Lend Lease Taking a Lead Role in Docklands' Latest Transformation

21st March 2014
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“It took over 100 years for Melbourne to become the glorious city it is. Why do we think Docklands will be the same experience in 10?”

- Claire Johnston, Lend Lease

Jeff Whalley at the Herald Sun chats to Claire Johnston of Lend Lease about the latest transformation of Docklands.

For someone who runs effectively one of Melbourne’s biggest development sites, Claire Johnston is not what many people would expect. She commands a role that can extract strong language from the most virtuous of souls.

But she counts among diverse influences a great Australian philanthropist, a Nepalese sherpa and four-star US generals in equal parts alongside her hard-hat wearing colleagues.

Johnston is project director at Lend Lease’s Victoria Harbour and as such, plays a pivotal role shaping one of the inner city’s few remaining prime development sites — both physically and culturally.

She must nurture relationships with the government, banks, contractors, unions, insurers, the media, residents, commercial tenants, retailers, and the wider community.

It also means she has to tackle criticism about Docklands’ perceived failings: invariably that it’s windswept, lacks a sense of community and is devoid of character.

“I don’t think it’s a unique Docklands comment. If you went out to the outer suburbs, there is no train line out there. They are evolving in their communities too,” she says.

“It took over 100 years for Melbourne to become the glorious city it is. Why do we think Docklands will be the same experience in 10?”

At the end of North Wharf Rd, on the centremost Docklands tract sits an old control tower.

A stone’s throw from the landmark “goalposts” flanking Bolte Bridge, it overlooks the Yarra, Victoria Harbour and ruins of tin-shack warehouses.

This is Johnston’s domain. It also could be one of Melbourne’s most lucrative real estate opportunities.

Collins St, which has been extended to intersect with Bourke St, will eventually stretch down to the tower. The old structure will be refashioned into the focal point at the end of Melbourne’s most prestigious thoroughfare.

No one has decided precisely what to do with the control tower yet.

It and the warehouse development are awaiting planning approval and are yet to be officially handballed from the State Government’s urban regeneration authority, Places Victoria.

But by 2021, Lend Lease is expected to transform North Wharf with its old warehouses into low-rise apartment buildings and townhouses.

They will be the last of Victoria Harbour’s 2800 homes to be built.

Part of Johnston’s job will be to ensure that Melbourne’s river and harbour connect seamlessly with the CBD.

From a commercial perspective, Docklands is a success. Along with Southbank, an earlier waterside development, Docklands generated almost $16.5 billion last year in economic output, according to research conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers.

It’s landed a big fish or too along the way, having wooed National Australia Bank to shift their headquarters there a decade ago, closely followed by ANZ and Myer.

It’s now Johnston’s responsibility to extend that success to Docklands’ residential community.

She says she wants to make it suitably appealing and affordable to attract an eclectic mix of residents — artists, students and businesspeople.

In the large-scale jigsaw that is Victoria Harbour, she is piecing together the space — a “new civic heart” — where Collins and Bourke meet.

Offerings from May will include a library with waterfront views, a 3000sqm park and a family services and boating hub.

Critics of Docklands during its first decade say the suburb rapidly became big and bulky. Developers were too heavily focused on scale at the expense of intimacy and personality, they say.

So it comes as little surprise that Johnston has taken an almost fanatical eye to detail.

As the wharf is rebuilt, Lend Lease intends to salvage tonnes of the old timber for use in everything from public structures to features in new buildings. Johnston has signed off on fittings such as street furniture, public art and signs.

Johnston’s career path is testimony to her willingness to think differently.

She worked at Docklands in the project’s infancy, on NAB’s headquarters.

Then, while mulling a career change, she trekked Nepal’s Annapurna trail. A chat with a sherpa and his family convinced her to turn her mind to the not-for-profit sector.

She spent four years running the Hornery Institute, a not-for-profit organisation set up by former Lend Lease chief Stuart Hornery — her philanthropic touchstone — that specialises in making communities more inclusive and socially sustainable.

Then, before returning to Docklands two years ago, Johnston was in Hawaii helping the US Army build houses for families of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.

She is now drawing on those experiences back home.

“At Victoria Harbour we have to pay attention to what happens at a street level,” she says. “But how do you do it in a way that uses your resources efficiently and delivers a return to your shareholders?”

As with all developers, securing contracts is vital. However Deakin University’s chair in property and real estate, Richard Reed, says an equally key measure of success is the ability to achieve full occupancy at projects “as soon as possible after completion”.

That fuels the perception that “the development remains a sought-after address”, Prof Reed says.

“It is essential to ensure an oversupply situation doesn’t occur again as was the case when the Docklands initially was developed,” he says.

He says Johnston is right to focus on getting “detail’’ — and the intangibles — right.

“This ‘attention to detail’ is important for the area as times passes and to reflect on the perception of the area.”

Johnston acknowledges that building a community is harder than building a suburb.

But ultimately it will be more profitable for a giant such as Lend Lease — and crucial if it wants to continue redefining the Melbourne skyline.

“How do you create a complete experience? That means you’ve got to work harder,” Johnston says. “And you’ve got to believe it is the right thing to do.”

Source: Jeff Whalley, Herald Sun

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