words by Michael McGuire
photography by Matt Turner
For Peter Nichol it’s his “first and last job’’. The first, because 50 years ago, when he was only 13, he found himself working on the back of a Popeye, one of the iconic boats that have been ferrying tourists up and down the Torrens Lake since 1935.
His last, because at the age of 63, after a long career in the grain industry, he has returned to once again watch the Adelaide riverbank gently slide by as Popeye makes it way from the Adelaide Zoo to the weir at the end of the Torrens Lake.
Fifty years ago, though, the view from the boat was vastly different. “It was really just the natural environment,’’ he says as he ponders the changes to the landscape. “In 1966, there was no Convention Centre,
no Festival Centre. There were a lot of reeds.’’
It has been in the past five years that the rate of change along Adelaide’s Riverbank area has really taken off. The passengers on Peter Nichol’s first boat back in 1966 would be hard pressed to recognise the joint. Sure, the Adelaide Oval is still there but, after a $535 million make-over, it now rises impressively into the North Adelaide skyline as the one of the best venues in Australia to watch sport.
On the city side of the Torrens, a nest of cranes has taken up residence. The Adelaide Convention Centre has been twice expanded, a new Royal Adelaide Hospital is under construction, and the cheese-grater effect on the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute marks it as one of the most innovate architectural designs in the country.
The footbridge across the Torrens heaves with activity whenever Port Adelaide or the Crows play in footy season, or when the cricket arrives in summer. And all this has risen within five years.
Riverbank Authority chairman Andrew McEvoy says Adelaide is “turning around and facing the water again’’. “What Adelaide has done, like a lot of cities, is realise that the Torrens, while it’s not super huge, it is water, it is beautiful, it is a natural landscape in a city centre,” he says.
He also says the rapid rate of change in Adelaide makes a lie of perceptions the southern capital is resistant to new ideas. “It’s the biggest development opportunity in Australia today,’’ he says. “So much bigger than South Bank in Brisbane and Southbank in Melbourne, in fact it is bigger than Barangaroo in Sydney.’’
Mr McEvoy is responsible for the stretch of the Torrens that stretches from the inner-city suburb of Bowden in the west to Hackney in the northeast. He wants to open up the city to the parklands and the river itself, believing that for too long the water has been blocked from the city centre.
There are plans for paths that are better lit, more user friendly to link the central business district to the parks and the water. “We have always talked about Adelaide as the 20-minute city, a walkable city, but now there are more things to walk past and through and to do and that is really where the change has come,’’ he says.
He also wants it to link in with the still emerging small bar and restaurant culture that has developed since the State Government changed licensing laws. Those new laws have prompted about 70 small bars to start up in the CBD in recent years, many clustered around Leigh St and Peel St, two thoroughfares that had largely been abandoned and forgotten. “One thing we want to do with the Riverbank is see a continuation of that type of pedestrian meets restaurant, meets retail type of atmosphere.’’
And, as Mr McEvoy points out, there is plenty more to come. Sydney developer Lang Walker has won the right to create a $610 million new plaza and office block complex beside the Festival Centre. The Adelaide Casino has committed to a $300 million development that includes a new hotel. The site of the current Royal Adelaide Hospital at the other end of North Tce will also be redeveloped once its replacement opens for business next year.
Back down on the Popeye, Peter Nichol is talking with Dave Robertson. The 38-year-old Robertson has been working on the boat for 25 years.
He started with his brothers but they all drifted off, while he stayed on the water.
Robertson guides his boat past all this movement every day but doesn’t always take a lot of notice of the changes.
But, as another winter night fell on Adelaide, Robertson made a special effort to stop and look around. To see it as others might who were taking in the view for the first time: “I just decided to look at this place at night in a different light and I could see why people would like it. It’s a nice place.”
Projects completed or underway
Royal Adelaide Hospital
Adelaide Oval redevelopment
Torrens Lake footbridge
South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute
Adelaide Convention Centre
University of Adelaide Health and Medical Sciences building
Change’s in the wind
The rapid nature of change on Adelaide’s Riverbank is only likely to accelerate, with billions of dollars of new projects still to begin. The Adelaide Festival Centre will get a new look, the Adelaide Casino will be expanded and the current Royal Adelaide Hospital site will be overhauled.
The RAH site will “be the next big play”, according to Riverbank Authority chairman Andrew McEvoy. Development ideas floated include a cultural hub, an extension to the Art Gallery or SA Museum as well as apartments, offices, restaurants, shops, and hotels. The Festival Centre upgrade will include the reworking of a tired Hajek Plaza, which will mean the creation of a new 6000sq m public space and feature new bars and shops.
“I think it will be a world’s-best meeting place,’’ Mr McEvoy says, of what the multitude of new developments will create for Adelaide. “Beautiful green spaces, places for people to be active by themselves or with family.’’