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CENTURY-OLD STEEL CITY HERITAGE TO BE SWIFTLY SCRAPPED

Some of the last remnants of BHP’s massive steelworks legacy in Newcastle are to be scrapped under a plan by the state government to remediate former industrial land around the ports of Mayfield.

In a move announced by local Newcastle press recently, the former steelworks pattern store, medical centre and master mechanic’s office are to be demolished very soon to allow what is termed ‘remediation’ of the site. The land, to be leased out by the Newcastle Port Corporation to a private tenant under a 99 year scheme is prime development holding and the idea of sacrificing this heritage seems to be another rushed affair following a brief announcement over the Christmas period, and a refusal by the Port to avoid any public consultation over the demolition under state infrastructure laws.

What exactly does this ‘remediation’ refer to…? Certainly the large tract of land occupied can be fully remediated without the need to remove these three relatively insignificant structures. This is not Fukushima after all; the buildings don’t have to be demolished so the topsoil can be excavated and the area steam cleaned free from reactor-grade plutonium…?

Diesel Loco no 35 arrives by the Medical Centre, 1957.  Image newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

Diesel Loco No. 35 arrives by the Medical Centre, 1957. Image newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

The wonderful Master Mechanics Office. Image Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association

The wonderful Master Mechanics Office. Image Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association

Former steelworks pattern store. Image newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

Former steelworks pattern store. Image Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

They were in fact the only three structures earmarked to be saved 12 years ago when redevelopment of the site was first slated… Here they have waited patiently while ‘remediation’ happens all around, and hopefully one day they will be restored and re-purposed to form part of the tapestry that makes up this site. A very important part too, being representative of the former vast empire of BHP, the steelworks which operated from 1915 until its closure in 1999, a gleaming relic of Newcastle’s industrial past. The steelworks pattern store, in particular, goes back even further, being constructed of sandstone blocks salvaged from a mansion that once sat on the Hunter River.

The Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association, a group of ex-BHP workers who advocate maintaining some of the steel giant’s legacy are against the plan. Its President Bob Cook says “The buildings are adjacent to the main entry of the steelworks, on a main road entry, and are quite practically located to be able to fit in with any future development on that part of the site, so it doesn’t seem appropriate to remove them unnecessarily when the use of the land is not known at this time.”

He sees the potential dollar value in the deal as a reason for their removal. “Quite clearly maximising the value of the land is by providing it as a free clear site and that’s one way of maximising the value, not providing any inhibiting potential buildings on the site… Clearly that’s the reason for this exercise.”

Inheritance agrees whole-heartedly, and we will be sending an objection regarding the removal of any heritage buildings on site. We would also call for a proper independent assessment of the site and whether there is a real need to remove the heritage items.

A May 2009 Remediation Fact Sheet prepared by Hunter Development Corporation gives away some of the truth of the matter. It clearly shows that the bulk of remediation work is required within a smaller 30 hectare area entitled Area 1, well away from these buildings, and in fact has already occurred. It says ‘The remediation strategy has been designed to contain contaminated soils and manage contaminated groundwater to a standard that allows industrial use of the site and addresses environmental protection of the Hunter River… The contamination, which is common to steelworks sites, is largely confined to a 30 hectare area of the site identified as Area 1. However, remediation work is also required to the bulk of the remaining areas of the site as well.’

This proves that these buildings, on the outer verge of the massive 150 hectare site, far away from the heavily contaminated Area 1, are in a low risk zone and do not need to be removed at all.

Not only this, but as part of the remediation process to date, two large stormwater drains were created at the eastern and western edges of the site, and the land re-shaped so that contaminated groundwater and surface water would be directed towards these drains rather than into the Hunter River. As can be seen the three buildings in question are on a higher fall of land away from the river and as such contaminants naturally drain away from these areas. (see images below including drainage arrows).

What I find rather strange is that the state government finds no problem with the proven high levels of airbourne pollution created by coal dust from open rail carraiges thundering all around the suburbs of Newcastle, causing respiratory health concerns to a growing number of residents, but three tiny heritage buildings left on a clean-up site for 12 years are now all of a sudden a top priority pollution threat. Perhaps, more than a decade after BHP left Mayfield, and after years of ongoing remediation already, the issue here is just a convenient way to get these buildings out of the way to allow for a true greenfield development of the site.

BHP Steelworks site, remediation factsheet image.

BHP Steelworks site, remediation fact sheet image.

BHP Area 1 shown, remediation factsheet image.

BHP Area 1 shown, remediation fact sheet image.

Area 1 remediation cross section, remediation factsheet image.

Area 1 remediation cross section showing work previously undertaken, remediation fact sheet image.

As more of Newcastle’s former industrial land is given over to developers, so too is the heritage of the city and its surrounds under threat from disappearing, as piece by piece, large swathes are redeveloped for housing and other uses. What remains to be seen is whether these important pieces of the puzzle can be kept and maintained, to at least show a hint of how the city grew, where it found its wealth, and what was once here. At least something should be kept as a tribute to all the hardened steelworkers who plied these grounds for so many years. If all this is gone then it really just becomes another block of land with which to fill with ever more residential housing…

Video of former demolition of BHP steelworks site by Warren Haasnoot.

Main title image: Former BHP Mediacl Centre, courtesy Newcastle Industrial Heritage Association.

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.

Newcastle Station. Soon to become a thing of the past.

Newcastle Station. Soon to become a thing of the past.

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.

Links to Save Our Rail and Renew Newcastle.

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.

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