Myths about the Perth Foreshore Plan

There are many propositions supporting the current design for the development of the Perth waterfront at the Esplanade.  These include:

  • The traffic consequences resulting from the diversion of Riverside Drive are inconsequential and can be resolved
  • The waterfront plan will bring the river to the city
  • Bicycle amenity and safety will be improved
  • Heritage values are preserved
  • Substantial development is consistent with Transit-Oriented Design
  • Melbourne Southbank is a model for the Perth waterfront.
  • High-rise high density development is required to activate the foreshore.
  • Height is required to pay for the project

However, on closer inspection each one of these can be shown as being a myth.  Let’s look at these propositions in detail.




Myth:    The traffic consequences resulting from the diversion of Riverside Drive are inconsequential and can be resolved

The diversion and throttling-back of Riverside Drive has consequences in the short term and very serious long term strategic implications.

Scenic Route:  Riverside Drive– in addition to its vital traffic functions – has since the 1930’s been part of a continuous scenic vehicle route tracing beside Perth and Melville Water. (Prior to the 1959 advent of the Narrows  interchange this ran both ways via Mounts Bay Rd  – which the proposed plan will resolve by a new two-way road link between William Street and the Narrows.) This scenic route runs all the way between the Causeway and Crawley and offers marvellous changing views of the city from “below” so to speak, complementing, and in many ways the equal of traditional tourist “overview” vistas from Kings Park.

Its continuity is part of the road’s natural heritage, a significant factor allowing users to bypass the CBD on the way to Kings Park, West Perth or Crawley. The new plan will sever this flow, a critical element in the functioning of the city. Increased traffic congestion due to this severed artery will be damaging, not only at peak periods, but throughout the day, as otherwise bypassing traffic is forced either into CBD congestion or to the single alternative – Graham Farmer Freeway.

Traffic on inner city streets will increase, at a time when much effort is being made by the City of Perth to reduce it.  Officially, immediate further CBD congestion will be around 15,000 extra vehicles per day in the Terrace, Wellington St and the Esplanade.  However, long-term congestion is certain to increase substantially – no matter what new public transport is introduced – as Perth expands towards over 3.0 million people.

The traffic modelling undertaken so far does not account for the strategic nature of Riverside Drive and its importance to the overall planning and functioning of the metropolitan area – it is one of only two major east-west routes in the central part of the metro area – the other being Graham Farmer Freeway.

The anatomy of congestion: For main bypass traffic (i.e. that not wishing to enter the CBD) there are only two routes:  Riverside Drive and the tunnel. The latter gives no direct access to West Perth; morning peak traffic from Great Eastern Hwy, formerly using the Causeway, Riverside Dr and the Terrace, will now divert from a banked-up Riverside Drive to join Orrong Rd traffic in the tunnel; Shepparton Rd traffic will also be forced – by negotiating Burswood back streets – into the tunnel. West Perth will only be reached via Thomas St, adding more to congested Loftus St traffic (or possibly the now-congested PCEC off-ramp into Spring and Milligan Streets). Evening peak will see the reverse, further congesting Thomas St / Loftus Street intersections and “rat-running” through Victoria Park and South Perth.

As an “access/distributor” Riverside Drive performs a vital role giving access into the CBD – at William, Barrack, Victoria and Plain Streets.  Mitchell Freeway traffic – both bypass and access – will face new blockages at William St, Mounts Day Rd/ Esplanade/ Barrack St traffic-lights, or take Wellington Street off-ramp, adding to congestion there and in the Terrace.

Farmer Freeway is no solution: One solution advanced by the waterfront proponents is to increase the capacity of the Farmer Freeway tunnel by turning the breakdown lane into traffic lane, giving three lanes in either direction.  There are a number of problems with this:

  • While it will provide short term capacity, within a 10 – 20 year time frame the situation will be back to the current;
  • It ignores the real congestion points, which are the intersections at either end of the tunnel, particularly the Thomas St / Loftus Street on and off-ramps;
  • It puts all emphasis on one route and is thus vulnerable to a tunnel full or part closure, with significant gridlock across the whole of the inner city area in the event of a major closure at a peak time;
  • It will increase rat-running through less direct east-west routes particularly through South Perth.

