Thursday, March 19, 2015

Memo From Melbourne

Docklands Melbourne
South Bank of Yarro development

Professor Robin Boyle is an urbanist from the Detroit area. He is on a sabbatical in Melbourne, AU. I asked him to describe what he saw for my blog. 
Robin and his wife, Christine, came to the Detroit area from their native Glasgow. He has taught urban studies at Wayne State for twenty-five years and been a major player in the resurgence of Detroit.
Chris has taught German at The International School

Memo from Melbourne
Take me to the River
March 2015

This city lives on coffee. Within our city block there are at least twelve cafes open at 7 o’clock ready to dispense long blacks, flat whites and other seemingly exotic coffee beverages to bleary-eyed office workers. By ten they’re back for another jolt, escaping their computer screens in the high-rise office buildings that tower over the streets. By noon they're down at street-level, perhaps this time sipping a macchiato as they eat lunch on the ubiquitous marble plinths that surround the office entrances. And I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that by 3:00 pm they are back at the espresso machine. Based on the Melbourne coffee exchange market this adds up to $14 per day, just for Joe! Did I say that you’d be hard pressed to find a Starbucks? These are all small, often locally owned, businesses, with Turkish, Greek, Italian and Chinese cafes within minutes of our door. You want more? Check out The Student’s Guide to Coffee in Melbourne, one of scores of websites dedicated to the black bean and its beverages.

Our apartment is in the heart of downtown, at the edge of the financial district but only minutes from Southern Cross railway station and a few more from the Yarra River. The redevelopment of the South Bank of the Yarra, especially the construction of a public promenade in front of commercial development, is a model of walkable public spaces delivered through exquisite urban design. There are three, sometimes four, levels of public or semi-public spaces for strolling, sitting, eating or just people watching along the river. The blue-stone walkway connects several slightly wider plazas, activated by street performance, artists, pop-up cafes or the occasional drunk. The riverbank faces north so it gets the sun from mid-morning to dusk. The planners put in plane trees from the get-go so there’s plenty of soft shade, if needed. But behind this urban gem lies a mess of late twentieth century office and residential high-rise towers, with more behemoths on the way. The towers are disconnected by an unreadable streetscape used mainly for getting the workers and residents’ cars out of grossly expensive underground car parks. Parked only once. Cost $19 for 55 minutes!

But across the river, on the north bank, there’s another walkway that takes you from downtown east along the Yarra, under Federation Square to the Birrarung Marr Park and on to the largest concentration of sports facilities you’ll ever see: the legendary “MCG” - Melbourne Cricket Ground, Rod Laver Arena, Melbourne Park, AAMI Stadium and more. Tucked alongside this walkway, and squeezed beside the rail platforms at Flinders Station and the river is a new bar/café: The Arbory. This is a model of adding a commercial amenity to an existing public walkway without in any way minimizing the accessibility of the route. The new linear café is no more than 5 meters wide yet the designer has filled a dead space by adding the kitchen, bar and seats (looking out over the river) and maintained a walkway through the facility.

Back to the South Bank. I have mixed feelings about the Crown Casino that sits close to the Yarra at Clarendon Street. As in Detroit, this is one big building catering to the tourists and the locals alike. This is the only full service casino in a gambling-addicted city that is replete with betting shops, Tatts (the lotto), and bars offering Pokies (slots machines). The Crown Casino has its own bridge over the Yarra to whisk the gamblers into its subterranean parking. Its own freaking bridge across the river! Yet you can walk into this monster through a dozen different doors straight off the promenade or the street, eat in a massive food court, drink at several bars, or go to the movies. Pedestrian-friendly and mixed-use, you bet.

Walk west for five minutes and you are into the South Wharf, with the same clashing of great public walkways and spaces, up against (mainly) nondescript 1990’s commercial development.  London, Dublin, Melbourne. Eh. Biggest issue here is the omnipresent conflict between bikes and pedestrians. In some parts, walkers take their life in their hands as Lycra-clad cyclists speed by on their way to … who knows. 

Just over the river, is the Docklands. This once-industrial area is still under reconstruction and could be a great urban neighborhood, but don’t hold out too much hope. Again, they are trying to make good use of the public streets and re-use the original wharfs, and there’s a dedicated tramline into the CBD. But after 6:00pm, when the offices empty and the coffee addicts make their jittery way to the station and on to the suburbs, the concrete plazas feel forlorn and at times even intimidating. To describe the architecture in Docklands as eclectic and garish is an understatement. Red, yellow and green panels jolt the eye. And that's just the façade of the NAB headquarters. The blue and pink finish on the soaring, elliptical, residential towers looks, well, simply awful.

Without getting too technical, the Docklands are not being planned, per se. In the context of market-led development, seven companies have been selected by the State of Victoria to design their own “precincts” spread across the 190ha. waterfront. Within a very broad set of parameters, developers have free-reign in terms of use and scale of development in each precinct and there doesn't appear to be obvious design guidelines, at least for the blocks.  By a build-out date of 2025, these seven developers are charged with delivering office space for 60,000 employees and more than 20,000 new residents. 

The results of the first phases of development are confusing and disconnected. The new public spaces appear as an afterthought. The limited retail buildings, mostly bars and restaurants, lie close to the waterfront but separated from the tall structures behind. And the bars and cafes integrated with the offices are closed or empty in the evening. Will the docklands survive this architectural assault? Not sure. I wouldn’t take the bet.

1 comment:

Margot Kinberg said...

Oh, this is really interesting!! Thanks for sharing.