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February 20, 2015

Sunrise over the east

With its busy small businesses, high-end retail, large public institutions and multitude of cafés, Adelaide’s East End has long been one of our most successful precincts. But as the westward migration gathers momentum, it must take on the challenge of redefining itself.

  • Words: Ying-Di Yin
  • Pictures: Josie Withers

Unlike other established city niches, the East End has the ability to blend a little of everything in its one block radius. 

Around Rundle Street, between Frome Road and East Terrace, a well-established and functional mix of high-end retail, cafés, homes, pubs, bars and – on upper levels – small creative businesses peacefully co-exist. The Adelaide Botanic Gardens, Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH) and Rundle Parklands (home to the annual Garden of Unearthly Delights) buffer the area. 

These diverse interests have settled into a busy rhythm over the years, but that is slowly being disrupted as more and more attention turns to the city’s West. Not only is the other end of the city stealing the East’s traditional mantle as the place to meet friends, it is also poaching the precinct’s number one source of population – the RAH – with the new west-side hospital due to be completed next year, resulting in the shutdown of the old location. Despite all this, residents and business owners alike seem unfussed about the impending upheaval. 

The old Royal Adelaide Hospital buildings will soon be re-purposed

The old Royal Adelaide Hospital buildings will soon be re-purposed

“It is the definition of living in the city. Living here is as busy as I can get in Adelaide.”  Aaron Schuppan

In the early ’90s, Rundle Street was one of the city’s first mass re-development sites. Today, the success of that investment can be seen in the consistency of a multi-purpose precinct that many argue is the main artery of the city. 

“It is the definition of living in the city. Living here is as busy as I can get in Adelaide,” says Rundle Street resident Aaron Schuppan. 

Perched above boutique stores and the beloved Exeter Hotel, Aaron resides one storey up where, behind a series of historic facades, exist residential homes, office space and business ventures. The energetic thoroughfare suits the filmmaker’s work habits. 

The high end retail for which Rundle Street has become known

The high end retail for which Rundle Street has become known

“I often need to focus and shut everything out because I’m editing or writing. But living in the city gives me the advantage of being able to step downstairs and be amongst others. It’s like getting vitamin D but instead you’re getting vitamin human,” he says.   

This sense of being surrounded by others with similar purpose is what drew fellow creative business Lightbulb Digital here. Tucked behind Rundle Street on Sym Choon Lane, the small digital design and development studio is “coming up on a year “ since making the move from Peel Street in the west end. 

“There’s an established sense of community here,” says director Morgan Martin-Skerm. 

“[There are] groups of people doing some interesting things and their own thing but its not in a corporate sense; it is a more laidback vibe. Hindley Street has this frantic vibe but the East End seems more settled. The food and café scene is also a bit more mature.” 

The Lightbulb Digital offices, led by Morgan Martin-Skerm (closest right)

The Lightbulb Digital offices, led by Morgan Martin-Skerm (closest right)

Around the corner, sandwiched between Rundle Street and North Terrace is MASH – a design studio that preceded Lightbulb’s immigration by quite a few years when it moved from west to east in 2008. 

An award-winning advertising and design studio, MASH resides on an upper floor in the 1877 building that stands of the corner of North Terrace and East Terrace, which is also home to Botanic Bar, Golden Boy and the newly-opened Africola. 

The move across town has been beneficial for the company and its workers. The East End gives the team “food that is Thai, Afghan, African, vego, Scottish, Indigenous Australian, light bulbs, Missoni by Target and a beer all within a block. The East End is a smorgasbord these days and thankfully it doesn’t have the weekend party leftovers we used to get in the west end,” says co-head designer, James Brown.

But James is adamant this is not an East versus West argument; “this side of town is a bit more green and lush but the west definitely has its charms”. 

Since moving east, MASH have been busy plying their wares to local businesses. Most notably, the firm art-directed the fit out of Africola – a homage to Chef Duncan Welgemoed’s upbringing in South Africa and also designed Kutchi Deli Parwana on Ebenezer Place, the sister restaurant of Henley Beach Road’s successful Parwana. 

