Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Freo under the microscope: Scheme Amendment 49 - tactics without strategy?

Dean Cracknell is the author of this post. He is a Freo devotee interested in creating interesting, diverse places for people and will be a guest contributor to The Fremantle Doctor blog.

The City of Fremantle has proposed “arguably the most important strategic development initiative in Fremantle since the lead-up to Australia’s defence of the America’s Cup in the mid-1980’s”. 

Wow, that’s important! So what is going on and what will it mean for Freo? Will the proposed changes be positive for the port city? Or will it destroy the ‘human scale’ of the area?

I’m going to clamber up on my soapbox to give you some views as an ‘outsider’ (an affectionate visitor to Fremantle). There are five issues I’d like to raise with Amendment 49.

No plan - tactics without strategy

To borrow from Sun Tzu, Scheme Amendment 49 represents a classic case of tactics without strategy.

The City of Fremantle does not have an overall strategy for the future of the city centre. To me, plucking twelve major sites and proposing increased building heights without looking holistically at the rest of the city centre seems like planning on the run. Without such a strategy, what will be the unintended consequences of pushing ahead with the amendment?

Preparing a game plan for the city centre was a high priority recommendation of the 'Drivers of Activity Centre Development in Fremantle CBD' report prepared for the City in February 2011. The report recommended that identifying strategic sites for redevelopment should be a medium term priority to be actioned “in conjunction with the development of a CBD-wide strategy or Structure Plan”.

By fast-tracking Scheme Amendment 49, Council and its Administration have ignored the advice of this report and are effectively planning in the dark.

Neglecting local businesses

Interesting and successful places need people. One of the things I notice about Freo's city centre is that it primarily caters to visitors. Shops supplying the needs of locals find it difficult to survive as there aren’t enough residents buying everyday goods and services. In essence, Freo has all its eggs in one (visitor) basket.

The city centre would likely struggle further if visitor numbers dropped. The introduction of seven day trading in the metropolitan area is one such catalyst for a potential drop in visitor numbers. This means Freo, which is set to lose its Sunday trading advantage, needs to finds ways to adapt to change.

The bottom line is that the city centre needs more residents to be viable. Scheme Amendment 49 primarily focuses on attracting retail and office space. It should instead require a mix of uses including retail, commercial and residential in all major developments to ensure there is a healthy mix of uses – more residents as well as office workers.

In this instance the numbers are pretty simple. Increasing the number of people living in the city centre means more money for businesses set up to cater for those locals. I'm disappointed that this doesn't appear to be a higher priority for Council.

'Look' and 'feel' of a building more important than height

To me, what matters most is not how high a building is, but how it looks, how it relates to the street and how it makes a person feel. This means a two storey building may not be human-scale, while a six storey building could be (or vice versa).

When it comes to discussing building heights, I'm cautious about simplistic approaches to controlling building height limits, such as having one maximum height limit across a site, such as the Woolstores Shopping Centre, that produces a plain flat-topped, box-like building.

I'm a lot more supportive of sophisticated and nuanced ways of ensuring that building height is well designed. Given the above example, avoiding controls that set one maximum height across an entire site is a must, especially long sites. I'd also consider the wedding cake approach where upper floors are setback from the street. This tactic allows for a 'win-win' outcome by having two or four storey facades along streets, with additional height located in the middle of the building and set back from the street.

Traditional architecture also provides an insight into achieving appropriate well-designed height. Older buildings often had taller street corner features set above normal facade heights. The National Hotel on the corner of High and Market Streets is one example of where this tactic was used in Freo. Taller corner features help define street corners, provide architectural interest and stand out in the mind's eye as local landmarks. Another benefit is that they also provide more developable floorspace. In my view, the amendment should encourage and possibly even require taller corner features to reflect the traditional charm and character of Freo.

I think the building heights proposed in Scheme Amendment 49 are fairly reasonable, but the all-important design controls that provide the context for ensuring building height is well designed are missing in action. This leads me to my next issue.

High quality must be mandatory

The building heights nominated in the amendment have been proposed before design controls have been developed, which for me is the most disappointing aspect of Scheme Amendment 49. This approach is certainly not the way to achieve high quality development.

The amendment doesn’t 'personalise' the development requirements for local Freo conditions. What 'look and feel' can I build as a developer? Does it have to blend with Freo's character? Can I propose an ultra-modern design? Why? Why not?

Look at the buildings you like and don’t like when you are next in the city centre. Why do you like (or not like) them? What features stand out?

I pondered this as I was standing up at the Round House and looking down High Street recently. The old Fremantle Municipal Tramways building at No. 1 High Street is a gorgeous heritage building. The apartment complex behind the facade looks fairly decent I thought, but the thing I really didn’t like was that there were no contrasting colours and materials used. The apartment building just has limestone-coloured bricks and looks decidedly plain, boring and not in keeping with the local character, especially when compared with the contrasts evident in traditional heritage architecture.

The amendment should make high quality design mandatory, not a bargaining chip. It must also clearly define what high quality means in the local context. The community should not have to put up with poor design outcomes.

Lack of certainty

People like certainty.

The problem is Scheme Amendment 49 doesn't provide much certainty at all, for developers and most importantly for the community. What should new development look like? The amendment doesn’t say. I don't think anyone knows. The discretional design criteria listed in the amendment certainly doesn't help, if anything it probably makes things worse. Developers can't plan with any degree of certainty. The community certainly doesn't have a clear picture of the size of the potential development (as some of the building height is discretionary), what style will be used or what it will look like (as there are no design controls).

This is poor governance in my opinion. Yes, flexibility is important and necessary, but there should be mandatory minimum design controls to ensure that all new development is high quality and will complement the unique character of Fremantle.


Scheme Amendment 49 has a lot of good ideas, but it pursues tactics without strategy.

The community, local businesses and developers deserve a lot better.

1 comment:

  1. Dean's analysis of our City of Fremantle's approach to planning could not have been put better. "Tactics without Strategy" says it all. I'm not sure whether it's due to over-enthusiasm, naivety, or maybe a touch of arrogance. A well-meaning council that somehow thinks it can avoid doing the hard yards. Dean - brilliiantly said and Michael - thanks for posting it. Cheers, Lloyd