ABC article – Opinion divided over Fremantle building heights

Opinion divided over Fremantle building heights

Claire Moodie

Updated February 03, 2012 17:19:38

When Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt unveiled plans to quadruple the number of people living in downtown Fremantle, he knew it would be contentious.

But he probably didn’t expect opponents to build a 3D model and exhibit it at a local shopping centre.

The large cardboard model – impossible to miss beside the check-out of a major supermarket in Adelaide Square – is the handiwork of a passionate group of locals who say it demonstrates the “horror if Freo gets it wrong”.

They are campaigning against a plan to lift building heights across a dozen sites in what is called ‘the inner East End’ of Fremantle.

So far they have gathered several hundred signatures on a petition calling on the council to abandon the amendment to the local planning scheme and restrict developers to six floors.

It is part of a wider council strategy to boost the inner city population from about 800 to 3,500, along with doubling the number of city-centre workers.

“The council says it’s not high-rise, but we believe it’s high-rise,” says Roel Loopers, President of the Fremantle Society which is credited with saving many of the city’s historic buildings from the bulldozer.

“Compared to existing buildings, nine or 10 storey buildings would be high-rise,” Mr Loopers said.

An avid photographer, Roel Loopers has captured almost every angle of his beloved Freo and argues the increased height and density would harm the port city’s unique character.

“It’s one of the things that most tourists comment on, saying how fantastic it is that we preserve the beautiful old buildings, how fantastic it is that we don’t have the high-rise that Perth has got,” he said.

Slippery Slope

But Dr Pettitt – an electric bike rider who famously sold his mayoral parking bay to raise funds for charity – believes bringing the masses to live and work in the CBD will revitalise his hometown before it’s too late.

“I don’t want to see us keep sliding down a slippery slope where in a decade’s time all you’ll be able to buy in Fremantle is coffee, ice-cream and tourist t-shirts,” he said.

Like others, the Mayor is concerned by what he sees as the slow demise of Fremantle from its heydey as a thriving port city.

With the economic downturn and the rise of online shopping, local traders have been doing it tough; so tough that some have had to close their doors.

The population of the inner city has remained the same since 1990 at about 800.

The mayor believes mixed, affordable housing and more office and retail space are key ingredients in reversing the decline.

And he says for that to happen, building heights need to increase beyond the current maximum of four floors.

“What we’ve seen is that if the current height limits – if we don’t go beyond those – we’re not going to see any incentives for developing the rundown parts of Fremantle,” he said.

In a proposed amendment to the local planning scheme, developers would be offered varying heights of up to 28 metres with additional floors for environmentally sustainable design and low-income housing.

Artificial Advantage

Business leaders believe the mayor is on the right track.

The difficult retail conditions are set to worsen when Sunday trading is extended state-wide and Fremantle loses what the mayor calls its “artificial advantage”.

Tom Milsom of the Fremantle chamber of commerce agrees, but he also argues the council needs to be even more flexible with developers if it is going to entice them into the more rundown parts of Fremantle.

“There are a lot of ugly buildings in Freo,” he said.

“If someone said to me, let’s bulldoze Woolstores and build a six-star hotel above the desired height limit, I would probably say ‘why not?'”

“If a developer says for return investment, I need 15 storeys, maybe we should look at it.”

For Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University Peter Newman, the plan has positive spin-offs.

“It’s giving a whole lot more people the opportunity to live in a way that they don’t have to depend on a car and that’s the overall philosophy as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

“There’s no evidence that high-rise damages cities.

“It’s a very critical component in how cities become viable and attractive and efficient and more sustainable.

“There are always people who’re fearful about the future but in this case we’re going to be removing 60’s buildings which are very sub-standard.”

But it is the heritage buildings that remain in the East End, not the 60s eyesores, that concern retired Professor and Fremantle Society member David Hawks.

Mr Hawks argues the scale being proposed is “excessive” and comes at “too high a price”.

“Some are too close to iconic buildings like the Town Hall and the Railway Station and the scale would totally overwhelm those buildings,” he said.

He agrees that Fremantle needs to be revitalised but says the population should be spread over a wider area, not just confined to the inner city.

There’s also a view that there’s enough empty space in existing buildings in the CBD which, if developed, would satisfy two-thirds of the council’s targets.

Glory days

Whatever the future holds, it seems both sides agree that the proposed changes are the most dramatic since Fremantle’s last major facelift for the America’s Cup in the 1980s.

Brad Pettitt believes Fremantle has been surviving mainly on tourism since then, from what he calls the “afterglow” of the event.

“It’s actually time that we get ourselves on a sustainable economic basis and you can’t do that without people living and working here seven days a week,” he said.

The amendment to the scheme will go before Fremantle City Council in March and needs final approval from the State Planning Minister.

In the meantime, the Fremantle Society has promised to continue the fight for a compromise.

“The responses go from people objecting mildly to being horrified,” says the Society’s Don Whittington.

“Only about three people in the first week refused to sign the petition.”

“We believe this council also wants the best for Fremantle, we just disagree on how to get there,” adds Society president Roel Loopers.

“It’s just a matter of talking in a mature way and leaving the egos at home – from both sides.”

Claire Moodie is an Executive Producer of ABC Radio News and a resident of Fremantle

About Mayor of Fremantle Brad Pettitt's blog
City of Fremantle Mayor

2 Responses to ABC article – Opinion divided over Fremantle building heights

  1. .. and on the subject of the immiminent extension of general retail trading to Sundays, the city must urgently develop its advantages and uniqueness and really brush up its act. Most Fremantle people are aware of what the city offers, but the word must be spread more widely. When Saturday afternoon trading was permitted in ’88, weekend retail markets lost half their business. That’s a worrying example.

  2. CathyHall says:

    Very good point Colin.
    I believe the Fremantle City’s experts should be drawing on the learning available from the Portas Report (2011) on the socio-economic (poor) health of the High St culture in the UK for a broader response to our own High St woes. cfn cathy

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