Newcastle City Council says it was determined not to repeat its “embarrassing” handling of the Laman St figs fiasco when it came to removing trees for the city’s Supercars track.
Supercars subcontractors started cutting down trees in Nobbys Reserve and Foreshore Park early Monday morning to make way for the Newcastle 500 circuit.
The council and Supercars said at a media briefing on Monday that the work would include removing 170 trees and shrubs, 100 of which were going because of the track. They would be replaced with 230 trees, mostly six-metre Norfolk Island pines now in storage at Lake Munmorah, and shade coverage would grow from 500 to 9800 square metres once the new trees had matured.
The tree removal will continue for the next two days.
The council’s interim chief executive, Jeremy Bath, said his organisation was taking a “very different approach” to when the Laman St figs were chopped down in 2012, sparking angry protests from a group of residents.
“You’d all remember, with the Laman Street figs, in terms of how council handled the delicate, and what is undoubtedly emotional, issue of tree removal,” Mr Bath said.
“That was not handled well by the council, it has to be said, and more importantly embarrassed the city in the national media and took a long time. That was a great ratepayer expense.
“So a very different approach has been taken this time, one where we’ve been up front. The residents were advised last week that the tree removal would be starting this week.
“The Laman St figs saw two years of debate about the removal of the figs. It took too long to resolve, it was too expensive, and it undoubtedly damaged the reputation of Newcastle, not just throughout the Hunter but nationally.”
Mr Bath said the council had learned that it needed to communicate more clearly about why trees were removed.
“I think we’ve done a better job this time around,” he said. “Council has done a better job of painting a picture of what the area is going to look like in the medium to long term.
“Yes, absolutely, right now we have a fairly brutal, stark picture of trees that have been removed.
“That’s not pleasing for anyone to see that. But we’ve made clear to people that we’ll be planting maturer plants [than in the past], more appropriately selected plants in better locations that will deliver substantial improvements in shade.
“I think the measured response of the community has been really well appreciated by council today regarding the removal of the trees.
“It’s part of delivering an event that is going to be a huge economic boon for not just our city but our entire region.”
Work has also started on resurfacing and expanding two car parks on Wharf Road to accommodate the Newcastle 500 pit building.
Watt Street was also a hive of activity on Monday morning as workers erected a concrete and wire barrier down the middle of the road.
Mr Bath said the track work would allow the council to bring forward infrastructure improvements, including new paths and “smart city” light poles, and create 170 extra parking spaces.
“What we’re essentially doing is consolidating eight years of work into five months. It’s a very exciting period, but it’s a period of great change.”
Supercars event manager Kurt Sakzewski said a planned permanent road through Nobbys Reserve would now be grassed over when not in use after consultation with the state Heritage Council.
RESIDENTS GROUP UNHAPPY
Newcastle East Residents Group labelled the tree removal “distressing” and “disheartening”.
“There’s a lot of people who are really, really upset at this,” NERG spokeswoman Karen Read said.
“We feel like we’re up against this great juggernaut. The council is not being held accountable. Every time you ask a question, like the removal of trees, no one can give you a straight answer. There’s a sense of entitlement, that they can do whatever they want.”
Ms Read again called for an independent authority to oversee the works in the East End, believing there was nowhere for complaints to be aired.
A particular concern for residents was parking, which had tightened in recent weeks as roadworks started on Watt Street and elsewhere near Newcastle beach.
“There is no agency that helps the people,” she said.
“Newcastle council, Supercars and Destination NSW are all in the same boat. Surely it’s a conflict of interest.”
The tree removal in Foreshore Park continued for much of Monday.
One resident who was taking photographs when she spoke to the Herald lamented that it would take “10 or 15 years” for new vegetation to mature.
“It’s not construction; it’s destruction,” she said.