Newcastle’s struggle with rebirth: the story so far
Mick Daley | 14 March 2018
Newcastle has long suffered from a post-industrial, post-BHP malaise. Unemployment is high, especially in the inner city. Hunter Street’s empty shops are as ghostly as the old-world skyline. The Victoria Theatre, once one of Australia’s finest, is a crumbling ruin. The magnificent 1903 sandstone Post Office is fenced off and covered in graffiti.
No one doubts the city needs a major makeover, but opinions as to how it’s been approached vary widely.
While Newcastle’s Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes played down concerns over the construction issues surrounding the new $750 million Hunter Street mall, local businessman Kevin Coffey told The Fifth Estate, “They’ve closed the complete main strip in the city without any sort of endgame. They say 2019 but we don’t have any firm dates at this stage.”
And while GPT Group touts its $470 million Charlestown Square shopping mall as a model of sustainable development, CBD business owners maintain that shopping malls are what killed off the city in the first place.
Over $1.6 billion has been poured into the latest iteration of a “new Newcastle” by the NSW government. It’s created employment and is undeniably changing the face of the city. Very powerful state agencies are involved in a massive Greater Hunter Metropolitan Plan, which does not mention renewables or climate change.
It’s not the first attempt at reinvention. In 2008 the media and cultural mandarin Marcus Westbury initiated Renew Newcastle, a DIY urban renewal scheme. Westbury talked the council into letting him use 30 empty buildings in the city for creative enterprises. Startups, galleries and bespoke boutiques began to populate derelict streets. The model was moderately successful.
Other proposals, including those by disgraced former billionaire Nathan Tinkler and his ill-fated Buildev company were mired in corruption claims and political donations scandals that wound up at ICAC and ultimately claimed the scalps of Newcastle independent MP Tim Owen, Liberal MP Chris Hartcher and one-time Newcastle Lord Mayor Jeff McCloy.
Newcastle City Council is making its own future plans with a commitment to generating 30 per cent of its electricity from low-carbon sources and cutting overall electricity usage by 30 per cent by 2020. To that end it’s secured a $6.5 million loan from Australia’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation to build the region’s biggest solar farm.
Using 14,500 panels, the farm is projected to save the city around $9 million over its 30-year life-span. The council has joined the Cities Power Partnership, a Climate Council program pledging active reductions in climate impact. The construction of eight solar rooftop installations in the city are planned, along with more cycling infrastructure and electric-vehicle chargers.
Summerhill is already one of Australia’s most advanced renewable-driven waste facilities, with a 2.2 megawatt landfill gas generator and a small wind turbine and electric garbage trucks proposed.
Clearly that kind of sustainable innovation wasn’t enough for the NSW Coalition. They want to be known as the movers who shook up the state’s long, brawling history.
In 2014 they infamously floated iconic chunks of NSW Crown Land as “development opportunities”. Jenolan Caves, Central Station and the Newcastle CBD were up for grabs and UrbanGrowth, whose job was to “obtain rezoning and development approvals’’, called in GPT to work on a total city makeover.
The Greater Newcastle Metropolitan Plan is an ambitious document, covering the management of economic and infrastructure growth across Cessnock, Lake Macquarie, Maitland, Newcastle and Port Stephens. While the sustainability buzzword is bandied about, it’s not borne out in a lot of the developments thus far.
Williamtown, home to the airport and a growing airforce base, is a focus, particularly given the Feds’ commitment to becoming an arms exporter and presence of the Joint Strike Fighters (F-35) program. Airport expansion has come with a new tourism and retail hub, while the airport authority conducts due diligence on 76 acres for a proposed business park, despite the possibility of contamination from PFAS firefighting chemicals used at defence bases.
Narrowing the focus down to Newcastle itself, we have the Revitalising Newcastle program, a many-headed hydra reporting to a committee representing Transport for NSW, Roads and Maritime Services, Department of Planning and Environment, NSW Treasury, the Hunter Development Corporation and Infrastructure NSW.
