“A special precinct”: Maritime trail edges closer
By David Schout
Plans for a trail to celebrate Melbourne’s maritime history has received “significant support” from key stakeholders and the community.
A joint state and local government study investigated options for a heritage trail along the Yarra River, which would both connect existing maritime properties as well as recognising Aboriginal maritime heritage.
Of the 270 respondents, which included those with seafaring connections, a “considerable number” were in favour of a maritime trail precinct.
Establishing a maritime precinct as a “trail” was favoured over using an individual location, and it was found that the heritage-listed Mission to Seafarers (MtS) building at North Wharf could play a pivotal role as the trail’s “headquarters”.
Cr Rohan Leppert said it was a part of Melbourne’s history that deserved better recognition.
“This is a really special precinct,” he said at a September 21 Future Melbourne Committee meeting.
“We are sitting on something so magical that is under-realised in terms of its tourism and economic potential. But it’s just that layer of history, that Melbourne can tell a maritime story that is known to many but could be known to so many more. It’s not just a post-colonial heritage — it goes back tens of thousands of years. And it is something that government could do a lot more to interpret and celebrate.”
The proposed trail, which could be built into the City of Melbourne’s $300 million Greenline project, would run predominantly along the river’s Northern side.
However, a key section would move into South Wharf, including along Polly Woodside Park, the ship itself and museum, before heading back north across Seafarers Bridge.
The report notes that this area would form the “heart” of the trail.
“The central area of the Polly Woodside Park, ship and museum, Seafarers Bridge, park, and Mission to Seafarers building and the Seafarers development would form a natural heart to such a trail precinct as the activity levels and attraction density is high.”
A maritime trail could include, from east to west, Sandridge Bridge, Enterprize Park, Batman Park, Polly Woodside Park (plus ship/museum), across Seafarers Bridge into Seafarers Rest Park, Mission to Seafarers, refurbished crane and Goods Shed.
The trail could then continue to: Australia Wharf, then to North Wharf and Victoria Harbour where the current heritage fleet (Alma Doepel, Enterprize and steam tug Wattle) is berthed.
Cr Leppert said the “precinct as a trail” concept had a “lot of legs”.
The Melbourne Maritime Heritage Network (MMHN) has for more than two years advocated the creation of a waterways maritime trail, with both the Mission to Seafarers and soon-to-be-built Seafarers Rest Park at its heart.
“[We’re] pleased the study recognises the opportunity to elevate the status of maritime heritage by creating a heritage precinct aligned with the Greenline project through Seafarers Rest Park, and the adjacent MtS building,” MMHN director Martin Dixon said.
However, Mr Dixon said the proposed precinct should be extended.
“We’d like to make the point that, in our minds, this heritage precinct extends from Birrarung Marr right along the river and should really incorporate all of the Victoria Harbour precinct, right around to Ron Barassi Snr Park.”
However, the Yarra River Business Association had a different view.
While expressing strong support for the trail, it cautioned against expanding it too wide.
“Themed walks are harder to develop and certainly much harder to promote when they are stretched over considerable distance and when they link sparsely located sites of interest,” executive officer Tim Bracher wrote in his submission.
“For this reason, we would advise against a potential five-kilometre maritime trail between Princes Bridge and Docklands. Rather, we would suggest that the trail be developed and promoted simply as an environmentally-focused walking path.”
“As part of that trail, separately looped sub-trails could focus on specific themes, such as the indigenous way of life pre-settlement (Princes Bridge to Spencer St), and the post settlement to 1920s maritime heritage (South Wharf, Australia Wharf, Seafarers, the Mission, Collins Landing). A separate looped trail could be developed for Docklands which highlights the more modern aspects of our maritime history.”
Mr Bracher added that it favoured more “appetising bite-size trails”, while a longer five-kilometre trail would be best incorporated as part of Greenline.
“The infrastructure and interpretation for a South Wharf-North Wharf maritime-themed loop trail already exists. We would welcome the opportunity to work with Council on developing this as the first of the themed loops that could form part of the overall Greenline trail experience,” he said.
Future of the Mission
The second aspect of the study focused on the future of the heritage-listed Mission to Seafarers building on Flinders St.
The report found that the state government-owned building, built in 1917, required “significant capital investment by the Victorian Government to ensure its longer-term functionality, operational excellence, compliance and amenity”.
However, the council resolved to work with the government to determine the best future use of the building, and advocate for funding to upgrade it.
Cr Leppert spelled out the situation as it stood.
“There’s been a lot of difficulty in finding a future use of the Seafarers building that can ensure its upkeep is looked after. We know that, and we’re not in a position unfortunately to weigh in and provide that support here and now. But I do hope a whole-of-government approach, that carefully considers the future of the building, and that can clearly have a plan in place that includes the Victorian Government contributing to funding the upkeep of that building will see [the Mission to Seafarers] be the centrepiece of this precinct as a trail concept that we might be developing going forward.”
The report also found that the Mission was not of significant size to accommodate a maritime heritage museum.
Ross Brewer, chairman of Offshore & Specialist Ships Australia (OSSA) located at the Mission, said while the building was “tired” and “needed doing up”, it should remain an iconic part of the city.
“This building is iconic — Melbourne has a real treasure here,” he said.
“Through its door, there would be tens of thousands of seafarers that would have passed through there over the 100-plus years of operation. The combination of the building and the seafarers is something that Melbourne has to have a lot of pride in, and this paper goes a long way to supporting this development well into the future.”
The building includes a consecrated chapel, courtyard, domed room, hall, and other multifunctional smaller spaces.
In the YRBA’s submission, Mr Bracher said wasn’t sufficient demand for a maritime museum in the City of Melbourne.
“We do not believe that in Melbourne City there is sufficient market demand for a stand-alone maritime heritage museum, especially as that is already available within the Williamstown Seaport project. As the consultants’ report indicates, maritime heritage is a relatively niche area of cultural tourism.” •