Saturday, January 24, 2009

A day at the Docklands

Unique, culturally rich suburbs each with its own identity and history blend together seamlessly to form the patchwork quilt that is Melbourne. Some suburbs are steeped in history whilst others have only been on our maps more recently. One such newcomer is the Docklands Precinct just on the periphery of the city along Melbourne's almost forgotten waterfront.

The revitalisation of the Dockland's Precinct began in the early 1990s when the Victorian State Government appointed a task force to propose plans for renewing the derelict remains of a once booming port. The progress since then has been slow and steady with the construction and eventual completion of the Docklands Stadium (known currently as Telstra Dome but soon to be re branded as Etihad Stadium as sponsorship changes hands) followed by the extension of public transport links and the gradual construction of numerous residential towers with retail precincts on the ground levels. As the project has moved forward in stages, the area itself still has an "incomplete" feel to it.

There was a bit of excitement in 2002 when the first residents moved into the high rise apartments lining the waterfront in the NewQuay precinct and a handful of new restaurants and retail shops opened up, but I'd say the thrill was short lived and the neighbourhood lacked charisma and character. The buildings were new, the restaurants were unheard of and the location, although minutes from the city centre, still seemed out of the way. It wasn't a place people passed through on their way to anywhere. As a result, a great many of the restaurants struggled to make ends meet as the area was not yet a destination on the Melbourne radar.

The developers pressed forward with the plans for the area and have recently opened new sections of the Waterfront City precinct. This precinct is made up of entertainment venues, restaurants, retail outlets and the newest of Melbourne's tourist attractions--Southern Star Observation Wheel.

The Waterfront City precinct is where we spent most of our day today. Our first stop upon arrival was the Piazza where we attended a mid-morning concert by local children's entertainers, The Ticklish Allsorts.

While the audience numbers were low, the small crowd was enthusiastic and I think it's fair to say the little people amongst us enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

The Piazza has the capacity to hold 10,000 people and touts two enormous LED screens accompanied by a cutting-edge audio system which makes it an attractive spot for special events. The Piazza is lined with lots of interesting urban art. There are statues of many of Australia's most famous entertainers from Kylie Minogue to Dame Edna Everidge. Not to mention an amazing mosaic mural of hundreds of Australia's most famous faces.

You can spend a bit of time admiring the mural and trying to spot different celebrities whose likenesses have been carefully crafted out of tiny pieces of broken tile.

It is also a nice open area for the kids to run around in. Our little ones certainly had great fun romping around while the Handsome Australian and I enjoyed a few moments of an Australian Open tennis match being broadcast live on the enormous screens.

Hot and bothered from running around, the little people indicated it was time for lunch and a cool drink. We walked through the new Harbour Town shopping centre towards the Southern Star Observation Wheel. In the shadows of the immense 21st Century ferris wheel, we found a bevy of food choices. Most restaurants in this section offer casual dining options, but there are a few restaurants that offer a more formal dining experience--most notably a Chinese Yum Cha style restaurant. We chose the casual cafe chain Coffee Club as our place to refuel the little people. The food was average, the prices moderate to high and the service mixed. After our meal we decided we'd have been better off dining in the NewQuay section of the Docklands. The views are better and the menus are probably similarly priced.

The Harbour Town shopping centre is still under construction, but dozens of shops have been open for trading for several months now. The centre itself is open air by design and each shop has it's own entrance from one of the many walkways that crisscross the complex. It's lovely in the summer, but I will be interested to see how pleasant the experience is in the winter time. This part of Melbourne can be quite breezy and cold. The centre does have some shelter overhead that sticks out above the shop entrances a few metres on each side of the walkways and their appear to be heaters installed in these. So hopefully this provision will keep shoppers nice and toasty during the winter months.

The Harbour Town shopping centre seems to suffer from the same fate that the rest of the Docklands suffers from--it's not yet fully complete and as such still has little personality or identity of its own. After speaking to several shopkeepers, it appears that crowd numbers have been very hit or miss since the first shops opened several months ago. I was told that weekends seem to be the busiest period at the moment which goes to support my theory that the Docklands is a destination location and not yet a true neighbourhood with it's own organic traffic patterns.

The construction of a 14,000 square metre warehouse format store in the Waterfront Precinct by US retailer Costco seems to be the drawcard other retailers have pinned their hopes on. The popularity of this particular anchor store will, in my opinion, make or break the area. Until then, the Docklands seem to be stuck in perpetual dress rehearsal--a neighbourhood waiting for its moment in the spotlight, but still trying to work out the kinks.


Anonymous said...

We stayed there back in June for 2 weeks, when we first came to AU, and since we didn't know much about the area, we were so shocked by all the restaurants all in one area, and they were often empty! I hope it "catches on" and people start to go there, it has so much potential! Thanks for the info, I hope they do put a Costco in, but on the other hand, I don't have any storage space for 24 rolls of toilet paper!

Anonymous said...

Is that a sand sculpture in the first picture? That is incredible!

I'm impressed by all of the children's entertainment groups in Austrailia. Is it big business?

Rita said...

So many good photo opportunities at the docklands. I need to get out more an explore this fine city!

suzinoz said...

melbournebound: I am looking forward to the Costco, but like you I have no idea where I'll put anything.

Still Life: It is a sand sculpture. You have an eye for these things...sand, suitcases, etc! =) As for Children's entertainment, I think it is pretty big business. There are the Wiggles who are huge, but even on a more local level a lot of birthdays we go to have entertainers there.

Rita: There are lots of great photo opportunities in the Docklands, but I'd say more so in the City. You do need to explore more. I'm free if you need a partner in crime!