Green light for Newcastle's $94m courthouse

WORK to build Newcastle’s $94million courthouse could start next month and be followed by several major catalyst projects, including the residential redevelopment of the Hunter Street Mall and the University of Newcastle’s city campus.

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Newcastle MP Tim Owen revealed yesterday the government’s progress, in some cases stalled, on several city projects and planning policies that combined would dramatically change the face of the inner city.

The Joint Regional Planning Panel took the first step by approving the controversial court complex.

The approval was granted despite opposition from members of the legal community, who said the building was the wrong design on the wrong site.

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An independent planner’s report recommended the development should be refused because a lack of parking would create ‘‘unsatisfactory traffic impacts’’.

Public transport advocate Darrell Harris told the panel meeting the shortfall of parking places in the vicinity could increase to more than 400 when the impact of other developments such as the Newcastle Art Gallery was taken into account.

The panel members, Jason Perica, John Colvin and Cr Brad Luke, voted unanimously to approve the courthouse.

They said they had weighed parking concerns against the public benefit of the proposal.

‘‘The simple fact is that the building is very important to Newcastle and is very important to the revitalisation of the CBD,’’ Cr Luke said.

Mr Owen told about 200 people at an Urban Development Institute of Australia event soon after the decision that ‘‘we should see bricks and mortar and things starting to happen on [the courthouse] site within the next month [to] month and a half’’.

Mr Owen also outlined progress on major projects and spoke about the government’s plans for Newcastle.

They included the Hunter Street Mall project, which he said would be a predominantly residential redevelopment with some associated niche commercial and retail.

‘‘It really is going to be a world class development,’’ he said before the presentation.

‘‘Senior people at Landcom have said this won’t just be a good thing for Newcastle ... it will be a benchmark regional development.’’

Detailed designs are yet to be developed.

The mall project would require large-scale grouting to combat mine subsidence issues, and could potentially be used as a pilot for a citywide scheme.

Mr Owen said the government and council could grout city blocks where the costs have proved a barrier to progress. Developers could pay into the scheme when they begin building.

The long-awaited urban renewal State Environmental Planning Policy will designate the east end as a residential precinct, Civic as the city’s commercial hub, and retail will be encouraged in the west end.

The policy has been several years in the making, bur Mr Owen said the details would not be released until a decision was made on the heavy rail line.

‘‘I don’t care that people say ‘you haven’t done this’ or ‘you haven’t done that’,’’ Mr Owen said.

‘‘I believe you plan once, you plan right and I won’t make politically expedient statements.’’

Mr Owen left the audience in no doubt of his preference to ‘‘truncate’’ the rail line at Wickham or Hamilton.

‘‘We will have the best public transport system that suits the design of the city,’’ he said. ‘‘We will come out with a transport system that suits that urban design.’’

Mr Owen said the former Newcastle post office building would cost $10million to $15million to refurbish, a cost analysis shows.

Progress on the building has been halted due to a native title claim in the NSW Land and Environment Court, but the University of Newcastle Alumni Association is still the preferred tenant.

Mr Owen expressed some frustration about the state of the post office site and lack of progress at the former Empire Hotel site, both bought by the previous government.

‘‘You wouldn’t see a post office in George Street in Sydney looking like that,’’ he said.

The Empire site is waiting ‘‘for a decision from this government about moving departmental capabilities to Newcastle’’.

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