The West Australian

21st November 2019.

There was a period during the America’s Cup challenge of February 1987 when Fremantle seemed like the centre of the world.

The port city was on display in all its gritty glory as 100,000 people from across the globe and the State flocked to watch the yacht races. Locals lined the wharves for a glimpse of Australia’s Kookaburra III, Americans held court in heritage hotels and the local Rajneeshee danced down the cappuccino strip in their orange robes.

And all the while, Freo’s famously hard-working Italian fishermen carried on with their nets and their grappa and their chess games near the town hall.

It was as if the town’s Mediterranean, bohemian and seafaring influences were all singing in unison. In the end, locals didn’t really care that Australia lost the cup because Fremantle had clearly emerged as a winner anyway.

It had been overhauled in the lead-up to the big event, with the restoration of heritage buildings, the extension of the rail line and the creation of Challenger Harbour, among other developments.

But the little things stayed the same. Parking, beer and gelato were cheap. Fish and chips were an institution. Life was good.

But those party days of 1987 are a far cry from recent times. “The only thing missing from Fremantle now is tumbleweeds,” says former mayor Peter Tagliaferri.

It is an extreme sentiment that not everyone agrees with, though few would disagree that despite its special and enduring qualities, Fremantle has seen better days.

These days, about 13 per cent of shops are vacant. Visitor numbers in May were down 35 per cent compared to the previous month, and lower than most other months since records began in mid-2015.

Thousands of workers have left Fremantle in recent years with the closure of Myer department store, the relocation of the Dockers football team and the downgrade of Fremantle Hospital.

The cultural heart of the city — the Fremantle Port — has been increasingly undermined by containerisation and faces an uncertain future following a recent recommendation by the Westport Taskforce to build an outer harbour in Kwinana.

Like most cities, there are social problems, too. Beggars travel in from across the metropolitan area to target locals who are renowned for being soft touches. Some taxi drivers have even put Fremantle on their list of weekend no-go zones.

“The Green experiment needs to come to an end,” Mr Tagliaferri said, in reference to the council’s approach to social issues.

But current mayor Brad Pettitt says the malaise that gripped the city for decades after the America’s Cup has come to an end, with Fremantle on the cusp of its biggest-ever transformation.

“There is $1.3 billion in the development pipeline within this five-year period, which is more than at any other point in history, including the America’s Cup,” he said.

The investment will deliver more than 1800 new homes, 36,000sqm of retail space, 42,000sqm of office space and 750 hotel rooms.

Fremantle’s special qualities and its future potential have not gone unnoticed by Perth’s business elite.

The list of people with developments sites reads like a who’s who of the business community — including Andrew Forrest, Angela Bennett and Adrian Fini.All have staked a claim in key locations around the city. And what they do with them will be vital to shaping the future.

Their potential projects radiate around what many see as the crucial first stage of Fremantle’s commercial revival — Sirona Capital’s $220 million Kings Square project in the heart of the city at the old Myer site and the council’s adjoining $50 million office and library. The project reached practical completion on September 30.

The mixed-use development includes offices, food and beverage outlets and shops. In March 2020, it will open its doors to 1500 government workers from the Department of Communities, the important anchor tenant to help make Fremantle more of a Monday to Friday proposition instead of just a weekend wonder.

Dr Pettitt says the key to Fremantle’s revitalisation is more workers. “Fremantle needs to be more than a dormitory city — it has to be more than a place where people go to sleep,” he said.

“That’s the danger of where Fremantle was heading. It was losing jobs and becoming very quiet,” he said. “Fremantle was always Perth’s second city. We are keen to get it back — to be Perth’s second city again.”

Sirona Capital’s Matthew McNeilly says the new Kings Square precinct will breathe new life into the centre of Fremantle, offering an authentically Freo-style vibe rather than a typical shopping mall mix. Retailers would have broad appeal, and above all, the precinct would be family friendly.

Despite being in the centre of town, Mr McNeilly says the area had long been neglected before works commenced. “It was the biggest blight on the CBD landscape,” he said. “It was in a significant state of disrepair.”

But he concedes the development won’t fix all of the port city’s problems.

“It will take 20 years to turn Fremantle around, and we are about 10 years into it. But I think we have done the bulk of heavy lifting that needed to be done. This project has become a catalyst for what others are proposing to do.”

Mr McNeilly believes a bigger local population is key to helping the city’s retailers, bars and cafes, and its rich tapestry of arts and culture.

The population sits at just over 1200 people, and he believes another 5000 residents could comfortably be housed in future apartments in the east end.

“There is a lot of love for Fremantle, and a great deal of care for how we develop, because you cannot find another Fremantle anywhere else in Australia,” he said.

Striking the right balance between developing and maintaining Fremantle’s unique qualities is a matter for debate, and one that will likely come to a head with the proposal by a company owned by the family of reclusive mining billionaire Angela Bennett, whose fortune is estimated at $2 billion.

Her son, Todd Bennett, is the executive director of her investment vehicle AMB Capital, which has control of 21,500sqm of prime waterfront, next to Little Creatures pub and restaurant.

The group is now in the early stages of public consultation. Its proposal is to remove the boat-lifting facility they bought from the Kailis Group — with the intention of relocating elsewhere on the wharf — and building apartments, short-stay accommodation, offices, shops, food and beverage outlets and a charter boat pick-up area in its place.

The removal of the boat-lifting facility would mean the precinct is no longer a working harbour.

Fishermen were furious at the plans, claiming the removal of the key piece of infrastructure changed it from a working harbour to a recreational one.

