THE HERALD'S OPINION: Newcastle council chief executive proposes Roundhouse as student housing

WITH Newcastle City Council having already signed a lease to move its white-collar operations from Civic to Newcastle West, attention is turning naturally enough to the future of the Roundhouse administration centre, next to City Hall.

Referencing the arrival of the new courthouse and the University of Newcastle’s NeW Space building, council general manager Jeremy Bath says Civic is “before our eyes, turning into an education and legal precinct”.

On that basis, and with the university having plans to expand its inner-city presence with a site just west of the old Civic station on rail corridor and Honeysuckle land, Mr Bath is suggesting the Roundhouse be converted into student accommodation.

It may be, when all is said and done, that student accommodation does turn out to be the best use of this 40-year-old building of some nine storeys, plus underground parking. But it equally may not be.

Before any hard-and-fast decision is made about the Roundhouse, the various parameters attached to its future should be thoroughly explored in an independent and unbiased investigation.

To start with, it is by no means certain that the university will commit on its early-stage proposal to expand its inner-city presence beyond NeW Space. And with Newcastle university Vice-Chancellor Caroline McMillen having announced a decision to retire in October next year, there is no guarantee that a new leader of the university will want to continue with a capital works program championed by his predecessor. This is especially the case when trends in higher education are changing so rapidly.

Also, it is open to conjecture that the very limitation that apparently makes the Roundhouse a difficult building to work in – its  inefficient round shape – could make it just as unviable for student accommodation.

The usual heritage considerations aside, it may be that the rapidly rising value of inner-city Newcastle land means the most efficient use of capital in this instance would be to demolish the Roundhouse and replace it with something more suited to the needs of the 21st century.

Regardless of the eventual outcome, it’s a decision that should not be made on the fly. It should be debated openly, not presented to the ratepayers – whose funds support the council – as a fait accompli. The council has some work before it in the new year.

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