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Port Adelaide waterfront needs a champion to celebrate old with new

Opinion

Port Adelaide’s historic waterfront heritage and character has been let down by poor planning decisions, yet it’s not too late to revitalise the area into a vibrant, modern precinct that doesn’t turn its back on its past, argues Daniel Bennett.

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This was the vision for the Port Adelaide centre, agreed to with the community, the State Government and the City of Port Adelaide Enfield back in July 2006:

‘Port Adelaide was South Australia’s first commercial Port. It is now a vibrant and creative community that has secured a sustainable future based on a vision that celebrates its history as well as embracing new ideas, innovation and development.

The heritage of Port Adelaide is valued in its revitalisation focusing on active mainstreets, waterfront promenades and the Port River.

Port Adelaide is an easily accessible regional centre within metropolitan Adelaide, offering lively cafes, shops and pubs together with residential, commercial, tourism, cultural and leisure activities providing rich and rewarding experiences.

New investment in commercial enterprise and residential activity provide an attractive opportunity to live, work and play in a unique environment.

The Port is a collection of pedestrian-friendly and inspirational spaces to explore, savour and enjoy, allowing locals and visitors alike to soak up the unique atmosphere, a melting pot of historic quality and new-found confidence.

A strategic approach to Port Adelaide’s future has energised the area and facilitated iconic development on key sites that support economic and residential growth.’

Need I say more?

World renowned cities expert Jan Gehl, leading Australian architect and landscape architect Ken Maher and a team of urban design specialists worked together with the local Port community, the City of Port Adelaide Enfield and the former Land Management Corporation to prepare the vision for the city centre of Port Adelaide.

The vision and master plan followed the separation of the waterfront via a planning amendment report (PAR) in the early 2000’s.

The conclusion of our work was simple: reconnect the centre to the waterfront.

Yet the PAR at the time effectively severed the planning of the waterfront from the centre, effectively killing off the opportunities for an integrated approach to the future of the Port.  This was a big mistake.

Fast forward 13 years and one of the very last remaining relics of the former working port, Shed 26, will be demolished to make way for new waterfront inspired living…’between the harbour and the sea…unique coastal living’ (according to the developers website).

To experience this grand new vision, I decided to walk around the existing Newport Quays development – the first waterfront development as a result of the planning amendment in 2007 – a couple of weeks ago, to see if all the hoo-ha at the time from the developers was actually delivered.

In my view, it hasn’t.

I caught the train from the city and walked from Port Adelaide’s historic railway station, along Commercial Road and then along St Vincent Street and Hart Street across the Port River.

Finding the waterfront walk wasn’t exactly easy.  The tilt up apartments, hailed at the time by the developers as exemplary modern design, haven’t fared too well.

Waterfronts and near coastal conditions have a habit of weathering materials more rapidly than away from the coast; for example, timber finishes in particular need constant care and attention. When they don’t, they split and splinter, especially with non-weathered and softer wood. Decay and some questionable building finishes were evident in the apartments and town houses in Newport Quays.

What struck me most is the two main paths – one at the rear (that follow the railway line) and one along the waterfront – don’t connect to the Glanville train station to the north of the development. The paths stop and you are met with a chainlink fence.

I walked back to Ethelton station along a narrow footpath, and was greeted with a mean and small shelter together with a complete lack of visual connection to the visually stunning river. None. Zilch.

I also found it quite extraordinary that there was a complete lack of integration of the two train stations that are bookends to Newport Quays and the new ‘Fletchers Slip’ development, site of Shed 26. Neither station is acknowledged with wayfinding or station signage – they seem to just be there accidentally.

Further, the alignment of the small park connecting Ethelton station to the waterfront path was poor – I had to consult my Apple maps to find it! So much for creating sustainable, walkable communities.

Many cities around Australia consider former industrial buildings as windows on the past, and invest in them to celebrate their heritage and repurpose them, adaptively reusing them for new uses.

A great South Australian example is down South Road at the former Mitsubishi factory in Tonsley; you’ll get a welcome shock at what is possible if you’ve never been there.

The adaptive reuse of the former main production building is an amazing example of the possibilities, with elegantly design internal pavilions of varying shapes and sizes and a unique indoor/outdoor garden, all under the retained saw-toothed roof.

Let’s go back to the centre of the port, around Black Diamond Square, on Commercial Road, site of the famous Fisherman’s Wharf markets.  There are only so many of those delicious doughnuts from Danny’s one can eat.  The markets are major destination on the weekend and a great feature of the overall Port experience.

Further west across along the waterfront is the new playspace at Hart’s Mill, an incredibly successful example of creating new things in front of old things.

I walked back to Ethelton station along a narrow footpath, and was greeted with a mean and small shelter together with a complete lack of visual connection to the visually stunning river. None. Zilch.

Getting to it is a little tricky from the markets. Nelson Street, which crosses the Port River, is a bit of a nightmare, and although it has improved a little with the speed limit reduction for cars and a crossing a block back from the waterfront, it is not intuitive nor is there a continuous waterfront promenade to take you there.

The creation of continuous, well-designed waterfront promenade is a great opportunity to connect along and around the Port River to the Harts Mill precinct, and potentially, to Shed 26.

Like Hart’s Mill, Shed 26 is one of those buildings of its era – efficient, well designed for its original purpose, and quite beautiful for a former working building. It is now visually prominen as it stands alone on the empty northern site of the development, yet getting to it is not an intuitive walk from the markets.

Now, lets imagine a new riverfront walk, starting at the heroic red lighthouse at Black Diamond Square, which winds its way around the Port on all sides, creating connections with, and across, the Port River.

Visualise Shed 26 as the new northern shore destination, integrated with a sensitive residential development as planned by Cedar Woods, and connected to Port Adelaide’s new waterfront promenade – or the ‘Portline’.

We could source, reuse and adapt the iconic Australian hardwood piles that used to support the many wharves and pontoons as the basis for the Portline, creating interaction with the river, tell its stories, and seriously connect the remaining historic areas as well as the newer areas.

Assistance from the State Government and the local council to renovate and ensure Shed 26 is upgraded to meet modern standards is essential. This is the type of project where public investment would stimulate private economic activity.

There are limited reasons to cross the bridge to the northern shores, and creating and offering short term leases to start ups and the like using the RenewAdelaide model in Shed 26, will create a destination and activate what is currently an empty site.

A thorough business case aligned with funding for the Portline, with well-designed connections to Glanville and Ethelton stations, will make the Port River and centre easier to access and provide better environmental, economic and social returns.

More importantly, it will connect the experience, respect the heritage, tell the stories and reimagine a future Port.

It is sad to see such a critical piece of our industrial history – to the past, present and future– being so simply erased.  It does not need to be this way.

The Port needs its champions and leadership, with targeted and ongoing investment. The adaptive reuse of the brutalist former marine services building near Dock 1 by Starfish is exactly the type of development the Port needs.

It’s up to us to bang the ‘adaptive reuse’ drum loudly and ask for some time to reconsider the site and it’s context, as well as the projects that could support and ensure a future Shed 26 is an asset for everyone, ensuring the development is viable and with better connection to its place in the Port’s rich history.

Daniel Bennett was consultant project manager for the 2006 Port Adelaide Centre Vision and Urban Design Framework, and is director of strategy and design firm, DJB_LA. He is also a former Associate Director for Strategy and Design at the City of Adelaide.

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