Speaking to The West Australian earlier this year, AMB non-executive director Philip Soumilas said the company “intends” to relocate the 40-year-old boat-lifting facility to elsewhere in the harbour if it is axed under a redevelopment, but could not guarantee it.

Dr Pettitt has since said the council would only allow the plans to proceed if the boat lifter remained in the fishing harbour. But this means it could be placed up to nearly 2km away on Capo D’Orlando Drive, which is technically in South Fremantle.

Whether the locational limits are deemed close enough is again a matter for debate.

WA Fishing Industry Council boss Alex Ogg told Insider this week he was not certain at this point whether the fishing community would find it acceptable to place the boat lifter so far away from the action in the main harbour.

But many restaurateurs support the proposal. Cicerello’s Nick Unmack has previously praised it as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”.

AMB has its work cut out for it in trying to satisfy both sides. “Members of the community, fishing boat harbour traders and maritime industry participants were recently asked to share their ideas regarding the Harbour Connect site via a survey and focus group sessions,” Mr Soumalis said in a written statement.

“AMB intends to use the outcomes of this ongoing engagement to shape and inform design workshops scheduled for later this year and look forward to continuing this exciting process to define the future of the Harbour Connect site and broader Fishing Boat Harbour.”

If it goes ahead, the development is expected to bring more tourists and local residents, which would no doubt be welcomed by mining magnate Forrest and developer Fini, both former West Australians of the Year, who each have major development sites in Fremantle.

Mr Forrest’s Minderoo Group owns a 2834sqm block, known as the Spicer site, which is used as a public carpark.

It last year bought the $6.65 million site, which sits adjacent to the Kings Square redevelopment and is approved for a five-storey mixed office and retail development.

Minderoo chief investment officer John Hartman said the site was earmarked for a boutique hotel.

“Fremantle’s development potential has long sat untapped. The vibrant community hub taking shape in Fremantle presents a compelling long-term investment opportunity.

“The Spicer site, which we acquired last year, has existing development approval for office and retail space. Minderoo is currently considering the feasibility of a lifestyle hotel concept positioned to deliver an environment that truly reflects Fremantle’s unique character, heritage and distinct attitude.

“Travellers have a desire to immerse themselves in the destination and act like a local during their stay and this is what we are focused on developing.

“Fremantle offers a point of difference and authenticity that very few places in Western Australia can replicate.

“The sense of history, the maritime connection, the ever-increasing quality of food and beverage outlets, all make Fremantle an enticing place to live, play and invest.”

The Fini Group has plans to redevelop the Italian Club on Marine Terrace. Mr Fini chaired the Future Freo Steering Committee of 2015, which identified Greater Fremantle as an undervalued regional and State asset, which did not share in the growth experienced in the Perth and Peel regions during the recent mining boom.

The Fini Group is keen to develop the site in a way that opens up the Esplanade and creates a better link from the working port and the rest of the city.

Kyle Jeavons, the development director, said the proposal involved a five-floor development with new rooms for the Italian Club, a boutique hotel, some apartments, a co-working space and a wellness centre.

A nearby carpark on the Esplanade would be unpaved and grassed as an extension of the park.

The existing 270 car bays would become part of the Italian Club development.

The 1000sqm footprint for the building would also include some public spaces, and be surrounded by a community garden.

While a concept plan was still more than a month away, it was envisaged that the development would fit in with a master plan that proposed better linkages between the working harbour and the west end.

“At the moment, there are too many barriers — both physical and psychological,” Mr Jeavons said.

He said the Fini Group believed Fremantle had a lot of potential.

Others had shown themselves to be increasingly aware of this potential too, he said, claiming there had been some significant investment and development in the last three to four years.

“We have got the most intact heritage streetscapes and some of the most beautiful buildings, and from a culture and the arts perspective, it is leading the way.”

Silverleaf Investment has seen the potential in Fremantle for many years, having set up its development company in 2001 and focused primarily on the port city.

But director Gerard O’Brien has been a vocal critic of the council, which it has previously accused of failing to move with the times in regards to height and density.

The council rejected its first plans for a $120 million development at the Woolstores site in Fremantle that included student accommodation, aged-care units, a supermarket and hotel.

Mr O’Brien told The West Australian at the time he was “gutted” by the council’s decision to reject the $120 million proposal.

“There are easier ways to burn a couple of million dollars and three years of your life,” he had said. His second design — a dramatically scaled down design costing only $12 million — was rejected in September last year after it was deemed it was not worthy of bonus height because design did not leap the “exceptional” hurdle.

Silverleaf submitted its third design recently — a funky $20 million proposal for a six-storey mixed-use development, which includes a refurbished supermarket and retail stores on the ground level, new office space, a childcare centre and a 141-room hotel.

The $20 million plan also includes a five-level space for a new police station and additional parking.

Mr O’Brien told Insider it was too difficult to get big projects through council, so he has broken the project up into stages.

While welcoming the council’s decision in recent years to allow heights of up to 10 storeys in the CBD and the east end, he complained it was still too difficult to get bonus height approved.

“The process is shrouded in so many subjective assessments,” he complained.

“It sounds good, but the system is still not allowing height.”

Nonetheless, Mr O’Brien believes Fremantle and its potential is unrivalled across the State.

He mentions the heritage landscape, the arty vibe and its university campus in the city centre.

He points to its salty soul and its irreverent residents.

“Fremantle is magnetic,” he said.

“Perth wants the CBD that we have got.

“We have got all the aspects that are the tapestry of a great place.”