The Empire Hotel strikes back

REBORN: The proposed development, main image;  left,  the old Empire Hotel and during its demolition. Artwork: EJE Architecture.
REBORN: The proposed development, main image; left, the old Empire Hotel and during its demolition. Artwork: EJE Architecture.

 IT has been one of Hunter Street’s biggest eyesores for decades, but the old Empire Hotel site is about to be reborn into a 14-storey apartment building aimed  at providing affordable housing in Newcastle’s west end.

To be known as The Empire, the project is  unique in that Newcastle council and Hunter Development Corporation  will be chipping in almost $6million towards a private development to make sure it offers affordable housing and housing for those with a disability.

In a confidential meeting last night, Newcastle council endorsed a preferred developer for the project a week after the state government had done likewise. A consortium called NewcastleFirst will now take the lead role on the project. It consists of   a builder, a funding provider and consultants who specialise in providing advice on affordable housing.

The site, opposite KFC and the community health building on Hunter Street, has been the centre of unwanted attention for decades since the Empire Hotel was closed and became a favoured haunt for drug users and squatters. Previous owners had proposed a range of 12- and 15-storey developments, but none eventuated.

In 2010, the former state Labor government purchased the site and put it in the hands of Hunter Development Corporation with a view to building a government call centre. It never eventuated either, but the corporation demolished the old hotel and cleaned up the rest of the site  in 2011.

Last year, Newcastle council agreed to contribute the final $2.9million sitting in its Building Better Cities funding account to kickstart an affordable housing project on the site. The funding was originally part of a $23.5million fund that was granted by state and federal governments in 1990 to put towards affordable housing projects.

Final details of the building are yet to be determined but at this stage it will be 14 storeys  and house 114 apartments above car parking and ground floor retail space. It will include at least 25 affordable housing units and at least 16 units designed for people with disabilities.

Parliamentary secretary for regional planning and Port Stephens MP Craig Baumann said the collaboration had produced ‘‘a magnificent result’’.

‘‘This project will enhance the government’s and the city’s revitalisation program, creating jobs and homes in the city centre,’’ he said.

Similarly, Planning Minister Pru Goward said it will ‘‘transform an eyesore into a positive contributor to the streetscape and the city’s economy’’.

Newcastle MP Tim Owen also applauded the project, while Hunter Development Corporation boss Bob Hawes said the ‘‘innovative agreement’’ would provide much-needed affordable housing in a larger residential building.

Once completed, the units will be transferred to Housing NSW and then managed by Compass Housing.

With two major hurdles now cleared, the winning consortium will prepare final building details before lodging a development application.

Liberal Newcastle councillor David Compton is a director of Compton Projects, which forms part of the winning consortium. He will therefore be required to abstain from any role in the approval process.