Fresh winds lift the fortunes of FremantleWalyalup Civic Centre

Fresh winds lift the fortunes of Fremantle

Ten years ago, Fremantle was on its economic knees. Big retailers – Myer, most specifically, had vacated the place along with the Hoyts cinema chain. The city centre was sad.

Based on strategic development decisions taken by the council in 2012, Freo is abuzz with energy and promise. A $1.8 billion pipeline of pending projects is bumping up and up.

A cast of WA billionaires – Twiggy Forrest among them, and visionary property investors, have been jostling for the best positions in the Victorian and Federation-rich fabric of the port town. 

And they’ve hatched exciting plans for new hotels, mixed-use and mid-rise residential, for restaurant and retail experiences. There are several social and affordable housing schemes on the drawing board.

Ten years from today, Fremantle Mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge says that when all these schemes come to fruition, and when the port’s mercantile activities move further south from the town to free up more sites – and these on the waterfront – she’s hoping “we’ll be bursting at the seams with genuine Freo industry”. 

That’s the mayor’s generic for a colourful place that genuinely will be balancing its work, live and play branding. “At the moment, the play side is going well for us, especially on the weekends. But we’re keen to see more apartments and an inner city (Freo) residential option that will bring the live and work bit more alive”.

Just this month, Hesperia, one of WA’s biggest property developers, paid multimillions for the 1927 Elders Woolstore that had been vacant for decades. The mooted plan is to feature the original brick structure in a mixed commercial and residential zone. 

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The 1927 Elders Woolstore had been vacant for decades before a multimillion development investment Photo: supplied

In the same timeframe, Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest’s Fiveeight property arm projected its proposals for the Spicer’s Hotel that Sydney’s Smart Design Studio will craft as a six-level, 117-room boutique establishment on a car park site near the centre of the town.

The car park cost $7.6 million, and the U-shaped hotel will cost $35 million to build next to the famous Fremantle Markets and some bijoux restaurants housed in nicely tricked-up old buildings such as the court house and the former warder’s accommodation of the convict-built Fremantle Prison that is now the storied Warder’s Hotel.

The mayor says the local design advisory panel is still considering the Spicer’s Hotel design … “and everyone has an opinion”.

Another significant site she calls “a strategic location right at the gateway to Fremantle” has already been levelled, and the hoardings are up for yet another local development by Silverleaf Investments. This will be a major residential property from the O’Brien family, another “of the really dedicated Fremantle investors who have been at it for a while”.

None of this would be happening if a previous council body hadn’t taken the chance to lift development heights to reasonable but not overwhelming scales and revived the central Kings Square behind the 1887 town hall in a public-private partnership with Sirona Urban. That project has realised a community multiplex now called formally Walyalup Koort and informally “Freo’s front lawn”.

The stunning $270 million civic heart won Kerry Hill Architects four WA architecture awards this year, including the main George Poole prize. 

Next to this building is another masterstroke of this co-development plan called, for no reason that anyone can confirm, FOMO. “Maybe it means fear of missing out?” 

A combination of basement entertainment zone, ground level and lunchtime-busy hawker’s style food halls, and upper-level offices that now house 2000 government workers, it’s another big injection of activity. A large car park next door caters to 840 cars.

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FOMO is the place for quick casual dining. Photo: Sirona Urban

It’s all adding up to such an interesting new profile for Freo. While the rest of Australia could not penetrate the COVID curtain that separated WA for the best part of two years, the place carried on and earned a rating from Time magazine this year as one of the 50 greatest places to visit on the planet. 

Rated alongside Copenhagen, Queenstown(NZ), Miami and Bali, Time said Freo was “bustling with food and drink options”. The mayor said, “we were pretty happy with that”.

You can feel the potential as you walk around one of WA’s most charming heritage towns. As one resident commented, “you’ve gotta love it when a plan comes together”. 

But as Hannah Fitzhardinge hopes, it’s just the beginning of a new beginning. “Freo is active. There’s definitely something here, and it’s a place people want to come back to. In a world where other main streets are struggling, you can come here and find authenticity every day of the week.”

With all that is about to occur in and around Fremantle, her main wish is that its free-spirited authenticity is never eclipsed.

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