Riverside Drive is one of two and only two east- west routes bypassing the CBD, with an alternate ‘rat-run’ through South Perth


The consequence will be the need for a strengthening of east-west traffic connections in the longer term, probably within a 20 – 30 year time frame.  This will be very expensive.  Options for this might include, for example, a long tunnel parallel with Riverside Drive under the River, much as has recently been built in Melbourne with the Burnley / Domain tunnels.  This was only afforded by the Government as a PPP toll road project.

The availability of multiple efficient high capacity east-west connections across the city will become increasingly important over time as the inner area intensifies.  There are many expansions in destination locations that will drive this – the growth of the QE11 health complex and expansion in Subiaco and Leederville to the west and substantial increases in population and activity to the east on the Burswood peninsula, the Causeway Precinct in the Town of Victoria Park and the Victoria Park Town Centre, the very substantial development at Curtin Town and the continuing growth of the Airport.

Maintaining Riverside Drive as one of the main east-west city connectors is essential.  The diversion of Riverside Drive and the reduction in its capacity thus leaves an expensive legacy to our descendants.

Perth City Traffic: Perth City Council’s stated objectives and current plans are aimed at creating a more “pedestrian-friendly” city. St George’s Terrace narrowed from six traffic lanes to four,   a “slow traffic mound” raised across Wellington Street at Perth Station, two-way traffic in re-introduced in Barrack and William Streets, Newcastle St restricted to single lanes;  all these limit  – often counter-productively – the CBD’s ability to deal with naturally-occurring, but increasing  traffic demands.

It is clear that cutting Riverside Drive at the new Perth Waterfront will have substantial further negative impact on the useability and functioning of the central city – and by increasing CBD traffic volumes and congestion, will operate in direct contradiction to the PCC’s aims.

For example, the effects at morning peak times, in our view will be severely detrimental – even in today’s traffic terms, as indicated by the following diagrams: Morning peak routes – and routes at all times of the day – using riverside Drive approach from all directions: north south east and west. As described above, disruption and congestion following its severance will be substantial – and with a bridge in place, completely avoidable.


Samuel Beckett bridge, Dublin;  a model for “Riverside Drive Bridge crossing the Inlet”

CityVision has shown, as illustrated in its plan for the waterfront, that by not cutting the road (and/or by building a beautiful bridge) these shortcomings can be avoided, without in any way reducing the efficacy, practicality, development potential or attractiveness of the new Perth Waterfront.

The regional function of the road is much more important to the functioning of the city as a whole than the specific issues of a small, albeit important, part of the central city and must take primacy in any design for the foreshore.

Myth:    The waterfront plan will bring the river to the city

The current plan relocates Riverside Drive towards the CBD.  It remains a busy road, carrying around 16,000 vehicles per.  Clearly, in morning and evening peak this means a continuous traffic flow. To the extent that Riverside Drive as it is currently configured represents a barrier between the City and the river, this is unchanged, merely moved a little closer.

The water will not be visible from St Georges Terrace, with the long views down William Street and Barrack Street essentially unchanged from the current.

Alternative plans maintaining the through –traffic function of Riverside Drive would allow direct water access down Sherwood Court and Howard Street to The Esplanade so that it becomes an esplanade once more.

Myth:    Bicycle amenity and safety will be improved

This is a big myth.  The current plan substantially reduces pedestrian and cyclist amenity. The foreshore is heavily used by recreational and commuter cyclists, with a very high proportion commuting across the city (as with the east-west traffic vehicular movements). Answering a question in the Legislative Council (3/11/2011) the Hon. Helen Morton indicated that cyclists will be accommodated “on road routes utilising the ‘new Riverside Drive,’ Barrack and William Streets.” Cyclists will thus lose the dedicated bike-path and be forced onto a bike lane on the road.  This is a substantial reduction in amenity and will deter many of the recreational and commuter riders that currently enjoy a busy dedicated bike path network that is becoming, overall increasingly of high standard.  It is at odds with the rhetoric of “more sustainable transport.”

Myth:    Heritage values are preserved

The current plan involves the loss key heritage elements, including listed trees and the Florence Hummerston building.  The plan is yet to come before the Heritage Council.  It is unclear whether the heritage values can be satisfactorily preserved.

Myth:    Substantial development is consistent with Transit-Oriented Design

While placing development next to a railway station is one of the principles of transit-oriented-development, in this case it represent significant over-kill.  The Esplanade station already accounts for 54% of CBD workforce (over 50,000 workers) within its 800 m catchment. – More is not needed to make it TOD design.

