plant closes down, and that might be an area of more immediate change than another part of that precinct.

One scenario for example is that it could be a more evolutionary than revolutionary approach in some areas. If you were to believe that some of the other areas were to be the mix of uses, if you’re going to have the 30 thousand jobs or more that were contemplated in the earlier plans, perhaps there are also some of the other areas that are more evolutionary there too. I’m not convinced that we have a clear line of sight on that yet. I think a lot of that will hinge on the nature of infrastructure that’s provided to different areas and the timing of that, as to whether we see greater or lesser change in some than in others. At the moment, you’d have to say that the development industry sees the Eastern end, the area closest to the city as their biggest opportunity to capture audiences at the moment.

R+BA – Assuming that some of those go ahead then that will continue to expand throughout potentially.

RM – It may. I mean you’ve got the announcement, for example, that government is investing in the school in Ferrars Street and that’s progressing. Certainly the government’s commitment is towards investment in community infrastructure around where they already have fixed rail transport, and where there is a logical interconnect with the existing communities of South Melbourne, Docklands and Southbank.

The challenge is going to be, as the Minister has said to us really, to make sure that the outcomes of that development are well coordinated and deliver a great place.

R+BA – What do you see as the greatest opportunity for Fisherman’s Bend as a precinct?

RM – I think the opportunity comes with its scale. I think people haven’t recognised that this is a globally significant scale. There are very few cities in the world that have this land area available so proximate to the focus of jobs growth and city services. If you compare this opportunity in Melbourne, and not only on this site, the other opportunities that the government has – at Arden, Arden-Macaulay, the Dynon Rd corridor in Footscray, Cremorne, E-Gate, the further development of Southgate and Forest hill at South Yarra – it’s an extraordinary advantage that Melbourne has over Sydney for example. In Sydney there is much being made of Barangaroo, but you could fit Barangaroo comfortably within one of the neighbourhoods of Fisherman’s Bend.

The scale of these urban renewal precincts position Melbourne incredibly well strategically to really define its own future, in a way that other cities will find more difficult because of the fact that they haven’t got the land in the right areas to be able to react to global challenges and opportunities. I think that’s an incredibly exciting scenario for government. It gives government choices with where it gives emphasis to their plan for Melbourne. I really support the development of that and I see it as essential.

We have got great universities, health institutions, technology companies and professional services / service industries that are doing really well. You look at a group like CSL based in Melbourne., they’re really interesting companies doing really terrific things. You look at our future and think we’ve got the land to deliver expansion of our universities, hospitals, industries, new institutions and housing.

Our people can be near jobs and services. We can deliver great infrastructure for those people and design great places for them to live and work that is not compromised by a shortage of space. So that’s the big tick, the big opportunity. Fisherman’s Bend is part of that, but not the only part of that.

The Planning Minister has got both the great privilege and the great challenge of narrating that story for Melbourne and I’m excited by the fact that he’s actually taking it on. The government seems to be seriously taking that on too. The opportunity for understanding Fisherman’s Bend’s story within that will be a way of taking both the development industry and the community along towards greater clarity of why, what, where, and when. That’s the challenge, not only for our advisory committee to the minister, but also those task forces.

The community must also be given the opportunity to more broadly engage in that debate in a positive way. We need the development industry in Melbourne and new businesses; they’ve been part of our great success. We wouldn’t have the rail system or the industries we’ve got without entrepreneurism. Doing the hard work now to get the evidence-base in place, to test scenarios and to talk to the community about those scenarios. Only then are we likely to get a narrative for Fisherman’s Bend, so that everybody can say – this makes sense, we’re behind that and we see why these decisions have been made.

R+BA – Thank you for your time

Michael Smith is Director of Melbourne architecture firm Atelier Red + Black. This article originally appeared on The Red and Black Architect blog.

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