MASH co-owners James Brown and Dom Roberts

MASH co-owners James Brown and Dom Roberts

The creative nature of the East End reaches its pinnacle when festival season arrives each year in mid February, bringing with it the annual installation of The Garden of Unearthly Delights. 

Co-founder of The Garden, Scott Maidment, says that even when he first started trekking to Adelaide for Mad March in 1994, the East End was buzzing with arts events. 

 “The Garden was born in 2002 and it was kind of an evolution of all those things already happening down in the East End,” he says.  

Each year – in its month or so of existence – the Garden brings in about half a million people and has a monolithic effect on the area. It’s not surprising, then, that even Google Maps identifies Rundle Park as The Garden of Unearthly Delights.

Scott Maidment at the Garden of Unearthly Delights site with staff. This picture courtesy Daniel Marks.

Scott Maidment at the Garden of Unearthly Delights site with staff. This picture courtesy Daniel Marks.

Naturally, Scott has a lot of love for this sector of the city, but his affection is about more than work. In addition to running the Garden Scott also rents an apartment above East Terrace Continental year round, and has done for about seven years. 

When Scott’s not here, “we have artists from the Ballet Company, people who come to town to film movies and comedians who are performing at the Rhino Room who always text me and ask if they can use the apartment. It’s kind of set up to have artists coming through all year round,” he says. 

Scott’s enthusiasm for the area demonstrates the harmonious relationship between business owners and creative types. Even when money is redirected into The Garden during Fringe time, it doesn’t seem to engender any ill-will. 

“We really feel part of the community and when we come [to Adelaide] for meetings early on in the year,” he says, “we walk in and they say ‘Oh you’re back! It must be that time of the year again.’ It’s a really exciting vibe.” 

Two of the permanent venues that sit closest to the Garden are James Hillier and Sondra Deering’s Botanic Bar and Golden Boy.

Sondra Deering of the Botanic Bar and Golden Boy

Sondra Deering of the Botanic Bar and Golden Boy

Botanic Bar opened 12 years ago and Sondra agrees with Scott that the Fringe “only complements our business”. 

“But, there are more events in the city now during that time and that does spread people around,” she says. 

Despite this, Sondra welcomes all the pop-up venues and bars, saying the most positive outcome of such diversification is that “people are now more knowledgeable about what they drink,” making the service process more interesting for them.

Diagonally opposite Botanic Bar we enter the gates of the Adelaide Botanic Gardens. This is the state’s most popular attraction, receiving over 1.6 million visitors every year. A peaceful slice of green in the middle of the city, the link between the Botanic Gardens and the East End is strong. 

“Sometimes we can be taken for granted and that’s a challenge, but we are critical to the East End precinct,” says director Stephen Forbes. 

James Brown and MASH certainly agree, saying food and the Botanic Gardens “were both major factors in our move close to seven years ago.” 

Still, remaining relevant in an urban space can be difficult for a Botanic Garden and Stephen looks to work with others in the area to keep the connection strong.

“There are three performances in the Garden as part of the 2015 Adelaide Fringe program and annual events like WOMADelaide and Moonlight Cinema have become staples of summer entertainment,” he says. 

The Botanic Gardens' North Terrace entrance

The Botanic Gardens’ North Terrace entrance

The camaraderie felt in the precinct is what is sometimes missing from other parts of town. Rather than threatening one another, businesses seem happy to work together to help each other out. However, although stable now, it isn’t an area that is absolutely perfect. Most agree it would help dramatically if East Terrace and Rundle Street were made more pedestrian-friendly to encourage people to use the Parklands year-round. 

MASH and fellow creative Aaron also agree that “it is a ghost town in the east” after 5pm each weekday. Keeping people in the city and developing an “early evening economy” has been a key challenge for the City Council and State Government. The forthcoming closure of the old Royal Adelaide Hospital presents an opportunity to engineer something to fill this gap. 