The minor gain in public transport will be sightly better ferry connections to the Esplanade station, accounting for a very small number of travellers. There is no real gain for pedestrians either. The “diverted” Riverside Drive “ will still have to be crossed – even with less traffic, it would be a much greater barrier to pedestrian waterfront access than if grade-separated, such as below a bridge.

Myth:    Melbourne Southbank is a model for the Perth waterfront.

There is no question that Melbourne’s Southbank is a very successful example of pedestrian oriented waterfront development.  (It is noteworthy that the waterfront buildings at Southbank are generally of small scale – up to 5-6 storeys – on the front with very tall buildings either set well back or in the streets behind)

It has some crucial differences which make it not a good model for Perth;

  • It is north facing and sheltered from blustery winds, in contrast to Perth which is south facing and exposed to the elements;
  • It is anchored by significant destination elements, (principally the Crown Casino complex and to a lesser extent St Kilda Road and the Melbourne Arts Centre complex) which provide activity independent of the quality and configuration of the waterfront pace – all the waterfront has to do is to capture and build on this activity.

An unfortunate Melbourne precedent for the Perth waterfront is the Docklands development, which is exposed to blustery winds, has very tall buildings right on the waterfront and has very low activity at the pedestrian level.

Myth:    High-rise high density development is required to activate the foreshore.

There are many examples of highly active low-rise riverside precincts and many examples where high-rise development works against it (e.g. Melbourne Docklands).  The city does not need the additional development capability – there is already have enough development land and placing more tin the centre of the city works against the Governments Directions 2031 strategy to intensify across the metropolitan area and provide employment closer to residences.

Earlier analysis has shown that if both the Waterfront and Northbridge Link projects were successfully built by 2031, there would be demand for only 165,000 m2 additional office floorspace (equivalent to 3 – 4 major buildings) elsewhere in the entire City of Perth area over that period.  An alternative would be to increase the proportion of all metropolitan and Peel workers in the City, but this has unsustainable regional and transport consequences.

It also implies excess apartment supply for the projected population growth, with no demand for any development anywhere else in the City.  While it is possible – and welcome – that inner city population growth could be greater than this, it is not clear that inevitably expensive riverfront apartments will achieve this.

This means that over-development on the foreshore would take demand away from other areas of the city where land is available and with greater need for re-generation.  Areas east of Barrack St provide an example.

There is therefore no evidence that the residential or commercial accommodation implied in a very large waterfront project is appropriate:

  • It contributes in a substantial way to an over-concentration of metro employment in the inner city
  • It draws demand for residential and employment related development away from other areas of the city;
  • It is not required to support the operations of the rail station – 54,000 workers, or 54% of the total inner city workforce, are already located with 800 metres of the station; more are not required to increase rail patronage and alternative accommodation elsewhere in the city would be well serviced by public transport.
  • It is not required to activate the foreshore or the street.  In fact it could be counter-productive – active entertainment complexes and residential accommodation do not mix well.


Myth:    Height is required to pay for the project

It is unfortunate that the financial analysis underlying the project has not been released for detailed scrutiny.  However, it is a reasonable assumption that one objective is to maximise the return on land parcels by allowing maximum height and plot ratio on commercially available sites.  It is likely that there will be substantial piling required on development sites and the simple logic is that development above the ground (i.e. height and density) is required to offset below-ground site costs and to give the Government some return on its development expenditure (although if the outcome is going to be as dismal as the current plan it makes one wonder why they are throwing so much money away in the first place).  Development densities and land uses in the current plan also involve substantial on-site carparking, which will add to local congestion.

However, there are alternatives that give as great or more return.  In most inner city buildings with high pedestrian traffic flow and therefore very high values at the ground floor from retail uses, the majority (in the order of 75% – 80%) of the land value arises from that ground activity.  The value of the office or residential uses on upper floors is marginal, showing a small return on construction cost.  It is therefore no accident that a large number of older buildings in the city have busy retail at the ground floor but are empty on upper floors.  This has been analysed on many sites.

If the foreshore development is successful, with high pedestrian traffic flow, the majority of the land value will similarly be at the ground floor, not from increasing height.

