THE state government’s UrbanGrowth agency says its four potential visions for Newcastle ‘‘reimagine the city centre as an enhanced destination, supported by new employment, educational and housing opportunities and public domain, that will attract people’’.
I’m not sure who else they were looking to attract – water rats, perhaps? – but the four ‘‘opportunities’’, as UrbanGrowth describes them, are big on glossy artist’s impressions and motherhood statements, and somewhat short on concrete detail.
The agency is inviting the public into a six-week ‘‘conversation’’ between now and September 18, but after two days of trying, the Newcastle Herald is still seeking detailed answers to some major questions.
The first of these is the implied linkage between the sale of corridor land and the creation of public infrastructure.
On one hand, there is nothing surprising about proposed development on the rail corridor. But to link those land sales to the construction of key infrastructure, as UrbanGrowth appears to have done with each of its four ‘‘opportunities’’, puts a whole new spin on matters. Look at it this way.
The Honeysuckle precinct was established in 1992 with $100million of federal funding through the Keating government’s Building Better Cities program. The state agency running Honeysuckle is supposed to be self-funding from the sale of land, but money has been tipped in through various state budgets since then to keep things going.
Admittedly, there was a lot of remediation work early on, and the workings of old coalmines under some Honeysuckle sites are still being filled or ‘‘grouted’’ today.
But Google Earth shows about 18 new buildings on Honeysuckle, along with the two refurbished Lee Wharf structures and the overhaul of the historic railway buildings that are now the home of Newcastle Museum.
That’s not a huge amount of building in 23 years and while the Hunter Development Corporation and the earlier Honeysuckle Development Corporation might have deliberately staggered their land releases, Newcastle can only absorb so much new real estate at any time.
The flashiest of the UrbanGrowth “opportunities” – the “Harbour Entertainment City” or number four – has 15 development sites along the corridor, starting with six at Honeysuckle and finishing with one adjoining the western end of Newcastle railway station. It could easily take 20 years to sell and develop those sites under normal market conditions.
The state government has already confirmed it needs to borrow to fund the billions of dollars in infrastructure it is pouring into Sydney. If the Newcastle project is more expensive than first thought because of the light rail running down Hunter Street, the government should borrow the extra funds, if it needs them, rather than apparently intending to raise the money through land sales.
The more the government puts into the project, the greater the value of the land it decides to sell. The corridor crossings and the rebirth of Newcastle rail station are projects that need doing immediately.
From another angle, UrbanGrowth’s plans may also have implications for the city’s bus service. The Newcastle rail station bus depot goes to an unspecified location in the “West End” in options three and four, which also show a “potential bus layover” on the rail corridor between Merewether and Argyle Streets.
Merewether and Argyle are hardly in the West End, but either way, would the bus services still run all the way to Watt Street, as they do now, or would they end in Newcastle West, forcing all public transport passengers onto the light rail?
The answers to these and other questions will emerge in time but if there’s even a chance of bus services receiving a heavy rail-style truncation, then the government should come clean on it right now. By breaking its plans into three separate components – the Wickham interchange, the light rail and the revitalisation plans unveiled on Monday – the government is making it harder than it otherwise might be to grasp the ‘‘big picture’’ implications of the changes.
That would be unintentional, surely?