10/05/2022 - 10:19

Fremantle grows its urban centre appeal

10/05/2022 - 10:19

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A port city known for its heritage buildings is slowly shifting to become one of Perth’s vibrant commercial centres.

Fremantle grows its urban centre appeal
Vacant commercial spaces for lease on South Terrace. Photo: Nadia Budihardjo

Long-time Fremantle residents no doubt recall numerous ebbs and flows in the port city’s character and fortune: the good times and not so good.

Local observers are saying the city is on the up and is undergoing a massive improvement in its commercial and retail development.

From a tourism perspective, however, visitor numbers to its famous South Terrace cappuccino strip are down, and so the city is working to re-establish itself as a destination of choice for business and tourists.

While the loss of international visitors and a decline in day-trippers during COVID hurt retailers and business, Fremantle Chamber of Commerce chief executive Danicia Quinlan said there had been roadblocks in activating vacant commercial spaces and providing attractions before the pandemic.

A notable example is the former Hungry Jack’s site on the corner of South Terrace and Essex Street, empty since late 2018.

During an assessment in 2021, the chamber found there were 6,800 square metres of vacant commercial space across upper levels of city buildings.

Danicia Quinlan says there is a minefield of issues as the city tries to activate its spaces. Photo: Gabriel Oliveira

“We’ve got impacts on bricks and mortar retail, we’ve got COVID impact, we’ve got hospitality, we’ve got landowner complexities and then we’ve got these heritage spaces,” Ms Quinlan said.

“It’s just created such a minefield in terms of making sure our spaces, particularly our ground-floor spaces, are continuing to be activated.

“Some of the things we face in Fremantle is a lot of our property holdings are owned by a few families, multiple generations within those families.

“Negotiating leases becomes incredibly complex through that family structure of those old property owners.”

However, she was confident some near- to longer-term proposals would prove attractive to tenants, with developers recently drawn to Fremantle’s Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings.

“We’ve got a couple of really good commercial developments on the horizon that haven’t been constructed yet are of a level of modern facilities businesses are looking for,” Ms Quinlan said.

“We’re kind of waiting for them to be constructed so that we’ve actually got the spaces that people are moving to.”

South Metropolitan MLC and former Fremantle mayor Brad Pettitt said the city had been struggling for a long time.

Dr Pettitt said activity had expanded out beyond the city centre, as more people lived on Freo’s urban fringe.

However, Dr Pettitt said there had also been efforts to revamp the city centre, with high-quality commercial spaces built in the past few years.

“It’s an interesting case … businesses are moving to the high-quality premises and that’s leaving a lot of the vacant substandard premises that needs to be developed,” he said.

The former Hungry Jack's on the corner of South Terrace and Essex Street. Photo: Nadia Budihardjo

Among major commercial projects are the 2016 redevelopment of the Atwell Buildings at the northern end of High Street Mall and the 2021 facelift of Manning Buildings, both spearheaded by Silverleaf Investments.

That company is also behind the $120 million redevelopment of the Woolstores shopping centre and the old Fremantle police station. Silverleaf director Gerard O'Brien said the city had been unloved for a long time, providing the company with opportunities to develop.

“[Fremantle] is slowly starting to come into its own. It will get there in time, that time might be five to 10 years, but it will happen,” he said.

The city’s west end, which covers almost 200,000 square metres and features 250 buildings, is the biggest single place included in the State Register of Heritage Places (2016).

Mr O'Brien said the only way to go forward was to spend the time and effort refurbishing heritage buildings.

“I guess it happens to older cities. What happens is a lot of properties purchased and owned by people who sit on and hold it, they can’t then readjust as the world changes. It is all about adaptation,” he said.

“Realistically that’s what’s been happening in Fremantle for a long time.

“These buildings are amazing buildings, let’s make them back to what they were and let’s make them functional.

“You’re spending more money than you do otherwise but at the end of it, it does work.”

The more, the better

Fremantle Mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge said the council had been working on brand marketing and holiday programs to increase visitors.

