Breaking News – O’Brien Empire Expands

Major new project

THE whole of the Manning Estate in High Street Mall and Market Street Fremantle, comprising 26 shops, is to be bought by Gerard O’Brien of Silverleaf Investments for approximately $31 million.
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The map above shows the O’Brien empire, with the Manning Estate coloured in black, and his other properties outlined in black. They comprise the 7,700 sqm site of the former police buildings and courthouse in Henderson Street, the Coles supermarket site, Target, the banks along Queen Street and the Atwell Buildings and Atwell Arcade.

O’Brien’s developments have drawn strong criticism for what is perceived to be mediocre quality architecture, damaging to the scale and heritage values of Fremantle.

When his new Commonwealth Bank building on the corner of Queen and Cantonment Streets was opened by Minister for Planning and Infrastructure  Alannah MacTiernan, she arrived with the comment: “When is the scaffolding coming down?’

“Crass design”

When the new adjacent buildings (the Q&A Centre on the corner of Queen and Adelaide opposite St John’s Church where Mr O’Brien has an office) were built, outrage was expressed at the crassness of the design.

When the current Atwell Arcade glass box development rose above the world famous gold rush architecture surrounding it, former councillor Bll Massie said: “it sticks out like dogs’ balls.”

Bill Massie, the most pro-development of councillors on Fremantle Council, was the only councillor in 2014 to vote against the Gerard O’Brien Atwell Arcade development when it came to council at a special meeting called by the mayor for  this developer. Bill Massie said it would damage the heritage of Fremantle.
Why Does this Damage to Fremantle’s Heritage Keep Happening?

Besides former councillor Massie, others have condemned the quality of the new project and the Fremantle Society is seeking answers to a series of questions. Architect Sasha Ivanovich, who was on the approving Design Advisory Committee for the development, said that the project went “off the rails”. His full report is published below.

History will show that the halving of the West End Heritage area by council which the Fremantle Society objected to was a deliberate ploy to aid developers. The approval for Atwell Arcade came just after the mayor was installed on the Heritage Council, an organisation which has done little to protect Fremantle since.

At the special 2014 meeting of council to approve Atwell Arcade the following voted to approve the project:  Mayor Pettitt, councillors Sullivan, Strachan, Pemberton, Nabor, Wilson, Hume, Waltham, Wainright, and Fittock.

The community should remember those names at the next election.

Large apartment building planned

Gerard O’Brien is said to have plans to construct a large building of apartments behind the Manning Estate facades. He currently has plans before council for a 12 storey building on the Coles supermarket site.

The Fremantle Society is concerned at the current tsunami of poor quality development damaging to the world class heritage values of Fremantle.

The Fremantle Society is pro-development and wants progress, but it wants better quality results.

Among other things it calls for a revamp of council’s Design Advisory Committee (DAC), which clearly is not working. It still has the same chairman, nominated by the mayor, since its inception. The review should include a rotating chairman and ideas as expressed in the report below.

Professional Assessment of Atwell Arcade Development by Architect Sasha Ivanovich

The Atwell Arcade Development now nearing completion began with cautious optimism. It was hoped that a sensitively thought out design solution would, on one hand contribute to the restoration of  culturally valued, heritage listed shop‐ front of  commercial premises on Adelaide, Market St and High Street Mall and on the other, re-vitalise  a precinct in central Fremantle with new retail and office tenancies. The commercial viability of the proposed new office building to be built in the middle of the site, occupied by low value sheds, justified the cost of redevelopment.

As initially presented, and as reviewed by Council Planning and guided by Fremantle DAC, the new office development, with its simple lines of continuous patterned glass screen on four sides, would conceal the new building façade and provide a plain seamless backdrop to the more ornate historical facades of the shop­‐fronts at ground and first floors, highlighting the original heritage architecture.

There would also have been advice given by Council officers to the Developer for the arcade itself to be restored close to its original character. With the Developer employing their own heritage consultants, Council would have received assurances of that kind.

It is of concern that the finished building deviates from such clear requests from Council and DAC advice, recoded conditions of Planning Approval:

•    Instead of a simple glass box of uniform patterned glass forming the envelope and backdrop to the street level heritage frontages, the screens of the new office building have been angled, other various façade features have been introduced -­‐  spandrels and canopies added and the patterning on the glass removed, amplifying a clash of presentation between the new building and the original..
•    Though there has been some restoration of original glass shop-­fronts, new contemporary style materials have been introduced.
•    Substantial restoration has been performed on the street facades but intermixed with a modern look fascia to the street canopies
•    There would have been an argument from the Developer and their consultants against restoration of the Arcade to its original, ‘for lack of original detail’ -­ the arcade has gone through several refurbishments since its inception. When construction began however, unique timber mouldings that adorned the steel structures of the original arcade were exposed. These have been ignored. Instead of a continuing reference to the ornate design of the original, the new arcade, stripped of its historical references, shares its impersonal and generalist design with shopping centre malls anywhere.

There is a lesson to be learn’t here about implementation of planning approvals. If conditions imposed at planning approval are to be performed, a follow up process is needed – to monitor a developer’s progress from planning approval to construction, before and during construction:

a.    Once the project progresses to Building License, review of design documentation would need to be thoroughly performed to ensure that building license drawings conform to what has been approved and negotiated at planning approval.

b.    The construction process would need to be more vigorously monitored, to ensure that what has been approved at planning stage and in building license drawings and specifications, is carried through in the finished work.

The Design Advisory Committee is best suited to review final construction documents. They would be most sensitive to design issues and be alert to the carefully worded conditions of an original planning approval. Whilst Council remains shy of enforcing in every detail planning approvals, there can be only more breaches in a planning approval process that is considerably invested in time and professional resources.

Sasha Ivanovich FRAIA Fremantle practicing Architect
(past DAC member City of Fremantle DAC,  Town of Vincent DAC  and DAP State DAP sitting member) September 2016.

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