Heritage – the key to a revitalised city

HIGH above the street, beyond the dusty streets and the flashy awnings, there’s a grand old city.

Ornate plaster facades and elegant sash windows caked with dirt sit still and silent above the chatter of the mall.

These historic buildings just might hold the key to the city of Perth – a revitalised city with lively malls and public spaces and a city with character and charm that people come to for an experience, not just bargain basement retail.

The building facades above the mall reveal the history of the development of the city and the flaking plasterwork next to blackened windows speak of its sad demise with the rise of the suburban shopping centre.

The wrought iron balconies, where once you could sip a coffee before a concert in Forrest Place, now house air conditioning units and pigeons.

The restoration of the character buildings in the mall is one of the central platforms of the City of Perth’s Draft Concept Plan for the malls.

Heritage Council manager for conservation and assessment Stephen Carrick said there were a number of landmark heritage buildings in the city, including the GPO and the Savoy Hotel.

“From our point of view, there is so much heritage that is under-valued that’s under awnings,” Mr Carrick said.

“I support getting the focus from the ground to the first floor.”

The vitality of the heritage buildings is intrinsically tied to their use – once a building is vacant, issues like water damage and general wear and tear become a more serious threat to the viability of the property.

“I think (the heritage properties) make the destination something different, rather than just going into a brightly lit, air conditioned space.

“And there are other opportunities, like Queen Street, that are also undervalued.

“From my point of view, you get a little annoyed at Western Australians trying to tell you how much heritage has been lost in Perth and that Fremantle is the only (heritage) destination.”

The malls Draft Concept plan, developed in conjunction with architects Jones Coulter Young, highlights the importance of the character buildings that adjoin public spaces and their capacity to define that space.

Hay Street has some exceptional heritage buildings, including some of the very first buildings in Perth, Jones Coulter Young director Andrew Rogerson said

“There’s so much clutter on the street level that people don’t look up and the buildings aren’t well utilised, so there’s no incentive to use them,” Mr Rogerson said.

“Consequently the malls are very quiet at night. Part of the strategy is to invigorate the building use at night and add uses like galleries, restaurants and residential and therefore detract the anti-social elements.”

But it is not a just a simple matter of lighting these character facades or adding a coat of a paint.

To fully interact with the city, the buildings need to be living spaces, supporting a range of activities, including retail.

The population of Perth has been a bit slow to accept first-floor retail, which is common in larger cities, simply because there has always been the space in Perth to keep shops on the ground floor.

“I think this (the demise of retail areas after dark) is a problem experienced worldwide, it’s more of a cultural issue with people in Perth, as they tend to live in the suburbs,” Mr Rogerson said.

“There has been a revival of inner city living, but it’s mainly on the periphery of the city, not right in the centre.

“The only way it can work is if the property is very cheap.”

Perth Lord Mayor Dr Peter Natrass said there was certainly untapped potential for the heritage buildings in the city.

“Many of them are privately owned, so all we can do is encourage the owners. If they can get the rental returns, they would do it.

“I’ve often wondered, in a city with 50-floor office towers and then just one street back you’ve got one level and the rest is just storage.”

In some cases, the stairway to the upper levels of buildings on the mall have been removed to make more retail space on the ground floor.

This practice is not just confined to the city centre – there are similar problems with the first- and second-story properties in Fremantle.

There is certainly some suggestion that city councils have an important role to play in educating property owners and landlords how these under-utilised properties can be used.

Fremantle City Council Consultant urban designer Ian James worked on some of the initial work for both the Murray Street

Mall and Forrest Place.

“The issues vary from place to place. What council can do is get in and try to resolve planning issues and illustrate to owners how it can be done,” Mr James said.

“Property owners and developers just might need a bit of assistance and it’s certainly something most cities need to look at.

“It’s the same in Fremantle and many other older city centres.”

Even with the support of the City of Perth, the test of the space above the city is in the rental returns.

If property owners could find a way to make these buildings work, life would return above the streets.

Colliers International managing director Graham Iddles said first-floor retail had always proved challenging in Perth.

“It’s because we’ve never had a

lot of it and retail activity is about getting the traffic through,” Mr Iddles said.

Without any real pressure on the demand for retail space in the city, retailers are unlikely to look for property above street level.

“If Perth was booming on a retail basis, it would be a different story, but there’s not the pent-up demand,” Mr Iddles said.

“But there has been a change in city retailing – it’s interesting that Woolworths is coming back into the CBD.

“They probably shut their last store in the city 10 years ago and now there’s a need for it to come back.”

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