The area that is now Westgate Park was once used as the site for the Westgate Bridge construction. The bridge took ten years to build and was completed in 1978.
Oscar Meyer, chair of the West Gate Bridge Authority said on its completion that he wanted to create ‘a beautiful park straddling the Yarra River to complement his sculptural bridge’.
In 1979, The Age described the land seen from the newly opened bridge as ‘scrofulous scenery indeed … dead water, swamp, sick factories, dead wood, haze, gasping barges, wretched refineries, wheezing chimneys, dead grass, institutional putrification.
Four years later the new ALP government established the Lower Yarra Development Committee and plans were developed for the site to be made into an undulating landscape delivering on Oscar Meyer’s vision. Few parts of the park were to be left flat. A narrow gauge railway was envisaged with bridges between steep hills. A sound shell and sculptures were planned together with a visitor centre on the island in the main freshwater lake.
In 1984 work started. Vast quantities of rubble and soil of all kinds were trucked in from around Melbourne. Tipping fees for this material helped fund the work.
A third of the site was formed into lakes, mostly shallow but as these were not fed by natural water courses, water levels dropped in due course and water quality was often poor. The salt lake had been a sand quarry and so was deeper and is possibly fed by the sea water table.
There was insufficient money left to build railways and other attractions and the Park was planted out with Australian flora, much of it indigenous to Western Australia.
It was officially opened in November 1985 by the Hon Joan Kirner who was the then Minister for Conservation, Forests and Lands. It was handed over the following year to the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, Parks Division for incorporation in the Metropolitan Park system.
It is worth noting that in July the same year the Parliamentary Committee for Natural Resources and Environment was set up to inquire into ‘Access to Victoria’s Parks’ and that committee decided to:
….. place its emphasis on the consideration of the more passive and informal forms of recreation rather than on consideration of organised competitive sports.
One of the recommendations in its report – https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/papers/govpub/VPARL1987-88No29.pdf– was that:
Priority should be placed on increasing the level of community involvement in the planning and management of parks. An innovative approach to participatory management by Government and the community should be encouraged.
However, the Park was somewhat isolated from its nearest residential community by traffic to the Port and the very bridge that gave rise to it. Little interest was shown in the Park by the MMBW and its subsequent managers, Melbourne Parks & Waterways.
The garden beds became weedy and were eventually mown over and many plants like Bulokes and Melaleucas that were not indigenous to the area, took over and formed dense copses. Rabbits and foxes were common.
Mountain bike riders took advantage of the steep slopes and carved tracks throughout the Park. Various kinds of unwanted material was dumped there like old pier timbers from a nearby timber yard. In the early 1990s the section of the Park north of Todd Road was turned into a go-kart racing track.
All in all, Westgate Park in the 1990s was not a particularly attractive place to be.