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October 21, 2014

South by south west

It's an exciting time for the distinctive slice of the CBD that is Adelaide's south west corner. Here, an eclectic mix of long-term residences and creative businesses meet the rising tide of development head-on.

  • Words: Owen Lindsay
  • Pictures: Ben McPherson

The south-west slice in which CityMag finds itself is a compact corner of town, criss-crossed by one-way lanes lined with rows of colonial cottages, whose adjoining tin veranda roofs are divided by neat licks of paint.

Towards the east above the low buildings, the distinctive white minarets of the local masjid jut up into the sky. Further up the lane, a group of smartly-dressed professionals are returning to the office from a quick break, gesturing energetically with takeaway cups of coffee in their hands. Across the road, an excited dog barks as she spies the arrival of a neon-yellow jacketed postie. 

Spend a few minutes wandering the streets during a weekday, and it’s clear that there is a unique ecosystem bubbling away within this neighbourhood. With very little retail business besides the big car dealerships on West Terrace, the district is defined by its solid mix of housing and professional services. As such – unless you’re a local or require a specific service – it’s not a corner of town which many city goers have cause to often visit.

A large part the precinct’s charm comes from its authentically unpolished feel. Where other CBD locations strain to manufacture a faux-rugged look, that roughness comes naturally to the south-west pocket. It’s roughness in the most positive sense – derived from the mix of old and new, the way houses and offices sit comfortably alongside each other and from the neighbourhood’s firmly working-class roots. It’s the sort of roughness that can only develop organically over many decades, and – despite the comparative quiet of the area and its lack of high-rise buildings – affords it a gritty, definite ‘city’ feel. 

Some of the area's character buildings.

Some of the area’s character buildings.

It’s an ideal location for those who can appreciate the allure of the unpolished. In this respect, Justin Hermes, of Justin Hermes Design, is a model occupant of the precinct. He and another business, The Props Dept., operate from a 300 square metre warehouse on Logan Street. Inside, Justin crafts and displays a variety of robust furniture and lighting objects made from salvaged wood.  

He recently moved his workshop from the Adelaide Hills into the warehouse to complement the studio space that already existed there. CityMag visits during the frenzy of renovations, and finds Justin contemplating how to move a half-tonne,  two-hundred-year-old tree stump table out of the warehouse to make room in the display area. “The reason it’s still here is because it’s going to be very difficult to get out,” he explains. “We’ve got to get a pallet jack in and arrange a forklift and all sorts. It’s not going to be very much fun!”

Other CBD locations strain to manufacture a faux-rugged look, but that roughness comes naturally to the south-west pocket.

While relocating half-tonne stumps may not be fun, the completed furniture that’s displayed in the space hints that the hard work is all worthwhile. Justin picks up a tripod table, the remainder of a large batch that just shipped to a Melbourne hotel. A natural divot wending along one of the table legs testifies to the wood’s salvaged origins. “They’re called ‘imperfections’, but I like to think of them as features… The most expensive timber is perfect – but it looks like a veneer, which doesn’t really excite me as much,”
Justin says. 

Working in the south-west suits his business perfectly, Justin explains, because the location is quiet, accessible for clients and not too far from the city’s main attractions.

“You’re still only a block away from the (Central) Markets, which is where I go for lunch most days. And when you do knock off, you aren’t too far away from popping over to the Gilbert [Street Hotel] or Cantina [Sociale]. You’re literally just on the edge of it.”

It’s Friday afternoon when CityMag wanders around the area, and we notice that the lanes are busy with people filtering down through Little Gilbert Street. A quick question to a passer-by clears up the mystery: it’s prayer time at the Adelaide Mosque, a well-preserved colonial building said to be the first permanent mosque in Australia. Built in 1888-89, the mosque originally served cameleers (there’s a word you don’t get to type very often) and workers who were responsible for building the Great Northern Railway through the centre of Australia. Over 120 years later and it’s still very much in use – though perhaps with fewer cameleers in the congregation.

