COVID-19 and what it means for Fishermans Bend

By Sean Car

The economic impacts of COVID-19 are being felt far and wide. But for Australia’s largest-ever urban renewal project in Fishermans Bend, the pandemic could prove the major catalyst in determining how the state government’s vision plays out.

Since the state government adopted its recast vision for Fishermans Bend in 2018, physical progress, while prevalent, has been slower than what some had expected given its forecasts of 80,000 new residents and 80,000 new workers by 2050.

While the University of Melbourne’s investment in the Employment Precinct, which will be centred around advanced manufacturing and innovation, has provided cause for optimism, the all-important question around public transport looms large.

Leading up to the outbreak of COVID-19, the state government’s growing debt crisis was well understood following a record investment in new infrastructure across the state.

It’s a situation that has now only intensified, with last month’s Department of Treasury and Finance modelling signalling an unprecedented 14 per cent decline in Gross State Product (GSP) in the June quarter.

In response, the state government has borrowed $24.5 billion in emergency funding to help see us through the crisis; a debt that many economists say will take a generation of tax-payers’ money to settle.

However, while the situation appears grim, Fishermans Bend, as some are predicting, could form a major part of the road to economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 world. With the state government’s modelling predicting that Victoria’s economic output will drop by $32 billion in the next six months, putting 270,000 Victorians out of work, boosting major road and rail projects could help to stimulate the revival.

Included on a long list of major Victorian projects currently being considered for early delivery by the state government is public transport for Fishermans Bend. Namely, a new tram bridge via Collins St over the Yarra River through Docklands and the Lorimer Precinct.

While it budgeted $5 million in last year’s budget to assess options and fund a business case for the project, the need to link the city with the Employment Precinct, including Melbourne University’s new campus, is critical. RMIT University is also interested in Fishermans Bend, but its investment weighs heavily on the delivery of public transport.

Yet despite the tram link being crucial for achieving the overall vision on schedule and restoring development confidence in the area, the cost of delivering it, totalling north of a billion dollars, could just as likely see it slip down the government’s priority list. Who’s to know?

Amid the uncertainty, Fishermans Bend Development Board chair Meredith Sussex said that the Board had met in April to “set its course in the new environment.”

“Of course, a number of the people who support the Board are diverted to coronavirus duties - as is completely appropriate. However, the Board is now taking the time to think through how Fishermans Bend can best contribute to the post-COVID recovery in a way that is consistent with the vision for the area,” she said.

“Construction in Montague in particular is proceeding, and work on the new secondary school in Wirraway is also underway. The Board will now be providing advice to Government on which other projects, both public and private, could get underway quickly and what work needs to be finalised to assist those projects.”

“The Board is also redoubling its efforts on the development of the advanced manufacturing innovation precinct. One of the things we have learnt from the crisis is that we can, and must, keep making things, and that our adaptability and innovation will be central to the jobs and economic activity of the future.”

If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that our need to adapt and adapt quickly is going to be just as important in the recovery efforts as it has been in stopping the spread of the virus.

The response to this crisis has already produced incredible innovations in technology and the ways in which we conduct our everyday lives. As Meredith Sussex pointed out, the need to further explore these spaces and create the jobs of tomorrow is going to be critical when this is all over.

We’ve seen what investment in medical research can deliver. The output from the cluster of medical institutions in the Parkville Precinct has proven powerful in both the Australian and international efforts to combat the virus.

As we begin the economic rebuild, soon should come the time for the state government to place the same emphasis on job creation, investment and development in Fishermans Bend. It all starts with public transport •

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