Empire hotel born again by Catholic Church | poll

NEW LEASE OF LIFE: An artist's impression of the building proposed for the former Empire Hotel site. Construction is expected to take 18 months.
NEW LEASE OF LIFE: An artist's impression of the building proposed for the former Empire Hotel site. Construction is expected to take 18 months.

The Catholic Church has unveiled a bold plan to breathe new life into the site of the former Empire Hotel in Newcastle West.

The Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle has proposed a $30 million affordable housing development at the site on Hunter Street, with a total of 128 studio, one- and two-bedroom units across 13 floors.  

In doing so, the diocese is making a bid to succeed where the private sector has failed, after several unsuccessful attempts to redevelop the troubled site. 

“Of course we don’t have the need for a profit or a return to the shareholders … sometimes it’s just that margin that makes a difference,” Bishop Bill Wright said. 

The diocese was awarded the tender by Hunter Development Corporation and lodged a development application with Newcastle Council on Wednesday.

It is anticipated the project, which is the largest development to be overseen by the diocese, could be completed by early 2018. 

Bishop Wright said it was fitting that the church played a role in injecting more affordable housing into the city. 

“We understand that today there's a serious need for secure, affordable housing,” Bishop Wright said. 

“This site has been vacant for quite some time and we have recognised an opportunity, as a non-profit organisation to make it available, especially to people who often provide vital community services but still find it difficult to afford good housing.”  

The Empire Hotel has had a chequered history, becoming a haven for squatters and drug addicts until it was taken over by Hunter Development Corporation and bulldozed in 2011. 

A curse on the building has become a running joke in the city due to the number of proposals for it that have fallen over, the most recent being last July when a plan for a 14-storey apartment block was shelved. 

Hunter Development Corporation General Manger Bob Hawes admitted there were no guarantees with the latest incarnation but said he was “very confident”. 

“I think the issues that have maybe dragged some of the other opportunities back in the past have now been dealt with,” Mr Hawes said. “The site now stands prepared and ready.” 

Around the corner from one of the new light rail stops, Mr Hawes said he hoped it would become a “landmark” building in the revitalization of Newcastle West.  

The money for construction will be drawn from the Catholic Development Fund and the plans include a number of disability accessible units. 

State government funding will be sought to grout old coal workings under the building. 

The diocese’s vice chancellor administration, Sean Scanlon, said it hoped to secure the relevant approvals for the building by the end of the year and was looking at an 18-month construction period. 

He said one of the main issues that had dogged past attempts at redevelopment was financing and the diocese was confident its plans were financially sound. 

“It’s a difficult site, I suppose, and there’s a lot of interest from the community in it, so it has to be done well,” he said. 

“I think the main issue has been funding but we’re able to fund this through the Catholic Development Fund, we’ve done our other projects that way, and so there’s a strong commitment from the Diocese and the Development Fund to make this happen.” 

The diocese has recently opened new affordable housing in Mayfield and has three further developments underway across Maitland and the Lake Macquarie.