THE NSW government’s proposal to buy a large slab of Newcastle property from developer GPT offers many opportunities.
GPT had assembled the Hunter Street Mall site for a major civic redevelopment but chose not to proceed, blaming the former Labor government’s failure to cut the city’s rail line.
Attempts by GPT to sell some of its holdings had been only partly successful, leading to fears that the area would continue to languish while the company tried to draft a viable slimmed-down plan for the area it intended to keep.
The entry of state government agency Landcom (soon to be known as Urbangrowth NSW) as a de facto joint venture partner in the Newcastle redevelopment plan offers some major advantages.
Keeping ownership and control in relatively few sets of hands should make it easier to come up with a cohesive plan for the entire site.
The government’s financial strength should make it possible to ensure an orderly process, without the latent funding fears that usually accompany private investment in large-scale developments.
And the government’s ability to set its own planning agenda should help free participating investors from some of the perceived uncertainty involved in development applications.
Perhaps the biggest potential plus, however, will be the freedom all the above advantages should provide to achieve genuine planning excellence.
Since the government has Newcastle’s best interests close to its heart it will undoubtedly regard a high-quality outcome for the city as a more important goal than mere profit maximisation.
The optimal outcome for Newcastle would involve a sensitive redevelopment that took proper account of heritage values. It would provide a healthy mix of residential and business opportunities while also addressing the city’s long-term transport needs – especially the rail question.
It would not occur in isolation, but would consider the relationship of the Mall precinct to Honeysuckle and to other state property holdings in Hunter Street including the former post office, to the east, and the former Empire Hotel site, to the west.
It would consider, especially, the future of the present legal precinct, soon to be vacated in favour of the controversial ‘‘Civic wedge’’ site at Burwood Street.
Past experience should have taught all concerned that the city needs precinct plans that complement one another, instead of competing.
It can be argued that some relatively recent development decisions in Newcastle have been made with more concern for financial returns from particular sites than with maximising the longer-term benefits for the city.
Newcastle needs rational integrated planning that plays to the city’s unique strengths. That means, chiefly, its remarkable beachfront and harbourside geography and its fascinating patchwork urban fabric that evokes a timeline that starts with the early years of European settlement in Australia.