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What’s behind the lights?

Southbank Boulevard: the failed anatomy of Melbourne’s most expensive park

11 Nov 2020

Southbank Boulevard: the failed anatomy of Melbourne’s most expensive park Image

By Sean Car

When a local resident cited the figure “$44 million” at a June 29, 2020 council meeting considering the City of Melbourne’s annual plan and budget, it put what has become Melbourne’s most expensive park at Southbank Boulevard into stark context.

While the monumental failure of the council’s vision to transform half of Southbank Boulevard into a park is well-known, and acknowledged by the council itself, the sheer waste and mismanagement has never been fully understood.

But since the council recently confirmed an updated total costing, which forecast a revised total project spend of $47 million, Southbank News has sought to uncover more of the project’s chequered history.

From what was originally costed at $15.9 million in 2016, before being revised to $34 million the following year, has now become one of the most expensive capital works projects in the City of Melbourne’s history. And it’s still far from finished.

It’s also the project that appears to mark the beginning of the end for its mastermind in the City of Melbourne’s now former director of city design Rob Adams. A council spokesperson has exclusively confirmed to Southbank News that Mr Adams is being transitioned to a part-time role after 37 years at the city.

So, how did it all go so horribly wrong for the council?

Dr David Hamilton, a long-term Southbank resident with an impressive professional background in government, planning and economics, is the local figure who flagged the $44 million at the council meeting in June.

His apartment is one of many within earshot of what has become a permanent construction site during the past three years, and he said the constant disruption was enough for him to go back and scrutinise the council’s recent budgets.

“I just got tired of this project never being delivered on, and no-one being accountable about it,” he told Southbank News.

In an address to councillors on June 29, Dr Hamilton said his own analysis of the council’s financial records had found a project expenditure of $44 million by the end of the current financial year to June 2021.

And what’s been delivered to date, dubbed the “Arts Gateway”, complete with not-so-green tram tracks for a reported $31 million in its most recent budget, is in the words of Dr Hamilton, “not a park at all”.

“We were promised a park, not an open space of bluestone, woodchips and tussock grass and, frankly, that is what we are ending up with,” he said.

“When it was first mooted, it was to be a park. It’s not a park. The ABC is getting an outside broadcast facility, which has got some locals quite stirred up. We had more grass in the median strip before this started.”

According to the council’s then chair of finance, former Cr Stephen Mayne, the project’s first issues stemmed from how its original budget of $15.9 million was arrived at internally.

“While I was the chair of finance, it was the one project announced unilaterally without authorisation,” he said.

While the Southbank Structure Plan from 2010 first suggested the centre median strip of Southbank Boulevard could be allocated for new parkland, it was Rob Adams who reimagined much more for the area.

And with a significant decline in traffic on Southbank Boulevard since its direct passage to the CBD was blocked by the creation of Queensbridge Square for the Commonwealth Games, what better solution to Southbank’s growing lack of open space?

As part of the 2015 budget announcement, former Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said, “we are continuing to turn grey into green by repurposing some of our unused roads into open space through projects like University Square, the Southbank Boulevard upgrade …”

With the City of Melbourne confirming to Southbank News following that announcement that it would spend the year assessing the creation of a new public park on the south side of the street, in 2016 it announced a $15.9 million project.

Mr Mayne believed that the announcement in 2015 was “premature” and politically locked the council into a project that it couldn’t back away from.

He said that had the council known the project would blow out towards $50 million, it would have never been supported.

“The original pricing of $15 million was clearly ridiculous and unrealistic and now we’re dealing with the debacle of a project that should never have happened,” he said.

While it’s unclear how the project was so heavily underbudgeted, sources within the council point to an unconventional project management arrangement, where Rob Adams spearheaded city design, while also chairing the capital works committee.

It’s what many within the council believe led to a “catastrophic” stage one of the project between St Kilda Rd and Sturt St – one which is understood to have blown out by more than $12 million and gone more than nine months over schedule under his leadership.

Dr Hamilton, who has a deep understanding of major projects, said the Rob Adams management structure at the time defied best practice.

“Design and project management must remain separate,” he said.

“This project is basic kerb and channel. It’s not rocket science. It’s not building freeways, the technology is pretty low-key. It’s one of the things councils normally pride themselves on.”

Speaking to Southbank News in 2019, Mr Adams pointed to unforeseen challenges with developers and agencies, including VicRoads and CitiPower, as to why stage one had become beset with delays.

A statement from a council spokesperson last month reiterated this.

“In the early stages of the project there were challenges coordinating with other agencies and projects, including Australia 108 and 55 Southbank Boulevard, along with issues we encountered during construction such as below-ground soil conditions and existing utilities.”

But Dr Hamilton said the excuses simply weren’t good enough. “You can’t blame third parties for your mismanagement. You can’t point fingers at other people,” he said. “Where is the original project plan?”

The result of the failed first stage has resulted in a situation where the council has been forced to play catch-up ever since, with the project now being delivered over five stages, rather than the three originally set out.

Under the leadership of Lord Mayor Sally Capp, it’s believed to have triggered a complete overhaul to the way in which major projects are delivered at the City of Melbourne.

Local cafes and institutions which call the Arts Precinct home have also expressed their frustration over the ongoing economic costs of the delays and construction to their businesses.

So badly was the first stage managed, Rob Adams is understood to have nearly lost his job over it. But while his career may have been spared, it didn’t save the project’s original manager Steve Perumal, well-known to many Southbank locals, who, according to sources within the council, was stood down by Mr Adams.

But with his most recent contract as head of city design having expired in September, a council spokesperson told Southbank News Mr Adams would now play a part time role at the council.

“As of Monday, November 16 2020, and after first joining the City in 1983, Rob will have a part-time role as City Architect,” the spokesperson said. “He will focus on mentoring across the organisation, assisting with design review, the establishment of a City Design Review Panel, and serving on the board of Queen Victoria Market.”

With the project currently in the middle of stage three, from the front of the ABC towards City Rd, all eyes point to the newly-elected council to continue cleaning up the mess, which was originally due for completion this year.

While developer Beulah is expected to contribute to the section between City Rd and Queensbridge Square as part of its Southbank by Beulah development, the section along Dodds St also remains out-standing.

While the project is still set to deliver more desperately-needed open space for Southbank, Dr Hamilton said the challenge now rested on delivering something locals wanted, without blowing the budget beyond the now forecasted $47 million.

“Deliver an outcome that people want,” he said. “For a community that has 24,000 residents living in very small apartments, they could have had a big spade of green.”

The project has been referred to the council's audit risk committee for review •

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