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Feature article

Adaptive reuse of industrial places: Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area

At 250 ha, the Fishermans Bend Urban Renewal Area is one of the most significant urban renewal opportunities in Australia. A Strategic Framework Plan (SFP) for the area was released in July 2014, which provides a simplified structure for the precinct’s redevelopment over the next 40 years and includes design guidance for development applications. The existing industrial landscape of typically wide streets and large floor plate building stock, dating from as early as the late nineteenth century, offers a flexible canvas for adaptation and city-shaping. Its mix of uses is a rich tapestry on which a new part of Melbourne can develop. At the same time, there are inherent tensions in adaptive reuse, such as the added costs of repurposing historic buildings, the social sustainability of higher density living versus the often incompatible objective of preserving existing built form, and the need to deliver transport and community infrastructure far beyond that envisaged in the original planning of the area.

Initially low lying swamp and wetlands, Fishermans Bend once provided habitat for native plants and wildlife, and was thus a valuable resource for Aborigines who are likely to have occupied the area for thousands of years prior to European settlement. During the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth there was little settlement of the area other than the working class suburb of Montague in the east and small pockets of industry. Fishermen and others camped along the beach and made a marginal living from the area, though it was not until the 1930s that industrial uses prospered in the area (Biosis, 2013).

Post-war migration via Station Pier at Port Melbourne contributed to the continued development of the area, and industries thrived, particularly the automotive, including Rootes Australia (later merging with Chrysler) and Australian Motor Industries (later merging with Toyota). Over time the slums in Montague housed commercial and industrial uses, and as the area developed, levels were gradually built up to avoid earlier flooding issues, with slab floors laid over the existing.

As the nature of manufacturing, storage and distribution changed to larger scale industrial processes, the scale of floor plates, and in turn the subdivision plans and street sections across Fishermans Bend changed to reflect this. From the finer grain of the Montague precinct beside South Melbourne and the CBD, to the larger formats in Wirraway precinct closer the mouth of the Yarra River. The width of streets across much of Fishermans Bend, originally surveyed to service the predominant industrial uses, today offer the flexibility to be retrofitted to include street trees as well as access for pedestrians, bicycles, buses and potentially light rail in future.

Today, Fishermans Bend provides a multilayered case study for the repurposing and adaptive reuse of industrial buildings, streets and places. Former industrial areas in the Montague precinct now house panel beaters, architects and other design offices, childcare centres, restaurants and dwellings, while buildings in the Wirraway and Sandridge precinct contain uses such as breweries, distribution and timberyards, while yet others have been adapted for paintball, go-karting, cafes and a skateboarding venue.

Image: Fishermen’s huts at Fishermans Bend:

photograph by Albert Tucker, 1930s (Biosis 2013)

Image: Rootes factory (corner Salmon St and Williamstown Rd) – part building retained

(Biosis 2013)

Demand for commercial and residential development in Fishermans Bend will likely increase following the recent rezoning of land and the release of the SFP. The area has a number of aspects that will ultimately make it a desirable location, not least its proximity to the bay, the inner city and CBD, but also a relative accessibility to these areas by a range of transport modes. That being said, redevelopment costs in a transitioning industrial area such as this can be high. Sites may require remediation due to their industrial history, while ground conditions, particularly Coode Island silt, makes construction more challenging. Developer funds will additionally be critical for funding new transport and community infrastructure through cash contributions and works in kind, to ensure that both can be provided in a timely fashion. These factors are likely to necessitate high density developments that can deliver the desired returns on investment, consequently posing a challenge to the argument of adaptive reuse.

This pressure is recognised in the Design Guidance section of the Fishermans Bend SFP. The guidelines seek to retain links to the precinct’s rich past by encouraging existing buildings and elements of the urban structure to be incorporated into new developments through contemporary responses of adaptive reuse, where appropriate. A number of industrial buildings such as the Ballarat Brewing Company, the Johns and Waygood site, or the former J. Kitchen and Sons buildings are under heritage overlays in the planning scheme, and the City of Port Phillip is undertaking further heritage studies to determine whether additional guidance and/or protection is required.

In addition, the Metropolitan Planning Authority (the planning authority for larger developments) has entered a partnership with the Office of the Victorian Government Architect, which will provide a design review service for large scale developments within the precinct. Projects are to be appraised early in the design process, preferably at the pre permit application stage, so that advice can be incorporated into the subsequent permit application drawings. The design review will reflect on opportunities to enhance the overall public realm outcome and this will often include consideration of retaining and incorporating historic fabric. This would act as a valuable tool to create local distinctiveness, identity and character, and act as a link to the evolving history of the precinct.

More generally, one of the challenges for policy and place makers is working with the development industry to champion the long term value of retaining historic buildings, which understandably are not always immediately obvious in the current economic landscape. It is of course the future residents, employees, businesses and visitors whom will truly benefit from the collective transformation of the place, to which an aptly utilised historic building can contribute. This demonstrates why it important for developers to see that retention is a viable and value adding option, one that can result in genuine demand for the floor space created in an adapted building. Economic development strategies to identify future occupiers, financial incentives or funding opportunities can all be explored to make retention of historic buildings more attractive1. Alongside this, a complementary public realm plan is an important tool that can further enhance the value of retention.

The urban renewal task for Fishermans Bend is a long term project, likely to take forty years. As this transition occurs there will be a definite opportunity and ongoing role for adaptive reuse in buildings not currently identified as ripe for renewal, thus prolonging the procedure of memorialising the suburb’s past and adding character as a higher density urban form emerges in Fishermans Bend. A creative lens on such places and spaces will enable some of the industrial character of the place to be passed on, resulting in continuity and development.



Biosis (2013), Fishermans Bend Heritage Study, Report for Places Victoria. G. Vines, Biosis Pty Ltd, Melbourne


1. In countries with more history of (and need for) urban renewal, the role and value of historic buildings in regeneration can provide a valuable resource to aid this discussion.  The UK Government’s historic building body, English Heritage, has produced its second edition of Heritage Works – The use of historic buildings in regeneration: A toolkit of good practice (February 2013) and provides some good further reading on this topic.


Note that the views expressed in this article are the authors’ own, and do not necessarily reflect the view of the Metropolitan Planning Authority.