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Renewing the new? Early reflections from Docklands Spaces

April 27th, 2013 by marcus

Batch and Musk

Renew Australia has been working on a pilot project Docklands Spaces in Melbourne with partners including Places Victoria, The City of Melbourne, and MAB corporation. Docklands, unlike Newcastle or Adelaide, or some of the other places the Renew model has been obviously useful to date is not an old area that has fallen on hard times but instead a relatively new precinct where, for a variety of reasons, the activities that are needed to give it ongoing life have not yet taken hold.

Docklands, typical of many waterfront redevelopments in cities around the world, has been master-planned and opened over the last decade or so — bits of it are working (actually more so than Melbourne mythology would have you believe when I actually started looking around down there) but other places are clearly struggling for a variety of reasons. There was a prominent story about our program in The Age this morning.

Our work has only really become visible in the last few weeks. The first Dockland Spaces projects include a 3D Printing studio Studio Batch who are sharing a space with some young architects from Musk. Across the plaza in a kiosk under a no longer functioning and soon to be demolished large video screen is a space called Bird and Plane that provides organic, bio-degradable, locally produced picnic hampers for events of various kinds. On the waiting list we have artists, jewellers, craftspeople, artisans who wants shops and game developers, literary journals and makers of various kinds that want offices and studios. We have had about 80 submissions and most (if not quite all of them — there’s a few duds in any pile) would bring a lot to the area.

So, at this very early stage it’s probably worth floating aloud some of my thinking — particularly for the development community — about what i think we are trying to do here and how it my be applicable to similar new communities. It’s probably also worth noting is what some of the specific challenges are and what we might learn along the way.

What is similar to other Renew projects

At it’s core the symptoms and to a lesser extent the causes of the problems in both Docklands and Newcastle are actually similar. In both cases you have a surplus of space relative to market demand. You have (relatively) high barriers to entry that make it very hard for anyone to take a risk — particularly a creative risk — and then you have the self perpetuating feedback loops that go with that. Nothing is there so no one goes there. No one goes there so no one wants to open anything there.

In both cases you have the precedents of recently failed businesses that deter short term action. There are visible signs of places recently closed or never opened. You also have the promise of much larger changes over the horizon. Docklands is still only half way through a masterplan that will see places that are now on the edges become the centre and Newcastle has long had development and infrastructure plans that promise revival but not-quite-yet.  It’s rarely observed but the promise of future change for the better often inadvertently incentivises doing nothing now. In both cases the masterplans and the investment say the area will get better soon (and it may well) but if you believe it the short term incentive can be to sit and wait.

On the upside, and a good place for us to start, is that in both communities there are actually quite a few people around. Neither is a ghost town in the sense that they have lost their entire population or no one can get there. Both places have an adjacent community of residents, shoppers and workers that are within a short travelling distance — many within a walk. Beyond that they have a substantial inner urban and suburban hinterland and they have the capacity (sometimes evident sometimes not) to attract tourists and visitors but they are geographically at the end rather than in the middle of their respective catchments (at least of the time being in the case of where we are working in Docklands). However, at the moment there is no incentive for any of those people to explore, discover or take practical or philosophical ownership of the area because, you know, there’s little worth going out of their way for.

So this is where we start. Renew Australia with Docklands Spaces is following the Renew Newcastle model of iterative, low cost, creative led experimentation and activation. We are “borrowing” buildings that would otherwise be empty from their commercial owners and attempting to fill them with interesting things that will attract life and people to the area on a rolling short term basis. It is a platform for low-cost experimentation by a gently curated collection of people doing a mix of interesting things.

Our aim is not, as someone suggested on twitter this morning to “manufacture” authenticity but to create fertile ground for experiments and see what happens. We don’t actually set out to make the area “cool” or “hip” or whatever but to unpack the process and lower the barriers to entry so more people can try more things. We aim to make the place maleable and responsive to the initiative and experimentation of individuals or small groups who have imagination but have no capital. They may not have much money but they are people who can afford to take a risk in this context because they are taking a different kind of risk than someone deciding where to build a fast food franchise or a chain store.

In most part the tools and arguments we are using to allow that — the license agreements and to a lesser extent the our role as an intermediary between users, governing authorities and private property owners in the governance structures — are pretty similar.

The theory, somewhat proved in Newcastle, is that if we can get enough people to try enough interesting ideas we should be able to accelerate the process of discovering what works. If each of those experiments are sufficiently interesting in and of themselves then we can also expect that they will attract people and that regardless of their individual success (some may evolve into permanent tenants and projects but many for whatever reason will not) they will gradually raise the background level of activity, curiosity and interestingness in a way that will ultimately spin off on the place as a whole.

The new and unique challenges

Working in Docklands has posed some interesting questions and challenges that are worth noting for those who are interested in the replicability of this work. I don’t think the full consequences will become obvious until we are a little further along in the process but suffice to say we are aware of and I am gently evolving my thinking around a range of new and different factors.

On a most obvious level, the scale and state of the property is actually very different. Initially i had thought this might not be too big an issue (indeed i had initially naively assumed that while larger in most other respects the building stock in a new area would be better for our purposes) but on closer inspection it has created some challenges that we are still adapting to.

Vacant properties in new areas tend to be an odd combination of either over-designed or unfinished. On one end of the spectrum in Docklands there are many empty former restaurants with half million dollar (i’m completely guesstimating that figure in case you’re inclined to reference it) fit-outs that we need to somehow work around. Fixed fittings are very prescriptive about what can happen with them and while they may be of no use to our short term projects the sheer cost of them needs to be respected in the event that a future tenant may wish to use them. At the other you have a disproportionately large proportion of properties where the power has never been connected or a certificate of occupancy has not actually been issued.

