Empire stake: deputy mayor slams church bid for discount

NEWCASTLE’S deputy mayor has hit out at the Catholic Church’s bid for a discount in the developer contribution fee associated with its $30 million plan for the former Empire Hotel site.

The Maitland-Newcastle diocese has reworked its plans for the apartment development, and state planning authorities are expected to deliver a verdict on the changes by the end of the year.

The Newcastle Herald understands that in addition to a revamped floor plan and a “minor” increase in height, the diocese has again applied for a discount in the developer contributions it must pay to Newcastle council. 

“We have a community housing provider interested in purchasing more than half of the proposed units for affordable housing, and we are seeking a reduction in section 94 contribution fees to reflect this,” a spokesperson for the diocese said. 

Section 94 contributions are paid by developers to help councils fund the additional infrastructure required as a result of new developments. 

The dollar value of the discount being sought was unclear, but at two per cent of development costs, the set contribution would appear to be about $575,000.

When the diocese’s development application was originally approved by the Joint Regional Planning Panel in March, the same request was rejected because the proposal was “not for affordable housing”. 

Newcastle’s deputy mayor Declan Clausen said the church should have to pay its share.

”I understand that the church is facing a number of financial pressures, including the need to fully compensate abuse victims (of sexual abuse), but that does not remove the need for council to pay for footpaths and road upgrades associated with this development,” Cr Clausen said. 

“They are largely exempt from paying rates ... other rates and tax concessions exist because it's affordable housing. How far does the council need to go in providing support to get it off the ground?

“The section 94 amounts to being quite a significant amount of money.​”

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The project was first unveiled in 2016 and is being bankrolled by the Catholic Development Fund. 

Under the changes, the height of the 14-storey building on Hunter Street would be lifted by 1.8 metres to 49.8 metres, but the overall number of units would fall from 128 to 116. 

The diocese confirmed it was also seeking to avoid an additional impost that came with the height increase. 

“Given the minimal change in the proposed building height, the diocese’s section 96 application seeks a waiver from the building design competition usually triggered by the NSW Department of Planning,” vice-chancellor administration Sean Scanlon said. 

Changes to the floor plan would see studio apartments replaced with one-bedroom plus study apartments and an increase in the number of two-bedroom units. 

The overall mix would become 43 one-bedroom, 70 two-bedroom and three three-bedroom apartments, along with 136 parking spaces. 

The amount of commercial and retail space would be reduced from 700 to 550 square metres. 

Liberal councillor Brad Luke wouldn’t comment directly on the Empire proposal. However he was vocal in his criticism of building design competitions, saying they were often an unnecessary financial burden on developers that did not achieve the desired goal. 

“We’re constantly talking about the affordability of housing and then doing things to add to the cost,” Cr Luke said. 

“The result of building design competitions tends to be a bunch of academics trying to critique a practising architect's work. That type of scenario often ends up in a challenge of egos against each other.” 

Cr Luke said developers were forced to pass on the additional costs to buyers, when the market usually dictated that developments needed to be attractive anyway. 

“We could have the world's most recognised architects building in Newcastle and we'd be wanting the local academics to critique their work. How ridiculous is that?” he said. 

“Things like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim or Waterfall would certainly never have been built under this sort of process.” 

The revised Empire proposal is expected to go before the Joint Regional Planning Panel at its November meeting. 

Mr Scanlon said the changes were designed to give tenants additional space. 

“Should this application be successful, the diocese will then begin building works and hopes to welcome tenants from 2019,” he said. 

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.