PHILIP Hill admits the original World Trade Centre, tucked in between Flinders Street and the Yarra River, was an ''ugly duckling''. ''In some ways, the WTC was ahead of its time - architecture of the 1980s, with new generation campus-style layout,'' he said. ''It's been a sad, mixed and confused journey.''
That journey took a radical turn when Mr Hill, one of a group of private investors called Asset1, bought WTC six years ago. Tens of millions of dollars later, WTC has been transformed, having undergone a major refurbishment into an office, retail and restaurant precinct.
Dubbed WTC Wharf, it forms the heart of what will eventually be a 200-metre waterfront promenade linking the old World Congress Centre through WTC to the historic Goods Shed No. 5 next to the Charles Grimes Bridge. Asset1 also owns these two properties, having finalised the purchase of the congress centre in June.
Mr Hill, an Asset1 board member and group director of corporate strategy, estimated the whole development would be a ''$1 billion precinct''. It would eventually be the largest commercial waterfront property and the third largest office precinct in Melbourne.
The rest of the precinct is in the planning stage and will be developed in stages over the next five years. Cox Architects will design the heritage refurbishment of Shed 5.
It will include 3500 square metres of interconnecting parkland, more than 20,000 square metres of office space and 3200 square metres of retail outlets.
Mr Hill said the historic goods shed, which is part of the original Australian Wharf, was being restored to reflect its original heritage. ''The raw industrial look and the feel of the old wharf shed will remain, as well as a harbourside dock crane,'' he said. ''The development will be sympathetic to the shed's industrial past, while adding an amenity to the area.''
The original WTC was a confusing rabbit warren of a building, built by the Port of Melbourne, before it became the temporary home of Crown Casino in 1983.
For the refurbishment, Asset1 brought in architects and designers MGS Architects and Emery Studio.
Internally, many rooms have been demolished and been replaced by a central atrium that connects directly to the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The riverside theme has been emphasised by huge fish images on the atrium walls.
At ground level, the complex has been opened to the water through riverside restaurants, bars and a hotel. Some of the model fish used in the Melbourne Commonwealth Games procession function as artwork on the promenade to continue the waterside theme.
Five office towers constitute the heart of the WTC, with chief tenants the Victoria Police and the Thales defence group. In total, there is more than 70,000 square metres of lettable office and retail space. ''Retail is vital, especially for the waterfront,'' Mr Hill said.
There is a dedicated pedestrian boardwalk and separate cycle path across the waterfront.
These will be connected to South Wharf across the new Seafarers Bridge.
Water taxis will transport guests from WTC Wharf to various Melbourne events.