In Newcastle we have mostly been talking about and working with properties that while presenting challenges (they are physically more deteriorated in most cases) have already adapted many times over many years and ours is simply the latest in a line of reuse. At a practical level the adaptability of of a new community is actually lower compared to other more established places — which to a certain extent is counterintuitive. Indeed newness should and could theoretically equal an openness to possibility but the master-planning and development processes tend to shut that out early. There’s an issue to explore in the context and that i will note below.

It is worth noting that the governance structures are very different. Our clients are Places Victoria (the initial development authority), the City of Melbourne (the local government) and MAB (a developer with a stake in the future of the precinct). Difference in governance models isn’t a particularly new factor for Renew organisations. Renew Newcastle and Renew Adelaide have very different relative relationships to the various levels of government. Renew Adelaide was taking place in the centre of a capital city with a great deal more oversight and investment — for better and for worse — from state and local government. Renew Newcastle took place quite a long way from a comparatively disinterested state capital and was not particularly close to local government. It was interesting to see the consequences of this both ways but suffice to say that Docklands is a lot more like Adelaide than Newcastle.

Finally, it’s worth noting that in both locations the expectations are very different. They are for the most part, reasonably low in the short term but in the case of Docklands i think they are a lot higher in the medium term because there has been a trajectory of progress — albeit slightly hiccupy at times. This has interesting consequences for our individual projects because it likely means the price gap between their capacity to pay and the owners long term expectation of the value of the properties may be a lot higher. In short that could play out in a number of ways: longer interim periods of activation because the “real” value may come along later, or it may simply take some time before the expectations of value between the properties and owners converge.

Some conclusions and observations about new communities in general

Some of our/my work recently has been in thinking about new and master-planned communities. Another client has asked Renew Australia to do a thought piece about the application of our thinking to new communities and some of the lessons of observing Docklands and other similar waterfront redevelopments (like Newcastle’s Honeysuckle) as well as some new master-planned greenfield communities has informed that thinking — although the comments that follow are not about anywhere in particular. For commercial and practical reasons I don’t want to share too much of that thinking here beyond acknowledging a few key points.

Master-planning is, in many respects (at least as currently practiced) the enemy of adaptability and iteration. It shouldn’t be and doesn’t need to be — indeed adaptability can actually be designed in to both the broad precinct plans and the designs of individual buildings — but it rarely if ever happens. For projects that will roll-out over 5, 10 or 20 years given the rapidly evolving economic and social climate in which we live it is actually particularly stupid that we don’t design adaptability more. For long term investors in property assets there is a huge potential and actual opportunity cost here and the industry needs to reconsider some key strategies.

Practical things we can do, by way of simple example, is design buildings that can rescale cheaply (where large spaces can be converted easily to smaller ones for example), and precincts that are less predictable (Docklands has a surplus of restaurants as noted above and they format makes them hard to undo), and use the evolution of precincts as a whole in greenfield and infill sites to test ideas that inform longer term planning and development. Currently we tend to have a binary flip between empty and finished with a whole bunch of construction in between. If you get it right it ends in “permanent tenant” but too often it ends in “For Lease” or “Business went bust.”

In building communities this process needs to become more iterative.  Empty land > iterative use > construction of buildings> occupation and adaptation > “permanence” (at least to the extent that anything can be “permanent”). If we can make those iteration and adaptation phases and processes both practical and, frankly, cheap then we will get to functioning, healthy, cohesive and successful communities and places much quicker.

In general, i am very positive about Docklands Spaces as an initiative. We are already starting to see signs of activity and interest in the precincts we are working and expect it to accumulate over time. The level of interest in the project and the experiment is good and the challenges for all the frustrations that they cause are actually pretty minor and very informative. It is a very satisfying thing to see the vacant windows we have been staring at all these months start to fill up and i look forward discovering, experimenting and exploring the paths where this activity might lead.

But communities, places and people are always in flux and experimentation and Renew’s approach and thinking at this point is no different.

 Image at the top via Studio Batch

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7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 EventualHorizon Apr 27, 2013 at 11:02 am

    Fab article MT @unsungsongs: Some personal reflections about #places #planning #design #cities from a new experiment http://t.co/df0Pa6FI5W

  • 2 em_es_cee Apr 28, 2013 at 12:15 am

    RT @unsungsongs: I wrote longish, thinkish piece about adaptability & iteration of new v old communities today. Perfect for sat night! …

  • 3 em_es_cee Apr 28, 2013 at 12:17 am

    @unsungsongs longish indeed :)

  • 4 glynthomas Apr 28, 2013 at 12:23 am

    RT @unsungsongs: I wrote longish, thinkish piece about adaptability & iteration of new v old communities today. Perfect for sat night! …

  • 5 MarquisO Apr 28, 2013 at 12:31 am

    RT @unsungsongs: I wrote longish, thinkish piece about adaptability & iteration of new v old communities today. Perfect for sat night! …

  • 6 gusseting Apr 29, 2013 at 8:48 am

    RT @unsungsongs: Renewing the new? Early reflections from Docklands Spaces: Observations on a pilot project in Melbourne’s Docklands http:…

  • 7 TamsienWest Apr 29, 2013 at 9:03 am

    RT @unsungsongs: Renewing the new? Early reflections from Docklands Spaces: Observations on a pilot project in Melbourne’s Docklands http:…