An alternative approach is therefore to consider, in detail, a much less expensive development approach which involves much simpler structures and earthworks and allows for only lightweight buildings (up to, say 3- 4 storeys, or more if super-lightweight) that do not require deep piling but ‘float’ on the ground. This is technically entirely feasible, will involve the Government in much lower risk and expenditure and a can be built over a much shorter time frame.


A redesign of the current plan is required.  This will be painful – the current project team would much prefer to get something done, no matter what.

However, the shortcomings of the current plan are serious enough to warrant some retreat and re-consideration.

It is now the responsibility of the Metropolitan Redevelopment Authority to produce a new plan. They have both the mandate and resources to undertake it.

However, new planning must have some constraints that are not obvious in the current design solution.  The constraints and objectives would include:

  • Ensure that the regional function of Riverside Drive as a main by-pass route for the CBD is preserved;
  • Maintain the objective of providing better connection and access between the city (at St Georges terrace) and he river, but measure and judge this very carefully;
  • Improve cyclist and pedestrian amenity, including allowing for both commuter and recreational cyclists in separate bike paths away from the road traffic;
  • Investigate, in detail, lower cost and simpler public realm design and low-rise alternatives for development sites
  • Incorporate heritage items into the plan.


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6 Responses to Myths about the Perth Foreshore Plan

  1. Col Levison says:

    1. Your very good report does not emphasize the fact that the whole of ‘The Landing’ area (as well as other areas meant for public enjoyment), will be in shade from at least the Autumn equinox through winter to the Spring equinox – cold and uninviting!

    2. The size of the ‘harbour’ is too simply too small to suit the concept.

  2. Helen C-K says:

    I agree with all the reasons above as to why Riverside drive should stay, and why the site should not be developed.

    Also we need more (AND NOT LESS) uninterupted dedicated cycleways and dedicated pedestrian paths along the riverfront and throughout the city. Painted lines do not provide any protection to cyclists sharing the road with vehicles.

    There are plans afoot to redevelop the east of the city from The Causeway westward, and to build the Perth/Northbridge link over the sunken railway line. Both areas are much more suitable for highrise and are both substantial developments. When will the WA mining boom end ? Nobody knows, but it may end long before the buildings in those locations can be fully utilised and the unfilled buildings will further hurt our economy. A Riverfront development as well could be a financial disaster.

    These developments alone will substantiallly increase the numbers of people in our city. We cannot afford to loose our east west connection.

    Why would we steal from our children ? The parkland between the city and the river should not be sold for any reason. The reserve land belongs to everyone including those here now and those to come.

    Incidently, all of my overseas and interstate visitors who I’ve driven along The Esplanade for a view of our City have been overawed by the view from ground level (as distinct from the views from Kings Park, which they have also enjoyed).. And I know that our tourist industry is desperate for more tourist attractions. Why on earth would we want to divest our city and state of such a popular attraction that is unique to Perth,WA ? If tourists want riverside care strips/high rise/etc they can see it in Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney or somewhere else close to home.

    • Stephanie says:

      I agree with Helen. I am travelling from overseas and I was horrified when I found out that they want to destroy the parkland and lovely riverside drive. It’s what makes Perth have it’s own individuality and not the sameness of the other cities in Australia.
      I love the walking and cycling tracks along the river and driving down riverside drive and feeling like your not in a city.

      I would feel very disappointed and upset if they go ahead with these plans. Please keep Perth unique and don’t need to follow other cities. I love Perth a lot more than the other cities because of its unimposing city and riverside drive end of town.

  3. Ian Putt says:

    Why not build a cut and cover tunnel for Riverside Drive prior to the building of the inlet. This must be a lot cheaper in the long run than to use a TBM to bore a tunnel in 20 years time!!!

  4. Leon says:

    The cutting off of Riverside drive WILL create a lot of traffic problems.

    Also that rather smallish rectangular marina, hidden amongst all those tall concrete/glass towers will be covered by shadow pretty much all day in our autumn/winter.
    And partly in shade during our spring/summer mornings and afternoons.

    Seems like the whole design has been rushed through with very little thought, a bit like the bell-tower and that hideous warehouse like design of the ‘convention centre’.

  5. Joanne says:

    We need more dedicated cycle paths such as those on Riverside Drive. Its not only an encouraged alternative to city transport, the cyclists adds to the scenic views of the foreshore as well. Would be a sad chapter to the history of Perth city if the foreshore cycle path is interrupted with the “Elizabeth Quay” development.

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