Sitting at the corner of North Terrace and East Terrace, the RAH has been the centre of South Australian health care since 1840. The hospital’s relocation to the west end of North Terrace is due to be completed in 2016 and the new institution will be South Australia’s largest, most-advanced hospital and one of the best in the nation. The change is “exactly what the Government should be spending their money on,” says Aaron. 

The State Government has announced that part of the old RAH site will be transformed into an $85 million high school, which will have teaching specialties in health and sciences. No confirmation of a build date or other planning information has been released and what will happen to the remainder of the site is yet to be seen. 

The RAH site's uncertain future means the same for local businesses.

The RAH site’s uncertain future means the same for local businesses.

Extensive public consultation is happening, and an Open Ideas competition was also run through the Office for Design and Architecture SA in 2013. Winners were selected, but the design competition was only ever intended to provide ideas for Government designers and was not supposed to offer any definitive solution. 

Surprisingly, many residents and business owners seem unconcerned about a major pillar of the area moving across town. Instead they are intrigued by what will replace it. East Terrace Continental owners Lauro and Dante Martire are aware that foot traffic may fall given that “fifty per cent of our customers are hospital related”, but they remain optimistic and curious about how the East End could best capitalise on the closure. 

A meal from East Terrace Continental: A local staple

A meal from East Terrace Continental: A local staple

This is in keeping with many businesses and residents, who told CityMag the upcoming vacancy was as an opportunity for the East End to redefine itself. Locals like Morgan from Lightbulb Digital see the changeover of the RAH site as a chance to bring in more people who will actually invest in and help build the precinct. 

“The hospital creates a transient economy where people are in the city for a temporary amount of time,” he says. “They need to grab a coffee or a bite but are not particularly placing emphasis on the qualities of the area – they’re just interested in proximity.”

Creating a place that has a variety of uses – both day and night – is seen as a priority, as is the inclusion of something that is publicly accessible, connected to art and culture and integrated with the Botanic Gardens. 

Many of those already entwined in the east agree that the proposed high school alone will not properly fill the gap left by the hospital’s exit. 

“Schools are 9am-3pm,” says Sondra. “It will not bring the needed foot traffic.” 

A team called SLASH were the winners of the Open Ideas competition for the site run last year. Designers Sarah Lake and Stuart Harrison of Victoria collaborated with local firm Phillips/Pilkington to create a plan that – for the most part – retained the structure  of existing land and buildings. 

“It’s really the start of a great idea,” says James at MASH. “It must become a world class and distinctly Adelaide public space. SLASH integrated open spaces, Botanic Garden extensions, an Aboriginal art gallery and student accommodation. It was really credible but it was just missing all the famous local artists and designers who could have worked to create the space.” 

“Adelaide was once the artistic hub of Australia so I would like to think Adelaide could take on some of the ideals of our old self.” 

Local hospitality worker Brigitte Kamleh has a quick beer at The Exeter

Local hospitality worker Brigitte Kamleh has a quick beer at The Exeter


While businesses are optimistic about the future of the precinct, CityMag believes the thing that would help them most is certainty. The sooner the Government announces what will happen with the RAH site and when it will happen, the better off we’ll all be.

It’s an ongoing debate, and conclusive information from Government has been scarce. The Planning Minister John Rau sent CityMag a brief statement confirming the Government is “continuing to develop its plans for the old RAH site and will be in a position to release more detail soon.” Even with the uncertainty, the forward thinking and a positive approach of this precinct seems set to carry them through the times of change that sit on the horizon.

On a late sunny Thursday afternoon, as we make our way home, we catch sight of three teenagers with a basketball casually strolling from Ebenezer Place across Union Street to the corner of Sym Choon Lane. We watch as they begin shooting hoops into a basketball ring screwed to the wall of Penny University and Aaron says, “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m talking about”. It’s a fine example of people using their city and one the East End hopes to see more of in years to come.

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