One street over, the four white minarets from that building can be spied from Julie Jordan’s backyard. It’s a view that we’d wager is unique for the CBD. Julie has lived in the area for over a decade, and has for the past few years served as chair of the South-West City Residents Association. 

Julie Jordan

Julie Jordan

Julie’s establishment of the residents’ association was sparked by that age-old development conundrum: how to balance the preservation of community ambiance and historic charm with the need to allow for new development as the city population expands. She recalls attending a community consultation held by the City Council in 2012, and listening as the presenter projected potentially radical changes to the look of the neighbourhood. 

“I had a bit of an ‘oh, shit’ moment,” she says. “(I thought) there’s stuff happening here, and this is going to have an impact on this community that I love and care about.” The future of the unique community that had grown in the south-west, it appeared to Julie, was being taken out of the hands of the people who spend the most time there – the residents. 

The State Government’s 2012 Capital City Development Plan Amendment (DPA) loosened planning regulations across the CBD, rezoning the south-west to allow for up to ten-storey construction and the establishment of ‘catalyst sites’. It’s the latter in particular that concerns Julie.

“[Catalyst sites] are over-sized buildings that under the (DPA)… we wouldn’t receive any notification about. We have no right to raise concerns about the building design, the access issues, (etc). So essentially it’s excised the public from having any input into these things.”

Although the Residents Association sometimes finds itself at odds with proposed development of the south-west, Julie stresses that they are not anti-development. “We just want sympathetic, human-scale relationships with our buildings… We were disappointed that the Government were engineering, to some degree, the way that the city would grow organically.”

Down the lane and across the way we meet Joe McGregor, a graduate architect with BB Architects. Sitting down at the conference table in the lovely, naturally-lit Gilbert Street office, Joe explains that he has worked in the area since the business relocated there a year ago, and lives just a few minute’s bike ride east of the neighbourhood. 

“I grew up down south, near Maslin Beach. To get into work every day was an hour’s drive in peak hour traffic, there and back – or an hour on the train, which I did for quite a few years. So it’s very easy to live in the city.”

Joe McGregor of BB Architects

Joe McGregor of BB Architects

Previously, the BB Architects office was located in a dead-end alley off Gouger St – so what Joe enjoys most about the new space is the movement and energy provided by neighbouring businesses and passers-by, who often pause to study the Lego Architecture pieces in the window. 

“It’s a great spot for us to work, because there’s always plenty going on in the street outside, especially with [Paddy’s Lantern owner] Sam’s tables out the front. There are always people sitting out there, and we just sort of keep the doors open, and work amongst that vibe. It’s lively and there’s always noise – it’s great,” he says.

It’s not the first time during our wanderings that we’ve heard the district’s denizens speak warmly of Paddy’s Lantern. The café, which opened in late 2011, is an entrenched favourite among the locals. We decide to pop in next door for a visit, and end up sitting down for a quick cup of coffee with owner Sam Carey in between the busy lunch time orders. 

Looking inside the lively shop, it’s clear that business is booming. Initially, though, the spot wasn’t quite so bustling. “It’s taken a while,” Sam says. “When I was [originally] looking at this spot – in the six weeks I was looking at these shops, I saw one person walk past. There was just not a great deal of activity… [But] when you walk around the area, you see lots of businesses and lots of residents, so I kind of had an idea that it would work.”

Paddy's Lantern

Paddy’s Lantern

Sure enough, word gradually spread around the precinct about the excellent coffee and amiable owner, and the café found its niche. Since Paddy’s opened, a handful of other coffee and casual lunch spots have followed in the area, including The House of Donkey on Sturt Street and Café Troppo on the other side of the square. Daytime foot traffic in the district has increased accordingly.

Though Sam is quick to speak positively of the neighbourhood, he’s also critical of what he sees as the Adelaide City Council’s neglect of the south-west corner – specifically, the area’s exclusion from the city’s free Wi-Fi network. A look at the Council’s Wi-Fi map shows the network coverage spreading across the entire northern end of the CBD, while the south-west, south-east and parts of North Adelaide are left conspicuously Swiss cheese-shaped.

