Submission: MRA Perth Waterfront Design Guidelines

Introduction: Unfortunately there has been very little proper public debate on – despite much public reaction to – the present government’s Waterfront Scheme. Since previous public hearings were concerned specifically with MRS procedures, limited to rezoning issues, publication of these guidelines for comment is the first – and only – official opportunity for public commentary on the general content and thrust of the project.

Widespread public discussion on this far-reaching scheme should have been engaged in far earlier in the design process; in its absence, decisions on the overall purpose, content and form of the project remain divorced from general understanding, appear arbitrary and remain  in the realm of bureaucratic diktat.

We will make comments within the context of the guidelines, but necessarily will take in broader issues; for example, what is being attempted here, how it is being approached and how it is unlikely to fulfill its stated objectives.

Commercial orientation:What public benefit? As a broad comment, it is evident the project will fail to achieve the great public benefit it claims to aspire to – and which should have been a fundamental raison d’être. The scheme’s strongly commercial focus allows little compensation for the loss of public land. Its centrepiece “water feature” caters mainly to private pleasure craft; its public boardwalks are overshadowed by five-to-six storey “podia” surmounted by 25- or 36-storey sun-blocking towers.

Even allowing for the inclusion in the Project brief of 15% “affordable housing,” (and apart from an unlikely Indigenous museum) practically every structure will be in private ownership and/or for commercial rental. Nothing is wrong with private development, but having sold off ten hectares of “permanent” recreation reserve,  this project is devoid of sites to build, for example, a Perth Lyric Theatre, an Opera House, a City Museum, a Contemporary Art museum – or other public or civic enterprise to which more far-sighted communities would eagerly assign such prime waterfront  land.

A river/city fantasy: Selling off Perth’s “front yard”: Behind this scheme lies the idea that it is desirable and even necessary in Perth “to bring the city and the river together”and that the Esplanade Foreshore is no more than wasted grassland. But is this true? Its wonderful expanse provides Perth with a unique “front lawn” setting for the CBD. At the same time, of what real value is this scheme – in essence an inlet with a wall of buildings around it – other than to its commercial beneficiaries? Other cities would pay any price to achieve the beautiful  “front garden” Perth’s CBD displays – and which will be destroyed. Indeed, many governments spend millions to rehabilitate derelict waterfront land, albeit in commercial and residential development, but rarely at the expense of the great public benefit Perth already enjoys: a  foreshore which is far from derelict.

The TOD/ “big development” myth: The scheme’s “accepted logic” seems to be that, since it adjoins railway and bus stations, it is necessary – according to “TOD” (Transport-Orientated Development principles) – to maximise development densities. But there is already an excess of potential floorspace in this location to attract commuters, without the Waterfront scheme. Also, because the underlying foundation is very poor, consisting essentially of waterlogged or consolidated “fill,” large buildings (to satisfy TOD) will require deep, expensive footings – only commercially viable with maximum lettable floorspace above. (This is a circular argument – “we need tall buildings to justify the cost of tall buildings.”) More modest, less expensive buildings would adequately suffice, with the added benefit of less overshadowing on the inlet.

Cutting a major artery;:  The guidelines reinforce another fundamental flaw in the scheme:  the cutting of Riverside Drive.  This route is at the centre of an expanding metropolis and has no reasonable alternative. Removing it, no matter how argued or otherwise portrayed, will cause traffic chaos across wide ares of central Perth. What replaces it will be totally insufficient to cater to ever-growing demand for future cross-city traffic. This was obvious to the planners, since they investigated concepts for a bridge or tunnel, only rejecting them due to cost and difficulty. It is true that a tunnel would be hugely expensive and is unlikely to eventuate, leaving Perth with a disastrous legacy. A bridge, it was claimed, would block views from the development, and that retaining a road would impede pedestrian access to the river.

Neither claim is true since, ironically, illustrations in the guidelines show several concepts for pedestrian bridges which would be no more detrimental to the view if widened as a traffic bridge. Also it is clear that pedestrians could easily pass under any such bridge to the riverside, and in fact would be better-catered for than by the present plan.

False priorities: build a bridge: In other words a bridge remains a practical possibility. Its cost should be regarded in the same category of necessity as for example that of the Mandurah Railway ($1.5bn +) It must be concluded that the planners, in full knowledge that great traffic problems will ensue, are prepared, in cutting Riverside Drive, to place the needs of this development above those of the wider community – and above the entire inner metropolitan traffic system and its users.

To redress this, the scheme should retain Riverside Drive. If indeed an inlet is to be dug, the road should be replaced as a bridge, which should factor its cost as a public necessity, no different from the cost of a railway, light rail, indoor stadium or football arena.

Inadequate design The “Design Guidelines” confirm the scheme’s essentially private-enterprise-oriented (and limited public-value) approach. Not only that, they are, as a means of ensuring “highly innovative design” actually counter-productive.  Architects are unlikely to respond positively to such form-specific constraints. What scope here for truly innovative designs?

As well, the overall design of the scheme is, by any measure, less than first-rate. What purpose the 3-5-storey podia massively overpowering the waterway and public spaces? Why are the development sites not set back to retain the lovely trees (now unfortunately mostly destroyed) standing on three sides of the scheme? Why not retain the heritage buildings – now removed? As a small proportion of the scheme area, this would be at no real cost to the as-yet-to-be appointed developers. And again, why destroy a major inner-city transport route  when retaining it would be of inestimable value to the future of the city centre and inner suburbs?

As a general comment  sketches illustrating the guidelines are misleading, if not actually deceptive: the waterway is surrounded by “buildings” which are completely innocuous, having no substance, seeming to fade imperceptibly into thin air; the people below enjoying  shadowless bright sunshine; kayaks carelessly waft in between power-boats and ferries. This is not a realistic representation.

“Guidelinesdon’t really work. In any event, “guidelines “will not hold up if, under the commercial realities which underlie the scheme, they do not suit individual developers. Due to its size, and the lack of real development pressure to fill it, the scheme area will remain an underdeveloped building-site for many years. Over that period attitudes and conventions are bound to change as new architectural and design issues arise – so the guidelines must be regarded as “temporary” at best. If this is so, what is their purpose, other than to imply a level of development control (to gain public confidence) which may be illusory?

Reduce sites: And as a final comment, development sites 2, 3, 9 and 10 offered in the guidelines (especially site 3) conflict with the possibility of retaining Riverside Drive and should be reduced accordingly. (They and other sites should also be reduced to accommodate heritage buildings and existing trees – see above.)



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