Its decision to make a greenfield development site out of the railway corridor winding into the city was based on this simple and highly contested statement: “The current transport system in Newcastle isn’t working. Public transport patronage has dropped and service levels are below standard… a new approach is required…”
With that, the line was promptly closed on Christmas Day 2015.
The heritage-listed Newcastle Station is rezoned for tourism, while Civic Station is rezoned for public recreation – pretty much the same thing.
The heavy hitters from Revitalise Newcastle decided to rezone the 4.2 hectares of rail corridor. Most of it was set aside for “community benefit”, a broad category including tourism (arguably a purely commercial activity) education and affordable housing. The remaining area has been privatised and is slated for “mixed use” zoning, such as commercial purposes.
Sold to the public with glossy brochures of a green corridor with cycleways and parks, the new light rail will have dedicated tracks that cars can’t drive on. Built with public money, it will be run by a private company. Traffic and buses will be pushed from the newly single lane Hunter St onto the parallel King St. With another 2400 apartments and 10,000 extra traffic movements per peak hour, chaos is predicted.
Another significant factor is Newcastle Harbour, a significant economic contributor handling 2258 ships a year. With the international decline in coal prices, its coal handling facility is gradually becoming a stranded asset. The government’s answer is to privatise the port and diversify with a $13 million cruise ship terminal upgrade.
That’s controversial in itself.
A new cruise terminal would mean concentrations of fumes from raw diesel that monster cruise ships burn, markedly upping the harbour’s carbon footprint. The deadly particulates are intensified by the fact that as they are individually wired, they mostly don’t take ship to shore power, and thus run their massive infrastructure on generators.
Locals aren’t happy
While the vision for a pedestrian-friendly smart city looks set to be eventually realised, the devil is in the detail. Locals are not happy with what they’re seeing.
Kevin Coffey has had a small business in the city for 37 years.
He believes in a progressive and creative smart city, with street sensors and superfast broadband, but he says the inner-city development has been poorly planned and implemented.
“Most of the city business people were behind dropping the fence from the very heavy rail line that separated the harbour from the city. So we said ‘yes’, get rid of it and install a more pedestrian friendly form of transport down the existing rail corridor and we’ll have something up and running within six months.
“And that was actually recommended by the state government in 2013 and then all of a sudden they wanted to move it onto Hunter St.
“We were told 18 months ago it was going to be done block by block. And then come January, without notice they closed the entire 10 zones to get it done faster. That was a big surprise to people who’d signed leases last year and are now looking at the best part of 12-18 months without traffic.”
Coffey says the developers committed to be out by 2019 to avoid paying compensation to local businesses, as happened in George Street Sydney. They are not, however, giving a completion date, despite the plight of 100-150 businesses stranded in this construction zone.
“Some don’t depend on passing trade, but those requiring deliveries can’t get vehicles in. They depend on cash flow.
“We’re talking two kilometres, dust is coming in the doors, some owners are wearing ear plugs, even if you wanted to support these businesses you’d have to fight your way through a construction zone… And the first thing that goes is employees.
“The government is turning a blind eye to any of that, refusing lower business loans, rent relief, rate relief, financial assistance. A complete and utter lack of empathy.
“Some of these businesses have been there 40 years. They won’t survive 18 months cut off. You can’t get deliveries. I don’t know if fire engines and ambos can get in there.”
While Coffey believes the final product will be a better city, he is firmly opposed to the purely commercial aspects that privatisation will bring. Worst of these, in his opinion, is the Super Cars formula one race in the city.
“Nobody had a say. They bring in their own city, have their own people to cater and all that, then extract the finance and go away under the banner of exposure for the city. And I don’t want to be put on a fossil fuel race map. I want to be put on a smart car or a smart city or creative city map, not a super cars race.”
Coffey says the developments are not all bad, though.
“One of the best things that’s happened is the university moving into the city with very little parking space. I’m a fan of low parking spaces and Newcastle could be one of the most beautiful people-friendly cities on the planet.
“But this construction phase will wipe out any existing interest along that street, so when the rail opens you’re not going to have that culture or those people that were there before. They’ll be long gone.”