JEREMY DAWKINS is the former chair of the WAPC, Fremantle’s senior planner back in the America Cup days and one of the country’s most credentialled urban planners.
WESTERN AUSTRALIANS, and those who find themselves in the heart of Fremantle, respond to an urban environment that is almost unique in Australia: small scale and fine grained; harmonious buildings and activities that are richly diverse; in short, a mature, organic city centre with a palpable sense of place.
It’s like this because of its largely uninterrupted evolution. There were some very bad post-war proposals, but fortunately they failed. There were shocks and mistakes along the way, but none that couldn’t be absorbed and integrated over time.
Two good examples of the city developing in an organic way, back when development pressure was increasing in the 1980s, are the Esplanade Hotel and Fremantle Malls-Paddy Troy Mall.
Developers with crass proposals for the latter site were promptly shown the door.
Then developers came forward who wanted to contribute to the city as it was – to repair sad corners and build something really good, adding something entirely new and commercial while stitching the city centre together.
After all, this is simply the place where a strong and diverse community-of-communities shops, works, meets, has coffee, and other everyday things.
As custodians of this place of national and international significance, the City of Fremantle and the WA government need to understand that these qualities didn’t just happen.
Sustaining the organic evolution of a community’s central place requires both a light touch and a heavy hand.
New places and activities must keep the place alive, but the inevitable incongruous, exploitative and extractive proposals need to be stopped in their tracks.
The City of Fremantle and the WA government need to realise that a “mature, organic city centre with a palpable sense of place” will not necessarily continue into the future.
Development proposals that want an excessive share of these values – without reinforcing them – will instead deplete them.
Proposals that are overscaled in this harmonious, fine-grained environment will diminish it.
Fremantle as a mature city centre demands mature and patient governance that is fully aware of how cashing in on the city’s very strong qualities will weaken them.
Once that begins to happen the decline will be hard or impossible to reverse.
That’s the story from many other places: Fremantle is too important (to the local community) to allow that to happen. The proposed hotel on the Spicer site is the obvious and immediate example of all the above.
Don’t get it
The owner and architects don’t seem to get it.
Yes, it’s great to repair another sad corner of the city centre. Fremantle can benefit from a new hotel, along with its other activities and connections. And yes, a substantial and handsome building would be a real asset.
Instead, the proposal is for a highly conspicuous, somewhat aggressive building rising straight up from Henderson Street to five storeys (six or seven residential storeys) — maybe it claims justification from the car park across William Street.
True, it is as fitting and sympathetic to the surroundings as that building was in the 1960s.
The intense work done in the 1980s to understand the development dynamics of the city – and to understand how to liberate good development while stopping bad development dead – is still valid. The fundamental principle – development through conservation, conservation through development – is still valid.
The simple prescription for the Spicer site – a four storey commercial building with two fine-grained storeys on Henderson Street – still seems exactly right.
Fremantle is not desperate for development, as once it may have been. This is not a one-off.
Rather, there is a great deal at stake here, involving principle, precedent and commitment, and the Fremantle community needs to ensure that the custodians of the city centre get it right.