Ms Fitzhardinge said the city was in a period of transition, with new offerings available to keep people busy and opportunities to reactivate some empty spaces along the cappuccino strip.

“Some of those sites have been longer-term vacant. Usually those conversations [are] between private landlord and private operator and they will come to council after that … about what planning things are in place,” she said.

“We have to be careful because heritage in Fremantle is a large part of our value proposition.

“We are seeing a bit of movement there; most notably was Terrace Piazza being purchased by Yolk Property Group.

“It’s now being owned by someone local investing into that and making that a really exciting little retail precinct.”

City of Fremantle mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge. Photo: City of Fremantle

Fremantle-based Yolk Property Group bought the Terrace Piazza site last month, which includes Timezone on South Terrace for $18.2 million.

Group director Pete Adams said the site would need a lot of love in the upcoming months.

“It’s a very degraded space. The previous owners haven’t really spent much money on improving the space or looking at tenants … there’s just so much we could do,” he said.

“We’re based in Fremantle as well; I walk through this space a lot and see there’s some vacancies there.

“When we bought it … in terms of square metreage, 43 per cent of the centre was vacant.

“We’re already improving from that even just the media we got from buying it, it’s just opening to new people and getting phone calls from people who want the space.

“I must have shown people through every single tenancy since we’ve owned it.

“We’re hoping to get it 90 per cent full in the next year.”

Mr Adams said part of the challenge was bringing in new tenants to complement the existing businesses in the Piazza, including Escape Hunt.

“These are businesses that draw people in the centre, these are destination businesses, and from the destination businesses the ice cream shop and lolly shop get businesses out of that,” he said.

“It’s basically how to get tenancy right to get businesses that take advantage of that.

“There’s a lot of interest and you’ve just got to give people reason to be in a certain space.”

Mr Adams said Fremantle overall was improving but acknowledged more foot traffic was needed.

“To me it’s the only village-like atmosphere in Perth, it’s got a real draw,” he said.

“It’s just a case of trying to get as many people as possible there all day, workers and tourists.

“Maybe once upon a time they would go to Subiaco or the city, but now they’re going to Fremantle. That’s really changed with a lot of venues opening.

“If anything, I think Fremantle’s got a head start.”

Yolk Property Group bought the South Terrace Piazza site in early April. Photo: Supplied

Dr Pettitt told Business News he had been a strong advocate during his time as Fremantle mayor (2009-2021) for more people to be based in the city.

“As mayor, one of the key things we [council] were really keen on was bringing businesses back to Freo … but that only worked if there are more people living and working in Fremantle,” he said.

“As COVID recedes, it’s time for the government to bring government workers back into the office.

“The idea that people work from home half the week undermines the placemaking the city invested.

“We changed the planning scheme in 2011 to allow high-density residential. When I became mayor in 2009, there were 721 people living in the centre of Fremantle.”

Mr O’Brien said the office culture had also shifted with more demand for buildings with character.

“People don’t want to be in real modern office boxes either,” he said.

“They want to be in something that’s got character, they want to be able to be in something and see the history of it.

“It’s a slower process but we basically within two to three months of finishing, we were 100 per cent leased [at Manning Buildings].

“So, you can do it … but you’ve got to go the whole journey, you just can’t put lipstick on a pig and think it’s going to work.”

Demand to invest in Fremantle is growing, with Ray White Commercial having sold 164 High Street for $2.8 million earlier this year and a 21sqm property on Packenham Street changing hands for $175,000 last month.

Ray White Commercial WA senior commercial property adviser Brett Wilkins said Fremantle had its own niche market.

Mr Wilkins sold a block on the corner of Marine Terrace and Howard Street for more than $2 million in December.

“That one down there didn’t take long. That was sold within a couple of months,” he said.

“Certainly, a lot of old family money down there and they have their price expectations.

“[But] there’s a pretty good demand for Fremantle.

“It is an area of focus that we are conscious of, and we are putting some attention to it.”

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