IN a quaintly dated function room in the Newcastle Leagues Club, a cluster of council staff, Newcastle MP Tim Owen, prominent business leaders and concerned residents sit expectantly.
It’s 8am on Wednesday and the 40-odd attendees listen attentively as Newcastle Now manager Michael Neilson explains how the West End renewal project is for the first time uniting key stakeholders to spruce up the eclectic but downtrodden precinct, loosely defined as running from Union to Tudor streets and between King and Hunter streets.
The mood remains politely appreciative as Judy Jaeger, the Future City Director at Newcastle City Council, reports that the ‘‘can-do’’ council is, notwithstanding a severely outdated IT system, streamlining development application processes to push forward urban renewal.
But it is only when Gilbert Rochecouste, a streak of a man resplendent in a crimson suit and an iridescent orange shirt with a ruffle collar, stands to give a keynote address on the pros of placemaking, that the atmosphere suddenly charges.
‘‘I was born in Mauritius, so let’s all do a little Mauritian welcome,’’ says the founder of Village Well.
This is the creative force that helped transform national destinations including Flinders Lane in Melbourne, Fortitude Valley in Brisbane and Wolfe Lane and King Street in Perth, and is now working its magic on Adelaide.
‘‘Stand up,’’ he orders, ‘‘this is not going to hurt, and it’s important to bring passion and joy to the West End and Newcastle – that’s what we need, a bit of energy, otherwise nothing else happens.’’
All formality in the room crumbles as Rochecouste cajoles his now-captive audience to shake out its collective hands, gyrate its collective hips and repeat a ‘‘chucka chucka chucka choo choo’’ chant that he promises will help reignite and revitalise the West End and Newcastle.
If it all sounds a bit crazy, that’s just what Rochecouste desires – and perhaps what Newcastle requires.
As community frustration grows at the delay in the delivery of the State Environment Planning Policy (SEPP), a decision on the rail line, and detail on the CBD’s urban renewal, some people are simply ploughing ahead with projects they hope will drive change regardless.
Rochecouste, who has a lengthy commercial background as the former manager of Melbourne’s Chadstone, the biggest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, said there is a similar sense of urgency in many European communities.
‘‘I have just done a tour in Berlin, Copenhagen and the UK, which is struggling with a double-dip recession,’’ he told the launch.
‘‘There is no money in Europe so property owners are combining with community groups, and people are just getting out in the street, painting properties, reopening parks and activating streets – it’s just sweat capital!
‘‘People get caught up thinking you need big money and masterplans but now they are driving extraordinary things and that’s what happens when times are tough – things can happen quickly because people have to get out there and do it themselves. ‘‘You need a bit of craziness – hundreds of technically illegal acts created the initial buzz when we [Village Well] reactivated Flinders Lane and the Yarra and other areas.’’
Newcastle Now has engaged Rochecouste to educate and train the West End Advisory Group on placemaking, or how to beautify and reactivate spaces day and night, to draw people and generate cultural and economic dividends.
It’s about creating so-called ‘‘third spaces’’, ranging from cafes or night markets to public events, that make people want to leave work or home and head to a place where they feel they belong.
Placemaking is a concept that has been used in architectural and planning circles for up to four decades.
It may be old hat, but it is witnessing renewed popularity.
In 2010, Newcastle City Council brought Ethan Kent from Project for Public Spaces, whose father Fred is regarded as the founder of the placemaking movement, to Newcastle for a series of public forums, staff workshops and a business breakfast.
The same year it appointed Susan Denholm as its placemaking policy facilitator and in April it adopted a formal placemaking policy.
Among the council successes to date are the makeover of Islington Park, which now has a masterplan for further placemaking initiatives, and another of Gymea Park in Minmi.
‘‘Many are now following and utilising our groundwork, which we are very willing to share,’’ Denholm said.
Jaeger added that a proposal to slash the Section 94A developer contribution from 3per cent to 2per cent would also be put before the council in two weeks, an initiative she said would release extra spending on placemaking.
Since his appointment three months ago, Newcastle Now manager Michael Neilson has worked to unite the council, business and residents to clean up the West End as its first major project.
If successful, Newcastle Now will roll out the plan to three other city precincts – East End, Civic, and Darby Street.
Also working hard behind the scenes is L!veSites, which has reactivated inner-city spaces including the night mural on a derelict theatre in Perkins Street and murals on derelict buildings, and has far more in store in the new year.
MP Tim Owen said major projects including the new courthouse, where construction was slated from January, and the planned University of Newcastle campus for business and law faculties, would bring people mass into the city, and was fully behind the Newcastle Now initiative.
‘‘What it is doing will bring the whole precinct along and as we move forward with these big projects they are the glue,’’ he said.
Owen believes the West End should become what he calls Newcastle Central, a major commercial retail hub which would include Marketown and diagonally cross to Wickham and The Store.
He also reckons the rail line should be cut ‘‘at or around a location between Hamilton and Wickham’’.
But until the SEPP is released, it’s easy to build castles in the air.
‘‘We are in a holding pattern until the urban design and transport options in and out of the city are finalised by the state government,’’ Owen said.
‘‘I hope we’re close to a solution.’’
The fresh vision and energy of Rochecouste is welcome as Newcastle Now drives ahead and looks for further support from Hunter New England Health and Hunter TAFE, which both have large operations in the West End.
But it is a groundswell of people-power in the precinct, of both residents and new enterprise, that is just as crucial.
The actions of Mark Aylward, who with his architect-ceramicist partner Helen Stronach runs The Sculpture Workshop directly opposite the entrance to Wickham railway station, speak far louder than words.
Since the couple moved into their workspace six months ago – they live above their respective creative businesses – they have added warmth to their environs.
On the high wire fence that protects the car park next to their business, Aylward has attached metal cut-out silhouettes that softens what could otherwise be a menacing setting.
Directly opposite, he’s inserted quirky artwork on the windows of the train station building and there are plans under way to transform the park around the corner with seats and sculptures.
Aylward is just one of many West End creatives doing his bit to lift the area.
Many of them were in Thursday’s audience, from Bank Corner cafe proprietor and Goldberg’s founder Tony Gluck to Suzie Pollak-Vincent, who with chef husband Beau Vincent opened the now two-hatted Subo contemporary bistro in November last year.
Pollak-Vincent found Rochecouste inspiring and hopes the Newcastle Now project will drive much-needed change in the precinct. She said that while it had celebrated the opening of new business like The Terrace bar, it had its hopes dashed by government funding cuts to TAFE, which might force the closure of the Hunter Street Front Room Gallery opposite her restaurant.
‘‘We hope [the Renewal project] will be a turning point and get things happening,’’ she said.
Steve Meyn, the managing director of Lawler Partners who was coaxed into chanting and gyrating by Rochecouste, is similarly enthused, given his company will relocate and amalgamate its two city offices into the West End next year.
‘‘There’s a lot happening and we’re fully supportive of the precinct,’’ he said.
For tinkerer Aylward, 52, who as a boy travelled on the bus with his mother from Adamstown to visit the then-thriving West End and city, making things happen is as simple as taking pride in the place.
He is strongly supportive of the West End Renewal plan and urges businesses to contact Newcastle Now to see if they are eligible for funding to jazz up their shopfronts or businesses.
‘‘People need to be more aware of their surroundings and know that they can’t wait for Newcastle Now or the government to come to them,’’ he said. ‘‘They need to start things themselves.’’
Rochecouste couldn’t say it better.
‘‘Pushing aside the urban design and transport delays and the efforts of Newcastle Now...it is the spirit of retailers and property owners that will push things along.’’