OPINION: City does not need high-rises

The East End, for which high-rise towers are being proposed. Picture: Peter StoopTHE boom in inner-city residential apartments currently occurring in Newcastle highlights that organic growth is working in our city. It also demonstrates that ‘‘development on steroids’’ based on high-rise tower developments in the city’s heritage Hunter Street Mall precinct is not required.
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How interesting, and potentially encouraging, therefore that the so-called Newcastle East End Project, a massive high-rise development planned by joint developers the GPT Group and the state government agency, UrbanGrowth NSW, is not included in the Revitalising Newcastle community engagement program being conducted by UrbanGrowth. Or is this the quiet before the storm?

The distinctive low-rise form of Newcastle’s old town centre is a critical part of the city’s character. Itis an invaluable historical and heritage asset for the state and Australia. The Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance (NICRA) supports new development that appropriately respects this legacy, and that is why we oppose high-rise towers in that area. NICRA has not opposed other high-rise developments, such as the 18-storey apartment block being built on the old Jolly Roger site in King Street.

Clearly the inner city is not dead, as some developers and their advocacy bodies would have us believe. The area is home to many residents and more people are moving back into the city centre, where economic expansion is occurring. This aspect is positive, and should be acknowledged and nurtured by governments and planners.

What is appropriate development? NICRA supports development in the heritage Hunter Street Mall area of up to 24 metres (or approximately eight storeys), the height limit recommended in the original Local Environment Plan (LEP 2012) – prior to the 2014 amendments – for which there was broad community and business support.

Planning Minister Rob Stokes recently said he wanted “development outcomes that protect and enhance the heritage character of the city’s historic East End” and he was prepared to look at the matter “with fresh eyes” (Mr Stokes had a meeting with NICRA representatives on July 27, 2015).

That assurance gave NICRA cautious hope that earlier poor planning decisions would be re-examined and might be changed.

The changes to development controls to allow the unnecessary and highly inappropriate developments of the three high-rise towers of the East End Project, proposed by GPT/UrbanGrowth NSW, were approved on July 29, 2014 by former planning minister Pru Goward, who spot rezoned the Hunter Street Mall sites. That decision favoured the above two developers over established practice, community expectations, expert advice and sound planning principles, as well as all other property developers.

In early 2014 the Urban Design Consultative Group (UDCG), Newcastle City Council’s expert planning assessment panel, reported on this development proposal. The expert group unanimously concluded that the high-rise proposal was “highly intrusive and unacceptable”. The expert panel clearly stated their concern about the destruction of Newcastle’s heritage.

NICRA urges the Baird government and UrbanGrowth NSW to retract or ignore Minister Goward’s approval and reinstate the original planning controls signalled in the highly regarded and well-consulted Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy 2012. It is fundamental that developers, too, have faith in consistent planning regulations and processes.

NICRA was encouraged when Minister Stokes recognised the sound basis of Newcastle Urban Renewal Strategy (NURS) 2012, with its emphasis on protecting the historic East End by maintaining lower building height limits (July 27, 2015). It suggested high-rise development in Newcastle’s West End, where a new city business hub is emerging.

The NURS 2012 planning controls would help protect noteworthy buildings from undergoing inappropriate alterations. Newcastle’s former post office, a magnificent sandstone landmark, isa case in point. Recently, the Hunter Property Council’s Andrew Fletcher endorsed construction of a 15-storey tower over the historic building. The post office needs restoration, not further vandalism.

UrbanGrowth must be up front with the public about whether or not it is still committed to the Newcastle East End Project and high-rise towers overshadowing the Mall and East End. NICRA supports good planning and genuine community consultations, but we are concerned that UrbanGrowth is putting up a false choice: trading off more green space and less development on the rail corridor for high-rise towers.

Newcastle doesn’t need high-rise development in the East End, hidden state government and UrbanGrowth agendas, or false choices that kill its unique vibe, which is fundamental to the current low-rise apartment boom.

Brian Ladd is spokesperson for Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance (NICRA)

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