THE BATTLE FOR NEWCASTLE CITY
The citizens of Newcastle NSW are being taken for a ride. Or rather, they’re not being taken for a ride, at least not a train ride anyway. The O’Farrell Government recently approved a move to cut the railway line at Wickham, eliminating the Newcastle Central terminus thereby freeing up a considerable stretch of near waterfront railway land for possible open space or private development, depending on how much spin you are willing to swallow. Following the recent success of land sales of Honeysuckle Wharf precincts the developers have had their eyes on larger chunks of Newcastle, from the CBD to beachside areas and now the holy grail, the city’s railway. It seems nothing is sacred anymore.
In what should be considered a great loss of infrastructure and a blow to public transport options in the city, especially for out of town commuters who now look at the possibility of ending a long train ride with a lengthy wait for buses to come along and ferry them to the CBD or city beaches, this state government hasn’t hesitated in approving cutting the city’s rail artery in favour of possible land redevelopment. And outside of the decision they are not giving much away in the way of prospective transport options. Really, only a light rail or tram option would suffice in place of the crippled train line, but that seems highly unlikely.
Planning Minister Brad Hazzard claims the rail land will remain in public ownership, although, as reported by the ABC, he wouldn’t rule out the government considering a “brilliant idea” in the future from a developer. Others are far more skeptical. Save Our Rail has been campaigning to keep the railway line and Newcastle stations over several years. Joan Dawson, the group’s president, says the government only held one public consultation, and most of the people present were totally against the plan. “There’s no way that that valuable land will be left sitting there for public use,” she believes.
Redevelopment of the Newcastle CBD adjacent to the railway has been on the radar for some time already, with developer GPT buying most of the buildings in the Hunter Street mall several years ago, meanwhile threatening that their proposed shopping plaza style redevelopment wouldn’t work without access to the land currently occupied by the dreaded railway. And yes, they did partially pull out from their $600 million deal when they didn’t see eye to eye over the railway land with the former state government, selling off two thirds of the retail buildings they own in the mall to, guess who , Barry O’Farell’s state govt. development body Landcom. Now a massive area of city land bound by Perkins, King, Newcomen and Hunter streets is on the menu for redevelopment or as Barry chooses to sell it, ‘urban renewal’.
Many if not most of these buildings in the mall have significant heritage value, from the ornate Victorian warehouses to Art Deco shopping arcades, and under Landcom/GPT’s proposed redevelopment, and the state government’s policy of buyout, are now at serious threat of being bulldozed. Being wholly owned by GPT and the state government doesn’t bode well for these historic buildings, nor the picturesque mall as a whole. David Jones closed its store recently and many of the grand old buildings of yesteryear have suffered from neglect as developer forces argue out how their grand shopping/residential wedding cake should take shape. How many stories perhaps, or how much glass and concrete they can utilise in just one mall.
The cutting of the rail line and the purchase of the Hunter Street mall land by the state Government signifies a step in the direction of mega-development; People of Newcastle, you’ve been warned, this has been looming for years. Will you let them destroy your beautiful heritage precincts for a short sighted burst of greedy monotonous overdevelopment? I for one feel Newcastle is too precious a beauty to bulldoze and ruin in that way. The fact that one massive developer together with Barry O’Farrell is about to decide the fate of how your city will look, to concrete over your main heritage mall, and now, to cut your rail line and turn your main terminus station into history (and possible highrise) to me is almost beyond belief. Are we at the stage now where developers decide how your city will look, shop, live and travel? It seems so.
All this just as post-industrial Newcastle itself is starting to find its vibe. The streets are coming alive to a more cosmopolitan feel, cool cafes and shops are starting to spring up, the buildings are once again being occupied, change is in the air, set to the background of a wonderful working harbour and heritage tapestry of architecture.
Renew Newcastle has done an exemplary job of moving artists and creative merchants into dormant building niches, such as the former David Jones, in a scheme of grass roots urban renewal that is now being replicated in cities such as Geelong and Adelaide. A short stroll through Hunter Street and around will tell you Newcastle has got a lot going for it – the harbour, the heritage, the beaches, the weather, the topography, the transport, and now an arts scene coming to fruition. It’s a unique place that deserves state protection and sensitive heritage-flavoured development, NOT overdevelopment. I have always found it fitting that the train line and port both seem to converge at the edge of the CBD, that will now come to an end. And as for alternative transport options, many of the roadside carspaces along that side of the city lay abandoned even on weekends due to exhorbitent parking meter prices charged by greedy city councils – will that change once the rail is gone? I doubt it.
To lose your main city railway station is one thing, and a big thing at that, especially for the many people who depend on rail transport as the most efficient means of getting into town. To lose your open, leafy, airy, unique heritage shopping mall to make way for a Westfield style air-conditioned mono development would be a travesty for Newcastle. I hope to never see that day.
Images below show some of the heritage buildings of Hunter Street Mall that may be at risk under redevelopment plans. All these buildings need protection. Interior shots are of Renew Newcastle’s Emporium artisan merchant shops. All Images copyright by Inheritance.