Newcastle will not be developed according to award winning strategy

The Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy received a prize for ‘best large project’ from the Planning Institute of Australia last Tuesday night. The strategy was not quite the work of collaboration it was made out to be by the prize-givers, since the elected Council, key urban design specialists and community representative bodies had no input into it. Even so, the strategy did have some attractive features.

The irony surrounding that award however is that Newcastle will not be developed according to that strategy because it has been drastically altered in a number of eleventh hour changes to suit developers.

New draft planning instruments that will govern development in the city centre will now permit high-rise housing towers and higher building densities in several key parts. The new draft State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP) in concert with an accompanying Development Control Plan (DCP) not only frees up height and density restrictions but it deletes that clause (7.9(4)) of the existing Local Environment Plan that protects the pride of place that the Christchurch Cathedral has in the architectural landscape of Newcastle.

The elected Council of the City of Newcastle was given a very cursory and schematic overview of the proposed changes before the new draft SEPP and DCP were placed on public exhibition. The elected Council has never formally debated the proposals and will only discuss them in full and open Council because the Greens councillors called an extraordinary meeting to force the discussion.

Moreover, the general public was given only 16 days in which to respond to the proposed dramatic changes in the city’s landscape. In the meantime, the public has been given very little explanation or adequate justification for those changes.

Why is it that the City of Newcastle suddenly has to accommodate Gold Coast style high-rise housing towers?

Among the 420 submissions on the original strategy received by Planning and Infrastructure NSW was one from GPT, the company which owns a one-third interest in most the buildings surrounding the Hunter St mall. Their submission, backed up by one from UrbanGrowth, objected to the original height restrictions around the mall because they “constrain residential development” possibilities.

GPT got its way. We will now have a 22 storey building (69.5m) on the David Jones carpark site. In the original Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy (NURS) there was a maximum of 9 storeys (30m) here. Similar changes will give a total of 3 very tall towers around the mall as well as other potential towers further East and West, blocking views from several residences and vantage points near the Cathedral.

Likewise, The University of Newcastle made a submission suggesting densities were too low for their plans for the new campus in the Civic precinct.

The University also got its way. The draft SEPP allows greater density (through higher Floor Space Ratios) for the University’s city Campus. Unlike GPT and UrbanGrowth, the University put forward a highly developed concept plan displaying many attractive design features. But, it is high density and quite significantly different from the controls outlined in the original strategy. So, it still needs wider discussion about how this high density campus will affect the amenity of the city.

Civic is a perfect place for a university campus, given its proximity to the city and lots of services, but especially given its proximity to Civic Station and a well functioning rail system, a system that is capable of transporting the thousands of students who will potentially use it on a daily basis.

The general public of Newcastle made 351 individual submissions to the original Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy. The vast majority were opposed to the truncation of the railway line at Wickham. They were in favour of truly seamless mass public transport: through keeping the rail and with good transport interchange modes.

However most of these submissions were not restricted to the subject of transport with many suggesting how the money slated for removing the rail could be used instead for useful public infrastructure such as rail crossings and improvements to the public domain.

Indeed they eloquently expressed support for the community-spirited aspects of the original plan: for public meeting spaces, for the retention of Newcastle’s unique heritage and for the provision of cycling and pedestrian access to the city centre and beyond. But it seems all these submissions were ignored.

State member for Newcastle Tim Owen’s response to those who object to intrusive high-rise in the centre of Newcastle was: “For the greater good of all, some are going to have to put up with a loss of view and that’s the way it’s going to be”. In other words, “like it or lump it!”

Barry O’Farrell promised in the lead-up to the 2011 State election that his government would listen to local communities and return decision-making to the local level through their councils. It’s looking increasingly like that’s not “the way it’s going to be”.

If we are to return to at least the minimal public consultation promised us, we the citizens of Newcastle, need further extensive public consultation centred around community-based revitalisation. That means a switch in mindset so we can talk about exciting new developments that suit the majority interests not just the few.

Therese Doyle; Greens Councillor; Newcastle City Council
22 March 2014 

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