THE HERALD'S OPINION: New life for Newcastle railway station

A VIABLE future use – or uses – for the disused Newcastle railway station is a major piece in the puzzle that is the post-heavy-rail modernisation of the city centre.

The main Victorian era buildings have heavy heritage restrictions on them, and are of such a distinctive quality that there is a near universal agreement on their retention.

But if the station area is to reach its potential as “a hallmark destination” – to quote Hunter Development Corporation chief executive Michael Cassel – then, at the very least, the 19th century structures will need opening up inside, as is often the case when such structures are put to new use.

Their eventual long-term future – and whether or not a hotel or some such iconic building is added to the station curtilage – will no doubt be the subject of considerable debate, Newcastle style. In the meantime, the development corporation is seeking an operator to lease and manage the station for at least 18 months from April next year. The tracks have been filled between the platforms in to create a level area – a piazza – from one side of the station to the other, and the former Scott Street entrance is to be reopened. The corporation envisages up to six tenancies in the buildings, with potential uses including eateries, retail and arts space, and live entertainment or an open cinema on the piazza.

As attractive as this sounds in theory, the difficulty may well be in finding the “experienced operator” the corporation is searching for, when the terms of the rental are as short as 18 months.

It would be unrealistic to expect a restaurant, for example, to fund the cost of a kitchen fit-out on such a potentially short term of lease, which may well put a limit on the type of outlet the corporation can offer during this trial period.

That said, the success of Renew Newcastle shows what can be done when rents are kept to a modest level, allowing the artistic community to thrive. Similarly, in this age of “pop-up” stores, much of the equipment needed to prepare food, for example, may well be more portable than permanent.

In a way, what the corporation is proposing for the station is a more long-lasting version of the party it threw in December on that section of corridor now known as the Market Street lawn. By injecting new life into the derelict station, the corporation will be hoping to fulfill its self-proclaimed objective of bringing more people to the city centre.

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