What it means to not have a plan for the Docklands brand

All Docklands residents, particularly property owners, should be concerned about the chronic lack of a legal vision for the Docklands. One that is backed by a formal mandatory development plan and schedule, with judicious oversight. Absent that, there are major implications for our exceptionally convenient, edge-of-town lifestyle.

The October 2021 and May 2022 editions of Docklands News led with eloquent but exasperated front-page articles on this subject. Both lamented the lack of a formalized vision, the absence of which creates an uncertainty that blights the future of Docklands. This lack is like rainwater: it runs endlessly to the lowest point of the landscape, then settles in stagnant pools.

These sober reflections occur to me, a resident and owner of Docklands for five years, as my return to northern climes approaches. I arrived here in the middle of 2017 and will leave with mixed feelings. But my intention is to keep my apartment with its wonderful view of the water. So, I will have a continuing interest in Docklands.

Our suburb has a lot to offer, and I have enjoyed living here, mostly for the practical convenience. But I could have enjoyed it so much more if there had been a firmer hand in planning, visioning, and managing the helm of the good Docklands ship. I think it says a lot about our place that the Mayor of Melbourne, Sally Capp, moved here a few years ago.

He resided in a Victoria Harbor apartment and proclaimed his love for the waterfront lifestyle. But she moved out after a year. In doing so, she was not an outlier. Our Lord Mayor now resides in an enclave next to the most famous CBD – Carlton. Still a short trolley ride from City Hall, but much more accessible in many ways related to lifestyle. As Melbourne’s epicenter of cool cosmopolitan academia, Carlton has enjoyed more than a century of proper planning and development. Its inhabitants reap the rewards of the lifestyle. Carlton has a soul and a very desirable brand image.

I come from an advertising and marketing background and I can’t stop thinking about what all this says about the Docklands brand. It seems to me that Docklands was created as a practical extension of the commercial function of the CBD and was financed by 25 years of residential development. There are apparently around 12,000 of us living here in Docklands, with a pre-pandemic daily influx of up to 100,000 office workers. The way Docklands works seems to be more focused on serving that transient working population than the permanent stakeholders: the residents. This gives Docklands a kind of Jekyll and Hyde quality. The placid daytime experience is subverted by nighttime reality.

To illustrate, let me take an informal marketing exercise beyond you…

We are all familiar with the notion of brands and branding in popular culture. When tackling a branding assignment, one of the key disciplines involved is developing what is known as a “brand personality.” This is a short piece of prose, written as if the brand were a person. Two versions are created: the existing one (the reality of how the brand product looks at the beginning, before promoting it) and the desired one (how it looks ideally in the future, after having implemented a brand development plan). The contrast between the two defines the active effort required for the brand to grow towards the desired vision.

I’ll deviate from convention here and give you my draft of the desired version first. This articulates a future Docklands brand whose potential will be fully realised:

“I am a unique place in Australia’s most liveable city. A clean, green, modern, exciting yet relaxed and casual waterfront suburb close to the city. People of all ages are instinctively drawn to me because of my relaxed and easy going contemporary lifestyle. My youthful and diverse vibe, juxtaposed with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of historic Melbourne CBD, is an invigorating mix. I love sharing my perspective of the placid, lake-like water with its boats moored at the edges. There is so much on your doorstep here: a variety of good places to eat, two Woollies supermarkets, interesting things to see, wonderfully relaxing waterfront walks, even a ferry to the nearby west coast for a day without driving. All of my neighbors love living here because the scenery is nice and the amenities are great. There’s even a school now, which has attracted growing families who lend an exuberant village energy to these surroundings. And it’s so convenient to be able to hop on a tram or train to get here, or travel anywhere quickly. I am proud that my cultural and aesthetic appeal attracts visitors.

“They appreciate the mix of architectural modernity, history and events that are always on view. My visitors also respect the fact that this is a residential area, so they behave with restraint and decorum. Melbourne has a precious asset in the Docklands, and I know it is in good hands, with good planning and management ensuring an exciting and secure future for all of us.”

As the old My Fair Lady song goes, wouldn’t that be lovely? Now consider the reality: Docklands’ existing brand personality:

“I am a seductive place, attractive to newcomers. I am that curious addition to the western flank of Melbourne CBD. I offer water views, wide uncrowded spaces, free trolley rides, history alongside eclectic modern architecture. What is there not to like? This place is a hub of development – there has been continuous construction activity (with all its noise day after day) for decades.

“But I have a split personality. There is a hidden side that you never see unless you live here. At night, I become a party animal. And the young people of Melbourne don’t know it! They flock here, especially on the weekends, because they can party, get drunk, and vent their loud party energy with impunity… yes, the singing, shrieking, and screaming often last until dawn on a Saturday night. He has done it for years. On weekends, boats full of party people arrive and cruise slowly across my waters, singing loud music that bounces off my towers. Sometimes even on lazy Sunday afternoons. People certainly don’t come here for the food, but my half dozen great restaurants regularly fill up for major events that draw big, noisy crowds. Loud music with stronger feedback is broadcast through speakers at full volume. You can hear it clear across the water, late. Then there are the interlopers who occupy the short-term apartments in the Docklands. These include people who throw sex parties (as reported in the May issue of the Docklands News) and even drug dealers (my tower has at least one, known to management, on one of the upper floors).

“I am Melbourne’s top hoon destination too! Loud motorcycles and souped-up cars regularly turn their engines red throughout my tranquil cityscapes, from after rush hour to late at night. Its raucous engine notes bounce off my rows of tall towers, and drivers know they can speed away with impunity, because the police rarely show up. These rev-heads sometimes stick around for hours. I will tell you who doesn’t come here though: friends and family of the people who live here. They think it is too difficult. Too much traffic and nowhere to park.

“My walks are cemeteries of failed restaurants and storefronts full of ‘For Rent’ signs. The air around here can also get a little smelly at times – it drifts in the breeze from the industrial midwest. In general, people love me or hate me. But you can’t deny my appeal to my top cheerleaders…the party people!

Sounds familiar? It is true that this profile is biased towards NewQuay, the commercial epicenter of our suburb. But to some degree, these problems exist throughout the Docklands. They are all a perpetual blight on our quality of life and the Docklands brand. Because we live in vertical communities, rather than wide, horizontal suburban expanses, this barrage of nighttime noise travels straight up, affecting thousands of us at once. It would never be tolerated in any other residential suburb. I can feel everyone nodding sadly as they read this.

In terms of those polarized brand personalities, the situation will never veer up from the existing version articulated above as long as this deeply flawed status quo exists.

We are stuck with it until the application of strong authority with dedication, focus and continued resolve to plan and police a better vision allows Docklands to finally fulfill its undoubted potential. •

Julian Smith is a resident of the NewQuay precinct in Docklands

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