IT IS Melbourne's disappearing landmark, vanishing behind a wall of office towers Etihad Stadium, the once dominant feature of the Docklands, is fading from the city's skyline.
"When you come over the Bolte Bridge now, where once the real entrance, the opening of the city was the stadium, the stadium has now almost disappeared. It is still there if you look, but it is surrounded by the buildings," former premier Jeff Kennett told The Saturday Age.
The new National Australia Bank building at 700 Bourke Street is only metres from the stadium and work has begun on a new office tower for Medibank Private next door at 720 Bourke Street.
"Etihad is no longer the prominent feature of the Docklands development, it is becoming subsumed," said Mr Kennett, the man who brought the stadium to Docklands. But he said that was always the plan.
"When the Docklands Authority drew up the area there was no doubt that around the stadium, even in the corners around the stadium, was going to have buildings on it," he said.
This is a view supported by architect Peter Cole of Daryl Jackson architects, who helped design the $450 million stadium.
Etihad Airlines said it was not concerned by the disappearing stadium and it was very happy with the exposure that the naming rights had delivered.
Stadium boss Ian Collins said that while it was sad to see the stadium's prominence eroding, they always knew the day would come.
"It was quite attractive from where it was, but it was always designed to go the way it is with buildings around it to become a CBD venue," he said.
He said it was right to describe it as Melbourne's Madison Square Garden, a major sporting venue in the heart of the city.
While development around the stadium is not in dispute, there are differing recollections of how the stadium came to be located at Docklands.
Graeme Samuel, a former AFL commissioner and chairman of the Melbourne & Olympic Parks Trust, helped deliver the site to Docklands.
He said the site initially favoured for the stadium was the location of AAMI Park near Olympic Park.
"It all came to head one night when I think there was a Geelong v Melbourne match on at the MCG and there was a Neil Diamond concert on at Rod Laver. Kennett was there, and [former treasurer Alan] Stockdale and myself and it took us all about an hour and a half on this Friday night to get out of the underground car park at Rod Laver . . . I am not sure who got on the phone first on Monday morning, it was either Jeff or Stockdale who rang and said that seals it, there is no way you could add another facility," he said.
Mr Kennett does not recall the Neil Diamond concert and said the stadium was located in Docklands as a development catalyst for the precinct.
Meanwhile, questions are being raised about the stadium's future at Docklands. The AFL will take ownership of the stadium, currently owned by a range of superannuation funds, in 2025 and possibly sooner.
There is speculation the AFL has considered options for the $1 billion asset on the prime CBD real estate site, including even moving to a new stadium site. "Knowing who's involved with the AFL at the moment, I have no doubt that in securing title to the Etihad Stadium . . . it gives them access to options that they don't have if they don't own the building," Mr Kennett said.
"They could relocate anywhere. I am not saying that is what they are going to do, but they're going to get access to prime real estate which at the moment has a stadium on it which is not overly utilised," he said. "That will be a decision both for the AFL and the clubs. The clubs will have a big say in this, I can assure you," he said.
Asked if the AFL had considered moving to a new stadium site, Patrick Keane from the AFL said: "I couldn't answer a question for what we will do in 2025."
The disappearing stadium
Once seen as the centrepiece of Docklands, Etihad Stadium is now hidden from most vantages by encroaching development