It’s time for building bridges

‘PERFECT is the enemy of good’. Sounds as if Voltaire, like a pragmatic politician, had little time for blind idealism, particularly if it got in the way of advancement.

When I was elected as mayor last year, we were about to hit an impasse with the state government over the bridges project. 

City of Fremantle thought it should be one way, the state another. 

With no formal decision-making power over the project, the risk was that we would end up on the outside, throwing ineffectual rocks at something that we knew could be better, but were no longer welcome at the discussion table.

We had to change something and that, from my perspective, was to identify what the must-haves were, and where we could compromise. 

And to accept that there were some elements of the project on which we could spend a lot of energy and effort, without any effect. 

But how to know what went in which category? 

As elected officials, I think we need to be guided by clear principles. 

For me, they are about taking a long-term view (intergenerational, even), ensuring what we do creates something that works, and always holding in mind the greater good. 

We’ve all seen politicians in recent times who have failed to do this, and chased after the popular headline – thankfully their future seems to be as short as their vision.

On that basis, I’ve sought to advocate for the best outcome available, within the realm of the possible. 

In my view that meant fighting to get an alignment that ran to the west of the old bridge and created a direct connection between the heritage precincts of North Fremantle and Fremantle. 

It meant not holding onto any aspirations to keep all or part of the old bridge, if it compromised the design of the new one. 

And it meant delivering an improved public space around the heritage Naval Stores, an asset of the City that has huge potential as an event space, as demonstrated so well during the last Fremantle Biennale.

With that context, I’ll try and answer the top three questions that I’m hearing at the moment.

Why can’t we keep the old bridge?

Like a lot of people in Freo, I love the look and feel of the old bridge. Growing up in North Freo it feels like something that is almost part of the landscape. 

But I don’t want to keep it. 

Why? Because it’s at the end of its life, and maintaining it will become an increasing cost impost not only on us, but on future generations. 

Cost estimates to keep it usable, even just for pedestrians and bikes, are likely to be millions of dollars per year. 

Main Roads have spent around $24 million over the past five years just keeping the bridge functioning. 

To refit if for a recreational use would cost around $80 – $100m. 

As there is no State Government Department of Keeping Heritage Assets Usable for Recreational Purposes, that cost will sit with the 31,000 residents of Fremantle. 

The City of Fremantle is blessed, and cursed, with a large number of heritage assets. The Roundhouse, the Fremantle Arts Centre, the Naval Stores to name just a few. 

They’re part of the fabric of our city and we love them, but just keeping up with essential maintenance is pretty difficult for a local government of our size. 

Add one more to the list? With inherent safety issues? No thanks.

Council has met with the Save the Old Bridge group and I had hoped they would bring forward some solutions to the concerns above. 

However I’m yet to hear of a viable and ongoing funding proposal to retain the old bridge. 

I also worry a bit about the actual experience of being on a retained old bridge right next to (and kind of below) the new traffic bridge…

Navigation

Finally, losing the old bridge means improving both safety and navigability of the river for boats and importantly, reduces the number of pylons in the water, which is important to Wadjuk Noongar people. 

Why is the design so boring?

So far what has been released by the State Government is a concept (or 15 per cent) design.

In non-engineer language, this means it’s a design that ticks the ‘yes, this is a technically feasible bridge’ box but hasn’t fully tackled the questions of aesthetics and urban design. 

However, there have been some major changes since the last publicly released concept and it seems fair to share, at this point, what those are – the new alignment of the bridge, the re-direction of Canning Highway (or whatever we call that two-lane road in the future) the Naval Store forecourt. 

To me this is the background on which we can now start to explore creative ideas for an attractive space, that we, and future citizens of Freo, can love and use. 

The simplicity of the bridge also provides an opportunity for design elements that truly represent who we are as a city and a destination. 

Huh? Why is Canning Highway going under the bridge?

Yeah, that was a bit of an ‘aha’ design moment. 

And we know it feels a bit different to the way we are used to driving in this part of the world. 

One of the tricky things about releasing a concept design is that it’s hard to explain the options that were discarded along the way. 

And where the bridge team had got to with the design that kept Canning Highway on the current alignment was that it would mean a very big, very wide intersection in front of the Naval Stores. 

If you thought crossing Canning Highway was difficult now, well this was next level.

City of Fremantle pushed back and asked the design team to consider alternatives… and they did. 

Which is what generated the idea for the realigned Canning Highway – a solution that kept traffic gently flowing (rather than stopping it and needing to build lots of lanes for it to stop in). 

It also meant that traffic could be reduced to one lane in each direction and slim down the road, creating a safer and more friendly pedestrian environment. And creating a future entry to south quay. 

Shine

So what next? I think we are at the point where the creativity and engagement of the Fremantle community can really shine. 

We’ve been presented with a canvas on which we can imagine new possibilities for beauty, both on the bridge and in the new public spaces created around it. 

If we keep fighting for what’s old, we might miss the opportunity to define the new. 

Note: The Fremantle Bridges Alliance are currently holding pop-up consultations around town – email hello@fremantlebridges.com. au to stay in the loop

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