“I was excited when they first announced it,” Sam says, “because it was an even playing field for every single café or business – but [in actuality] it’s not… It’s discrimination, and that’s what my concern was.” Although he is sceptical about whether free Wi-Fi would actually be beneficial to his business, which requires a quick turnaround of customers, he says that the advertising of the scheme as “CBD-wide” was misleading. 

CityMag contacted the City Council about the matter, and was told that the current free Wi-Fi network represents only the first stage of a planned rollout to cover the entire square mile, which will occur when funding is secured. Nevertheless, Mayor Stephen Yarwood says that the existing free network is already the best in Australia, and that Council will “continue to lobby the State Government for funding to expand the network”. 

Paddy’s Lantern is only one of several businesses that have opened in the area during recent years. While the rest of the CBD seems to have a constant churn of investment, construction and new business, there’s a sense in this part of town that the wheels are only now slowly starting to turn again after a long period of slumber. 

Coffee in stomach and metaphors cheerfully mixed, CityMag heads across the road to visit another relative new comer: Pace Lawyers, which moved into the precinct five years ago. “I had a really good lease in Gouger Street, which was ending in 2009,” explains Serina Pace, founder and principal practitioner at the firm. “So I thought it would be nice to buy something for our practice rather than rent again. We were looking in the [Gouger] area, and I don’t think we intended to come out this far… but this came up, and we liked the building. It sort of had the right soul for our practice.”

“The area worked for us, because you could tell it was just less stuffy than Pirie St, (or) Hutt St… We like it up here because it’s a bit calmer, cooler.” – Serina Pace

The building is undoubtedly distinct – the low structure, with its solid white façade and red-tinted glass entryway, makes for a striking first impression. Serina credits the final decision to move into the area with the more informal identity of the south-west district. “The area worked for us, because you could tell it was just less stuffy than Pirie St, (or) Hutt St which is a bit crowded and hectic… We like it up here because it’s a bit calmer, cooler – I think it’s got a bit of a cooler vibe.

“We find that we do get a lot of new business because of our outward-facing image. People aren’t afraid to approach us. That’s not withstanding that we do the usual commercial law – leasing, franchising, insolvency, bankruptcy – people sort of expect that type of work to be done in a corporate, stuffy, formal, blokes-only environment – but that’s
not us.”

Serina Pace

Serina Pace

While the dynamic of the neighbourhood works well to provide the property with just the right ambience, the area is presently lacking some of the conveniences found in other CBD precincts that could make business run more smoothly, Serina says.

“I think a couple of smaller, more refined eateries in the area would be helpful to bringing traffic up to this area. And I mean kind of nice business lunch time venues,” she says. “Because you’ll find that if I need to have a business lunch, which I do a lot of, being a lawyer… we all go out of the area, because there’s nothing here. (We need) something like a Chianti or a Noshery on King William.”


The development issues canvassed here are shaping up to be a big talking point as we count down to the Adelaide City Council elections this October. Follow CityMag’s Council election coverage to check-in on the debate about how Adelaide should grow-up.

As Adelaide’s CBD population expands over the coming years and more people begin to discover this idiosyncratic pocket of the city, change seems inevitable. A higher density in the precinct will mean larger buildings, more people on the streets and new businesses emerging to serve them. Development is inescapable and – if done right – naturally, desirable. While residents may rightly have their concerns about the area losing its eccentric charm, it would equally be a shame if this south-west slice was to be neglected as the rest of the city grew. 

In the meantime, the neighbourhood’s occupants will continue to enjoy life in their often-overlooked corner. “I can live a really high quality of life in a really small footprint. It’s enviable, really,” says Julie Jordan of the residents’ association. “I think it’s what people are craving – a community and connecting place. The [Adelaide City] Council is working very hard on that, with place-making. But it has to be more than grand plans and design. It has to bubble up from people.”

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