14-storey Newcastle CBD unit block approved by regional planning panel | photos, poll

A CATHOLIC Church plan to build a 14-storey residential and commercial block on the site of the old Empire Hotel has been approved by state planning authorities.

The modern-style concrete-and-glass structure is planned with 128 residential units, comprising 68 two-bedroom units, 33 one-bedroom units, 24 “studio” apartments and three three-bedroom units. It has 136 car-parking spaces on the first and second levels, and 700 square metres of retail and commercial space.

The $30-million project was unveiled last year by the Catholic Diocese of Maitland-Newcastle, after the Hunter Development Corporation sold the site by tender in 2014.

The project has been promoted as an affordable housing development, but details of the approval made public last week says only that “a portion of the units will be made available as affordable rental housing”.

In May 2014, the HDC said that the government had subsidised the cost of the 0.2-hectare site by $2.8 million and that “a minimum of 25 affordable housing units” would be provided in “a larger residential building” as a result.

A spokesperson for the diocese was unable to clarify the exact number on Sunday and said the church was planning a joint statement with the HDC in the coming days.

The project on the south-western corner of Hunter Street and Steel Street was approved by the Hunter and Central Coast Joint Regional Planning Panel in a decision posted online on Thursday by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. The capital value was put at $28,851,788.

In its statement of environmental effects, the church’s consultants say that steps will be taken to minimise any “potential negative impacts, which relate primarily to the operation of the affordable housing component”.

VACANT NO MORE: View of a proposed 14-storey development for 643 to 651 Hunter Street, the former Empire hotel site, looking west along Hunter Street, Newcastle. Artwork by EJE Architecture.

VACANT NO MORE: View of a proposed 14-storey development for 643 to 651 Hunter Street, the former Empire hotel site, looking west along Hunter Street, Newcastle. Artwork by EJE Architecture.

Newcastle City Council’s Urban Design Consultative Group said the project had “laudable . . . social aspirations” but it would have preferred the project to be developed in accordance with the relevant State Environmental Planning Policy on affordable housing. 

The planning panel said the church wanted its Section 94 and public art contributions reduced or removed “on the basis of possible affordable housing and/or financial implications”.

The request was declined because “the proposal was not for affordable housing [and] the public artwork condition was consistent with Council’s policy and was warranted given [the] proposed above‐ground parking”.

At 2 per cent of development costs, the Section 94 contribution to Newcastle council would appear to be about $575,000.