Genesis or Armageddon? A ‘contagion, the kiss of death’

As we recently reported, last Thursday, by a majority of 3:2, the three specialist members of the Inner-Metro Joint Development Assessment Panel, or JDAP, over the opposition of the two Fremantle City Council members, approved the redevelopment of the heritage listed Genesis/Robert Harper Building in the historic West End of Fremantle. As to whether the ‘breathing of new life’ into the West End – the JDAP majority view – is a good thing or a bad thing is something on which minds differ. Some fear it spells the end of days for the West End, its Armageddon. Others see it as heralding a new day, a new Genesis for the West End and beyond.

In this new feature, Genesis or Armageddon? Fremantle Shipping News is pleased to share views on the significance of the JDAP Genesis/Robert Harper Building decision.

In this article, we bring you longtime Fremantle resident, former Freo City Councillor, and protector of Freo’s heritage values for decades, Gerry McGill’s reaction to the JDAP decision, as well as Gerry’s submission to the JDAP hearing in which he explained why the Genesis/Robert Harper proposal should be refused.

For other views, look here.

A key point, made by Andrew Sullivan in refusing the Genesis Building proposal (along with Ben Lawver) as Fremantle City Councillor member of JDAP, was that the Heritage Council of WA ‘experts’ relied upon by the other panel members at the JDAP hearing did not understand the collective values of the West End. Mr Sullivan declared that in fact the true experts were present in the gallery.

Artist’s impression of completed development

John Dowson, Carl Payne, Tom Perrigo, Matt Wallwork and I made well-argued presentations against the development. Far from ‘breathing new life’ into the West End it is a contagion that when repeated will be its kiss of death. I try to make this point in my submission below.

The total incomprehension of the JDAP specialist government appointees was evident from the comments of A/Deputy Presiding Member Ian Birch who opened with the statement that the presenters had done well but he was uncertain he could even consider their points as valid arguments ‘within the planning framework’. So excessive height and impact on heritage values are not part of the planning framework?

Mr Birch then closed with a long, patronising lecture on the importance of continued use to the maintenance of heritage values, confirming that he had totally failed to comprehend the points made by the presenters.

My own submission was as much from the heart as from the head. Along with other community members I have spent more than half of my life in the defence of Fremantle’s heritage values and in support of truly creative responses to them by Fremantle architects like Murray Slavin. As I pointed out, what I, John, Carl and many others did was a priceless ‘gift’ to Fremantle, without which the West End would not have survived.

We despair at having to repeatedly fight the same battles half a century later.

Here’s my submission to JDAP explaining why the Genesis proposal should have been refused.

Next year will mark 50 years since I was first elected to the Council of our fair city, on which I served for the following 12 years.

The mid-seventies were a critical period in the history of Fremantle, with proposals such as the widening of High Street, a freeway through the West End, and the demolition of the Evan Davies Library and adjoining buildings that are now Fremantle’s favourite coffee shop, Gino’s. Could Fremantle be imagined without it?

Legendary heritage warrior Les Lauder sounded the alarm and the Fremantle Society was born, Patron Sir Paul Hasluck. The succeeding decade saw the election to council of a cast since unrivalled: Les, me, Don Whittington, Peter Newman, John Dowson, and four future parliamentarians, including future Premier Geoff Gallop, supported by sympathetic Mayors Bill McKenzie and John Cattalini.

The city was saved from the highway-builders’ bulldozers, but perhaps more importantly the whole planning culture of council swung from ‘Develop or Perish’ to seeing the heritage values of the city as its prime asset, and their conservation as its principal objective. The arrival of Jeremy Dawkins added the vision and development of the planning policies to underpin the conservation thrust.

I mention this as it was a gift to Fremantle by idealistic people who devoted a good part of their lives to it (mostly unpaid). Guarding this gift didn’t then, and shouldn’t now, mean preserving the city as a heritage feature park. Responding and adapting to change and to the city’s dynamism are ever-present challenges, but respect for the City’s enduring values must never be sacrificed. The city won’t now be threatened by the bulldozers: it will die the death of a thousand single “minor” planning errors.

Which takes me to the Robert Harper Building, a single stitch in the fabric of the city, but weaken it and things will begin to unravel. Entering the West End along Phillimore St you first encounter the important landmark Post Office building (the integrity of which is itself now under threat) and then around the corner the Harper building comes into view, prominent on its acute corner. Its completely non-functional cupola no doubt represents a bold statement of its owner’s confidence in the commercial future of the city. Taken together, these buildings make a perfect entry statement to the magnificent Phillimore place and the heart of the West End.

This development has much to commend it but fails the ‘respect’ test by placing apartments on the building’s roof. While no doubt making an important contribution to the economic viability of the development, they overwhelm the cupola and destroy its landmark significance. To quote from the Heritage Impact Statement:
The acute corner of Phillimore and Pakenham streets is the domed landmark of the Robert Harper Building that extends along both street frontages. It is integral to the consistency of form, rhythm, scale and architecture of the West End precinct.

Referring to the impact of the apartments, the HIS states:
Robert Harper Building is integral to the West End streetscape presenting a parapeted frontage to both street frontages, with the dome topping the landmark curved corner in an oblique view encompassing multiple buildings along Phillimore and Pakenham Streets. The proposed rooftop apartments, setback from the parapets along those street frontages, will be a secondary element: contemporary, complementing ??? the heritage significance of Robert Harper Building in the streetscape views, and providing outstanding views from the rooftop to the harbour and Fremantle City.

While there are photographs in the report of the existing place as it is viewed in an oblique view, there is no similar representation of it with the apartments in place to support the contention that they are a secondary element. Viewed side on, for a passer-by looking upwards from footpath, the set back diminishes their impact. But they are in fact double the height of the dome and set back from it by little more than a distance equal to the dome’s diameter. The frontal view will clearly diminish urban landscape value of the building from its most significant perspective: the oblique view from Phillimore Street, as a West End entry statement.

The fact that the apartments will provide outstanding views is a great selling point but of course has no relevance whatever in a heritage assessment.

Modernity and respect for the West End’s heritage values is possible, though it might involve the developer accepting a little less than what they aim for.

To fully preserve the Harper Building’s original aesthetic and essential urban landscape values would demand no less than the removal of the apartments in their entirety. A proper analysis of their impact might reveal alternative solutions such as reducing their height or number, but the development should not be unconditionally approved in its present form.

* By Gerry McGill


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