$270m transformation awaits CBD

The Australian

21st September 2017.

Kings Square precinct brings bustle back to downtown Freo

A 30-year investment drought is set to be broken by a $270m urban renewal project in central Fremantle.

The West Australian port town is embarking on the largest capital works program in a generation, with hopes the civic and commercial development will return it to the big-spending heydays of the America’s Cup.

Fremantle hosted the famous yacht race in 1987, after the Australia II took the mantle from the US.

Its shopping sector has since struggled in a climate of reduced spending, a shrinking retail footprint and a stagnant population.

Traders were delivered another blow in May when Australia’s biggest cruise group, Carnival Cruises, decided to stop using Fremantle as a home port. Its reasoning that facilities were not up to scratch is estimated to cost the economy $130m annually.

While regarded as a separate city, Fremantle has become a suburb of Perth, engulfed by the WA capital’s urban sprawl. The renewal project, anchored in Fremantle’s geographical core, aims to once again set it apart.

The development fits into Western Australia’s only formal town square, a 2.2 hectare site that hosts the historic Fremantle Town Hall and St John’s Anglican Church. It feeds into Fremantle’s High St, home to a pedestrian mall.

Funds manager Sirona Capital is behind the reinvigoration of Kings Square. Its managing director, Matt McNeilly agrees central Fremantle is in a state of decay.

“It hasn’t moved with the times, there’s been real underinvestment in retail generally in Fremantle,” he says.

But with the median income in Fremantle 17.6 per cent higher than the Australian average, according to Tourism Research Australia, he sees plenty of opportunity.

“The reality is, there’s nothing wrong with the numbers in terms of foot traffic, there are plenty of people here. They’re just choosing not to shop here,” McNeilly says.

Sirona has pledged to shake up the local shopping experience, increase office worker numbers by 13 per cent and drive up annual visitation from the 1.6 million people who travel to Fremantle’s historic facades and winding streets. Rather than simply building a shopping centre, it wants to re-energise the entire city centre.

“I’ve spent a fair bit of time working overseas and I’ve seen cities that have been allowed to decay get turned around, and they’ve become very successful,” says McNeilly.

“Fremantle has great bones, it’s a port city, a university town, it has great tourist attractions, festivals and events, but the retail has been allowed to go and get rundown.”

By 2019, Sirona will complete the build of a multiple-use, day-tonight precinct spreading shops, cafes, restaurants and bars throughout a laneway, market hall, workshops, amphitheatre and micro park.

“I think it will be a new significant tourist destination,” says McNeilly of his addition to the place Lonely Planet named as one of the world’s top 10 cities to visit for 2016.

“Fremantle needs more layers. There are good things to do here, but there’s an opportunity for there to be a lot more good things to do. This additional layer will lead to numbers of people visiting Fremantle to boom and that can only be good for the economy.”

McNeilly believes a gamechanging turnaround is deserving of a daring title and the retail side of the development pulls no punches. FOMO is an acronym that in Generation Y-speak translates to Fear of Missing Out. McNeilly says the name plays with the popular term while also standing for Fremantle On My Own.

“The brand to my mind is contemporary, it has a social media feel, and it plays a significant role in consumer habits,” says McNeilly. “Fremantle also means different things to different people. Everybody’s got a connection to it. It can be whatever it wants to be to you, as the individual.”

In keeping with its non-traditional style, FOMO traders will not necessarily pay standard rents. “The approach is more going to be ‘What can you afford to pay?’ with ideas around turnover and different ways of cutting deals so both parties benefit,” says McNeilly. “So if they’re successful, we’re successful.”

The project is underwritten by an agreement with the WA state government to relocate some 1500 staff to the office space above the FOMO precinct.

Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt says the arrival of the Department of Communities workers will recharge the streets and diversify the demographic.

“It’s those Monday to Friday workers that Fremantle really needs,” he says.

“It’s a vibrant centre and the markets are open on weekends, but on weekdays it’s quiet. And the reality is, Fremantle hasn’t had enough high quality, professional jobs.”

The fund manager’s $220m investment is being met with $50m from the City of Fremantle to build a new council administration building and public library.

Mayor Pettitt is eager to put an end to decades of economic doldrums while also generating more affordable housing — Fremantle’s median house price sits at $725,000. He says boosting residential numbers is part of the broader renewal plan.

“We upped densities quite dramatically and allowed greater heights in the new part of Fremantle a few years ago,” he says.

“We want more people working in the heart, but also more people living there. We’re aiming for 5000 extra people within walking distance of the train station. When I became mayor there was 1000.”

FOMO architect, Susanne Pini of HDR says the design of the project sets out to enliven all of Fremantle with its non-traditional approach.

“Being such a big site in the centre of the city, we didn’t want it to be an island. This is an opportunity where we have to think much bigger than that,” she says.

“Fremantle has interesting pockets but no connective tissue. We’re rebuilding a piece of the city that makes the whole of the city start to function.”

Pini says the project’s focus is on the collective success of all retailers in the surrounding area. “In my mind, buildings are very rarely successful in isolation,” she says. “Competition is not an issue if we enable everything around us.”

Pini is confident FOMO will succeed in re-enlivening Fremantle in the same way another shopping centre project she worked on, Woollongong Central, boosted that regional town. She claims some 24 bars and cafes opened in the wake of the 2014 launch.

“People think, ‘if someone’s investing that amount of money in Fremantle, Fremantle must be worth investing in,” she says. “It becomes infectious and people feel like if they’re not there, they’re missing out.”

"We’re rebuilding a piece of the city that makes the whole of the city start to function."