OPINION: Time to cap CBD towers and let light shine bright

RETAIL SUPPORT: A new hotel on the harbour will add to the already substantial catchment. TOO often state and local politicians and officials, and a few developers, put a ‘‘take it – or leave it and get nothing’’ attitude to Newcastle’s future. This is patronising rubbish and should be rejected. We deserve better.
Shanghai night field

Mystery and a lack of transparency surround the plan for high-rise in inner-city Newcastle. These proposals, a public/private partnership of the state-owned UrbanGrowth NSW and GPT, include three 15 to 20-storey towers that are excessively tall. They are far in excess of the existing height limits – by a factor of three.

The 2012 draft Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy (NURS) has worthwhile objectives and strategies for encouraging co-ordinated and appropriate development in the city, which everyone wants. It supports sensible development initiatives for the West End and Civic parts of the city, and kept low-rise in the heritage inner-city areas of the Hunter Street Mall and East End.

The community was shocked when a proposal seeking amendments to the NURS was released in March, allowing only two weeks for community consultation. These amendments were proposed simply to look after just two developers: GPT/UrbanGrowth NSW and the University of Newcastle.

In response to the revised NURS, high-rise residential use has replaced low and medium-rise mixed commercial and commercial development as the dominant proposed use of land in Newcastle’s heritage inner city.

Neither the developers, nor the NSW government, have provided a clear and compelling explanation of why high-rise towers are needed in the mall and East End. What is the financial modelling being used to determine their heights? Why 20 storeys and not 50, or 15, or 10? Why not retain the Newcastle LEP (2012) height limits of around eight storeys?

Development is booming in inner Newcastle within the existing planning controls of the 2012 Newcastle Local Environmental Plan and in accord with the 2012 NURS – and without excessive high-rise. The inner city has many beautiful low-medium rise buildings that can be, indeed are being, adaptively redesigned and sold to people who want to live in them, and enjoy the unique Newcastle vibe.

As well, a considerable number of unrelated developments have been completed within walking distance of the GPT/UrbanGrowth NSW site. These include numerous mixed-use and exclusively residential developments on the harbour, on the beach and in Newcastle city. There are two substantial new hotels about to start construction (one on the harbour, one on Newcastle beach). All of these developments add to the substantial catchment that will support quality retail in the area.

A question many people ask is: Will the high-rise tower proponents do the building themselves? Or do they intend cutting a special deal with the NSW government to change planning controls, maybe get their hands on taxpayer funds to grout the mine tunnels beneath the land, use their considerable muscle to clear the way for approved DAs – and then on-sell the project as a ‘‘shovel-ready’’ financial jackpot?

Newcastle has seen too many shonks do a midnight flit. Too often we have seen local businesses and local initiatives overlooked. There is a real risk that the region’s capital will be degraded by low quality high-rise apartment blocks that become high-rise slums owned by absentee landlords.

The planning instruments of the past 30 years, embodied in the NURS 2012, have given great weight to preserving this city’s remarkable inheritance and are the foundation for a prosperous future for the whole community.

The community group co-ordinating the campaign for sensible development in Newcastle’s heritage heart, the Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance (NICRA), has members from throughout the Hunter. We ask a simple question: Why is it necessary to overturn successful existing planning laws to allow high-rise development that risks the special character of the capital city of our region?

Pru Goward, the Minister for Planning and also the minister responsible for UrbanGrowth NSW, appears to have a conflict of interest as both the lawmaker and approver of developments (wearing her Minister for Planning hat), and as beneficiary (wearing her UrbanGrowth NSW hat).

Many residents and businesses in Newcastle feel pushed aside by outside developers, and by the current political culture of the city. It’s hard for ordinary community members to meet with Pru Goward, but she has the opportunity to break the trend of secret deals that plagues NSW politics, to listen to the community, to stick with the current building height limits that keep our city great.

Dr Geoff Evans teaches, researches and consults on sustainability in Australia and internationally. He is a member of the Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance (NICRA). NICRA has organised a public Q & A forum on July 25 at the Newcastle City Hall

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