ABC article – Plans afoot to revitalise the port city’s centre

With the Kings Square business plan passing council on Monday night, Freo residents can expect to see some great changes in our town centre over the next year.

Here is how the ABC covered it:

Plans afoot to revitalise the port city’s centre

By Lucy Martin

The sliding doors of Myer’s Fremantle department store whooshed shut for the last time last month.

For long-time residents, the retailer’s departure after 40 years signals the end of an era.

And, for a historical port city going through a time of unprecedented change, it may just open more doors than it closed.

Myer’s decision not to renew its lease in Fremantle was blamed on a raft of factors, including sluggish sales and high rental rates.

Only two of the building’s four floors were used and, far from being a drawcard for shoppers, the store stood practically empty on weekdays.

By the time it closed, the City of Fremantle had been aware of Myer’s flagging performance for several years.

A 2010 council report flagged serious shortcomings with the city’s retail precinct, including the distance between major shops, a lack of variety and several “dead spots”.

The report found those issues “detracts from the enjoyment of walking around Fremantle and also leads to elements of anti-social behaviour that further compounds the problem.”

It also revealed the vast majority of residents surveyed were choosing to shop in other suburbs other than Fremantle.

Not surprisingly, 48% nominated the port city as their preferred place to eat out.

But, when it came to fashion, homewares and gifts, the majority ditched Fremantle and headed straight to Garden City shopping centre in Booragoon.

Bob Stanton, from the Independent Retailers’ Organisation, believes Myer opting out of the city is indicative of a wider trend, with customers abandoning high street shopping in favour of sprawling malls.

“Fremantle is all about strip shopping, and shopping strips are dying all over Australia,” he said.

“People are heading to the big centres because it’s more comfortable to wander around in air-conditioning where the stores are confined to a small space.”

Mr Stanton says the introduction of seven-day trading has also robbed Fremantle of a key selling point.

Fremantle writer Colin Nichol, who has been monitoring the vacancy rates since 2005, says there are about 84 empty shops in the city’s CBD, twice as many as when he first began a tally.

They’re all problems Fremantle Mayor Brad Petitt is well aware of.

He says bumper-to-bumper traffic and packed car parks every Saturday and Sunday are testament to the popularity of Fremantle’s fresh food and tourist market.

The weekend rush is in stark contrast to other days of the week, when trade is quiet.

“We know our challenge is to make Fremantle work as a vibrant economy for seven days a week, not three,” he said.

“I think the best way to do that is to get more people living, working and playing here.”

The 2010 retail report has become the blueprint for an ambitious overhaul of Fremantle CBD’s retail precinct.

To market, to market

At the centre of the plan is the Kings Square precinct, which includes Fremantle’s library, council offices, visitors centre, car parking and the Myer building.

The $220 million project will involve council selling several buildings and the car park to Perth-based company, Sirona Capital Management, which already owns the Myer building.

This week councillors voted to formally adopt the business plan for the project, paving the way for Sirona to redevelop buildings and fill the space with tenants.

It will be the biggest single redevelopment in the city’s history.

“What we’ll see is a range of speciality shops moving in (to the Myer building), rather than a department store moving back in,” Mr Pettitt said.

“Above that will be several floors of office space.

“At the moment, only two floors of the building are being used, but at the end of this development it will be five floors and they’ll all be filled.”

The council hopes to hold an international architecture competition with the winner designing buildings in the civic square.

Mr Stanton believes Fremantle’s fresh market is its biggest drawcard and wants to see it expanded.

He envisions a grassed area with plenty of buskers and the party atmosphere Fremantle is known for.

He says the markets could even be moved to the old Myer site as part of the Kings Square development.

Mr Pettitt says the council is working hard to capitalise on Fremantle’s market atmosphere.

“They are one of the things that define Fremantle, that sort of distinctive market produce that you can’t get anywhere else,” he said.

“I think the future of shopping here is going to be about (providing) a place where people come for a unique experience and produce they can’t get anywhere else, rather than trying to compete with shopping centres.

“We’d be happy to see the markets expand but we’re also working on other day-time markets five days a week in our main square.

“The new Saturday night market on Bather’s Beach is really popular too.”

Work has also started on boosting the number of permanent residents, guided by the council’s retail model plan.

Last month, housing density in non-heritage areas was increased in a bid to quadruple the number of people living in the CBD.

The car park squeeze Mr Pettitt refers to is being addressed, too.

“Not only are we looking at providing substantial new parking as part of the redevelopment, but also making that parking more user friendly, such as making the first hour free in major carparks and half an hour free on the streets,” he said.

Creative appeal

Marcus Westbury is somewhat of an expert when it comes to revitalising a struggling city centre.

Several years ago he started a non-profit group called Renew Australia, at a time when the NSW city of Newcastle had around 150 vacant shops in its CBD and key retailer David Jones closed down.

His organisation convinced building owners to lend their otherwise vacant spaces for free.

“We then made those buildings available to creative enterprises and ended up launching more than 90 projects in about four years,” he said.

“We targeted designers, artists and craftspeople who were not retailers in the traditional sense, but who added a lot of interest to an area.

“Many already had successful online businesses but we encouraged them to open physical businesses as well.

“The malls have since filled up and we’ve gone from having lots of empty shops to almost 100 per cent occupancy.”

Mr Westbury spoke about the concept at an urban planning forum in Perth.

“One thing we’ve learned is that activity creates activity,” he said.

“If new things are opening and the area is full of original things, it attracts people and goes from there.

“There’s probably a dozen shopping centres with the same 100 shops in them, so to stand out you need to offer something distinctive and I think Fremantle has got that potential.”

Fremantle council runs a similar program using its own buildings and has commercial buildings in its sights.

Mr Pettitt says work has started on convincing local building owners to get involved.

“I would like to see this expanded so we have no empty shop fronts in Fremantle,” he said.

“As a carrot, the council will offer incentives to enable this to happen and help manage the process.”

He is philosophical about Myer’s decision to leave Fremantle, reasoning the move opens more doors than it closes.

“The end of the 40-year lease came at a very challenging time for department stores, when the future of retail was, and still is, being questioned,” he said.

“Certainly when a store like this leaves there is a sense of crisis.

“But out of crisis always comes opportunity, and I think this is Fremantle’s chance to totally rethink how it does retail, and then move forward.”

Topics: urban-development-and-planning, fremantle-6160

First posted Tue Feb 12, 2013 6:42pm AEDT

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

One Response to ABC article – Plans afoot to revitalise the port city’s centre

  1. Suz Blake says:

    This sounds exciting! I think Fremantle is ready for a new era. The idea of free or reduced leasing for small businesses is fantastic and will certainly help Freo re-establish its unique and creative personality. Without this incentive it does make it difficult for small biz though, so I hope something like this goes ahead. Weekday activity will always be an issue – we all work too much here in WA (compared to a similar town in Europe) to be able to get the most out of the cafe strip in Freo during the week. Mind you, on a Monday night, while the main drag was very quiet, the Buffalo Club was pumping – ladies darts night. We walked in and had a great time speaking to a few of the patrons whilst having a beer.

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