CBD from the creek trail south of Meridian. April 6, 2015.

Regarding Dandenong

Plan Melbourne, Plan Dandenong

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Plan Melbourne was released mid last week, the government's 40 year plan for the city and, to some extent, the state as a whole. A lot has been said about the plan. It mostly builds on the planning and ideas in the earlier Melbourne 2030 (from 2001) and it's update Melbourne at 5 million (from 2008). That it builds on these plans, rather than replaces them entirely, is a good thing, of course.

From this town's perspective, any notion of Dandenong being Melbourne's 2nd city is at an end. While no plan that I'm aware of has ever suggested 2nd city status, it was clear that the Dandenong city centre was considered very important to Melbourne's future in past plans, given the mostly unique status accorded to it in the south east. This was backed up by the very visible and notable actions that the past government undertook with the Revitalising Central Dandenong initiative. By contrast, Plan Melbourne does not appear to set aside any particularly special place for Dandenong. Given the document mentions Dandenong more than a few times (a search tells me 79 times), this may require some explanation.

Plan Melbourne introduces two types of activity cluster, both with city-wide significance: Metropolitan Activity Centres (MACs) and National Employment Clusters (NECs). (I assume the brand name initialisms weren't intentional.)

MACs are almost equivalent to the previous Central Activity Districts. In the previous plan, there were 6 such districts (including Dandenong). All of these have been retained as MACs, with a further 5 added, growing the total to 11. Since the state's resources can't also grow to accommodate the new MACs, this dilutes the city-wide importance of these centres. If state funding had ever been preferentially directed to them (and it's hard to tell if that was ever the case, except for Dandenong for a brief moment), that funding would surely now have to halve (ignoring economic synergies, efficiency returns and whatnot).

This specific problem is exacerbated by the 6 almost wholly new NECs identified in the plan. Again, these are areas of city-wide importance, and so will presumably compete for attention with the MACs. I see no impediment to calling these clusters "centres" as well, as they centralise activity in broadly similar ways to the MACs (the only real difference is that MACs are very walkable and NECs aren't). All in all, this makes for 17 centres crowded together at the top of the importance hierarchy — not including, of course, the Melbourne CBD! — all likely vying for the same limited amount of state planning attention and funding.

Seemingly in Dandenong's favour, it is the only place to have one of each centre (and the only place to have 2 centres at all): namely, the Dandenong MAC and the Dandenong South NEC. One might see a hint of 2nd city status in this approach. However, the plan contains two significant changes from Melbourne at 5 million that undermine this interpretation: namely, Fountain Gate is one of the new MACs and Monash is one of the NECs. These are both in very close proximity to Dandenong, and both have traditionally competed with it for work and retail, almost wholly to Dandenong's detriment.

Combine this with the distillation of Dandenong into 2 centres, and it's easy to arrive at some rash conclusions. Separating Dandenong's MAC from its NEC may have been done for the same reason that News Corp separated its paper business from all its other businesses. Speaking uncharitably, the government may believe that replacing Dandenong MAC/Dandenong South NEC with Fountain Gate MAC/Dandenong South NEC is now viable (if needed), without causing anyone much of a hiccup. To point out the obvious, Fountain Gate is a shopping centre, of functional equivalence to Chadstone, Southland, Highpoint and Westfield Doncaster. Identifying it as a MAC suggests all these should be identified as MACs too. But they weren't. I can't help but conclude that Fountain Gate would not have been identified as a MAC if there were sufficient confidence in Dandenong as a MAC. Fountain Gate is the backup plan in case Dandenong fails to pick itself up.

By contrast, the recognition of Monash as an NEC is itself unsurprising. It's a very large and growing jobs precinct. But this recognition still poses problems for Dandenong. The Dandenong South NEC has been restricted to industrial (as is stated repeatedly in the plan), and to be fair, this reflects what has unfolded there over the years. The implication, however, is that research-based and knowledge-based activity will likely be directed almost exclusively to the Monash NEC. Knowledge-based industries are crucial to modern cities, big or small. Without them (and without a university campus to attract them), Dandenong will remain less than half a city — it will be a body without a head.

All of this is not to say that Dandenong sees no further benefits from the plan. The Metro project and Dandenong Rail Corridor project are still priorities. A third airport is slated for the south east. And there are numerous freight-level transport improvements, both near term (East-West link) and long term (Greensborough link, Port of Hastings), that will significantly benefit the Dandenong South NEC for perhaps all of the 40 years of the plan. And none of what I've described above, even taken at its most pessimistic, is fatal to Dandenong (the city centre's) evolution. However, it does mean that our city will have to struggle to its feet by itself from here on in.