28/11/2006 - 21:00

Farsighted approach needed at Freo

28/11/2006 - 21:00

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A largely overlooked public address by University of WA emeritus professor of geography, Martyn Webb, delivered earlier this month focused upon a rarely considered aspect of one of Western Australia’s most historic urban or man-made precincts – Fremantle.

A largely overlooked public address by University of WA emeritus professor of geography, Martyn Webb, delivered earlier this month focused upon a rarely considered aspect of one of Western Australia’s most historic urban or man-made precincts – Fremantle.

“Although WA’s gold rushes are commemorated in many places, Fremantle and Kalgoorlie-Boulder are the very epitome of the events that between the years 1892 and 1902 transformed WA,” Professor Webb said.

“By contrast, the city of Perth, perhaps the greatest beneficiary of this extraordinary period out of which a new WA emerged, reflects little of that same period.

“This is evidenced in the enormous contrast between Perth and Fremantle in their respective gold rush inheritances.”

Fremantle, thankfully, retains much of its historic character; something only Perth’s King Street precinct, between Wellington and Murray streets, can boast.

Speaking at the International Council on Monuments and Sites held in Fremantle, Professor Webb said survival of the port city’s historic character was, to an extent, fortuitous.

“The conservation values we now attach to Fremantle’s built environment were, I regret to have to say, only recently acquired,” he said.

“Without them, much of what we now treasure as priceless would have been destroyed by implementing recommendations made by [town planners] John Hepburn and Gordon Stephenson in their 1955 report on Perth and Fremantle.

“Although they recognised Fremantle was, in their own words, ‘rich in historical association’ and possessed ‘a unity and a character which are rarely found in cities little more than a century old’, and advised that ‘planning steps should be taken to strengthen rather than breaking down these assets’, their actual recommendations, if fully implemented, would have led to the wholesale destruction of old Fremantle.

“Fortunately, as events were to prove, Fremantle escaped from planning blight; but by only a narrow margin.”

Both, for instance, saw Fremantle Town Hall as being “very inadequate” and although well-sited when built was seen as “an impediment to the growth of the shopping centre”.

“They recommended building a new town hall as part of a cluster of civic buildings on the gaol site,” Professor Webb said.

“Hepburn and Stephenson were so besotted with traffic engineering that they actually recommended demolishing the old markets, as they stood in the way of improving a major road junction.”

But it was the latter part of Professor Webb’s address that particularly caught State Scene’s eye; the section dealing with the character and fate of the 180 hectares of land from the North Wharf towards Cottesloe.

Here, he has called for boldness and a farsighted approach to truly enhance this strategically situated tract of land.

Fremantle, he contended, had two over-arching and differing focuses.

The first is Victoria Quay; the land-backed port CY O’Connor designed and built which has had a “close association and in direct contact with the city”.

The second, the North Wharf area, was developed much later to handle bulk cargo – especially wheat for export, a sector that fully emerged well after the pivotal gold rushes that so boosted WA’s population and was closely linked to an expanding inland rail network.

“Isolated from the city on the other side of the dredged channel, North Wharf was developed by the port authority as an independent entity with scant reference to the city,” Professor Webb said.

“Most of its traffic was carried by rail.

“However, the successful introduction of container traffic led the conversion of North Wharf into a dedicated container port during the course of the 1970s and 1980s.”

He said accommodating containers – from 300,000 in 2000 to more than 500,000 in 2005, with this set to more than double by 2015 – has involved reclaiming large tracts of land from the sea west of Port Beach Road, as well as constructing Rous Head Harbour.

North Wharf is now more than twice its 1960s area.

Once serviced by rail, nearly all its movements are now by road.

Huge container-carrying trucks constantly enter and exit, and these will increasingly disrupt life and traffic around Fremantle.

“Proportionate to the total of vehicles using Tydeman Road between the hours 6am and 6pm, haulage trucks comprise only 12 per cent, of which half are container trucks,” Professor Webb said.

“Small as this may seem to the authors of a recent report on container movements, in absolute terms this represents 1,400 trucks.

“Or, on average, one container truck every 30 seconds.

“The decline in rail-borne traffic entering and leaving North Wharf allowed 20,000 square metres of now redundant railway yards to be sold as seaside residential lots in what is described by LandCorp as a coastal village.”

According to Professor Webb, accepted almost without question is that Fremantle should remain a ‘working port’, in other words, the second focus – North Wharf – should forever remain intact.

“Although this may have operated in favour of Fremantle in the past, its continued application in the future will not be, I believe, in the best interests of the new revitalised Fremantle,” he said.

“To understand why this should be we need to look at how the interests of the port and the city have been, in recent years, drifting apart.

“This is in spite of what the port authority has been and is doing to foster good community relations with the city.”

With containerised cargo movements to grow rapidly, North Wharf seems set to forever be divorced from historic Fremantle.

Elsewhere, however, the trend has been to construct purpose designed container outports some distance away from their mother port.

The Fremantle Port Authority has instead opted to retain North Wharf area as a ‘working port’ and intends developing an ‘overflow’ container port on an artificial island in Cockburn Sound, designed to cater for an additional million containers.

“There is nothing in the published papers to my knowledge to indicate that a single Cockburn container outport was ever seriously considered,” Professor Webb said.

“This might help explain why the port authority prefers a split container port operation.”

Professor Webb said the aim should instead be to plan for a completely independent self-contained container port in Cockburn Sound and not for a proposed ‘overflow’ port.

This would mean a staged and complete ultimate withdrawal of the existing container and associated port facilities from North Wharf and the transformation of the land into an ocean side mixed-use suburb.

“Once vacated, the entire North Wharf area could then be developed as a major seaside residential, tourist, visitor complex linked to the city of Fremantle by a frequent service light railway system similar to that already serving Port Melbourne’s magnificent redevelopment project,” Professor Webb said.

“Rous Head would then become a magnificent setting for an ocean-side international yacht harbour and marina.

“Fremantle would still be a have Victoria Quay as a ‘working port’ whose people-friendly port operations will continue to complement the revitalisation of the city of Fremantle by focusing attention on CY O’Connor’s historic land-backed port as an authentic part of contemporary Fremantle.

“And, in the process, enhance Fremantle’s potential as a key Indian Ocean cruise ship destination.

“Developing North Wharf as an integral part of the city of Fremantle would create the most exciting seaside development ever contemplated in Western Australia: and in the process further enhance Fremantle’s growing reputation as metropolitan Perth’s finest tourist and visitor destination.

“Properly designed and managed, with water on all three sides and within easy reach of one of Australia most authentic heritage places, the North Wharf would at last truly become a working part of the city.”

Several years ago, State Scene persistently urged the Gallop government to be bold and farsighted by sinking the Perth-to-Fremantle railway from the Horseshoe Bridge to the Mitchell Freeway.

Dr Gallop and Planning Minister Alannah MacTiernan refused, despite then councillor Bert Tudori and Lord Mayor Peter Nattrass strongly backing that visionary proposal.

Professor Webb, and Perth architect, Ralph Stanton, were key contributors to a farsighted plan that would have led to Perth’s CBD and Northbridge finally being fully and asthetically linked.

Let’s hope Professor Webb’s farsighted North Wharf proposal isn’t ignored by Dr Gallop’s successor, Alan Carpenter, someone who boasts close links to Fremantle, via the Dockers.

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