Newcastle’s built environment has changed significantly over the past 40 years and the heavy rail line had become a barrier between the two halves of the city: the old CBD Hunter Street (the longest main street in the country) and the Honeysuckle mixed use precinct (consisting of modern commercial buildings, restaurants, bars and a large number of residential apartments). With only two vehicular crossings from the western end of Newcastle to the end of the rail line at Newcastle Station and only four pedestrian overpasses, the inconvenience for thousands crossing the line on a daily basis had become intolerable. The small numbers of passengers travelling on the trains for the last two stops encouraged the NSW Government to truncate the line back to Wickham and replace it with a new light rail system and a station located at the emerging business district in Newcastle West.
Since the truncation of the heavy rail line in 2014, steady growth has begun in Newcastle West focused around the new Newcastle Train Station. This allows the old CBD east of Civic to gentrify into the city’s premium mixed use residential quarter with its tree lined streets, boutique businesses, heritage architecture and a beach lifestyle to boot. Already several of the older commercial buildings have been redeveloped into New York style apartment buildings eagerly sought after by a market who sees the benefits of inner city living.
Earlier this year UrbanGrowth NSW announced four opportunities for the redevelopment of Newcastle’s heavy rail corridor. These opportunities were prepared as part of an ongoing community engagement process and reflect community feedback that UrbanGrowth gathered during the Design Newcastle workshops in 2014. The revitalisation opportunities varied, from Greenway a predominantly grassland redevelopment to Harbour Entertainment City a diverse inner precinct and tourist destination.
With a genuine desire to influence the decision makers of Newcastle’s rail corridor redevelopment, a dedicated group of local professionals undertook a self-funded fact-finding mission in July 2015, visiting four cities in the USA. Led by Andrew Fletcher, the Property Council’s NSW Regional Director for the Hunter Region, the study group researched light rail options and other sites where disused rail corridors had been redeveloped for community benefit. The aim was to influence Newcastle’s urban renewal policy with informed knowledge of world’s best practice. Twenty projects were visited, with presentations from architects, landscape architects, developers, government bodies and professional groups, to get a detailed picture of the projects and what would be needed to ensure success in Newcastle. All projects were located on post-industrial land and had generally created quality public domain, connected communities, stimulated demand and encouraged investment.
One thing was clear, where disused rail corridors are redeveloped in a positive way with community engagement, the uplift to the surrounding sites was significant. The lessons learnt from Millennium Park in Chicago, the High Line in New York and the Belt Line in Atlanta were analysed. Generally, where investment was made into developing the public land, the return on investment achieved in the surrounding area was 6:1.
Newcastle desperately needs an integrated transport strategy which links heavy rail, light rail, buses, bicycles and parking. If Newcastle is to have an effective light rail system, it needs to connect to other node points within the city and its suburbs (the university, hospitals, and major shopping centres) are currently inadequately serviced by buses. If these areas are linked by a viable light rail system and if timetabling and connectivity with heavy rail and buses is achieved, then public transport will be vastly improved. Fortunately Newcastle did have a light rail (tram) system and many of the easements still exist. Over time a new extensive light rail network is possible in Newcastle.
THE FIFTH OPPORTUNITY
Newcastle’s future relies on density and diversity of population and appropriate public amenity. The release of the heavy rail corridor reconnects the city centre to the harbour foreshore and also provides land which will be the catalyst for urban regeneration. Quality public amenity that is more than simply parkland will encourage people to engage with their city.
The Property Council’s Urban Taskforce Group which is made up of the aforementioned study group and other local professionals from business – including financiers, architects, engineers, landscape architects, real estate agents, and property investors – are taking UrbanGrowth’s fourth opportunity to the next level.
The Fifth Opportunity [illustrated below] reviews the potential sites earmarked as development sites, and considers the urban design potential of the sites and typology of development suitable for Newcastle’s urban regeneration.
Development of a transport corridor is contentious, however the taskforce took the view that maintaining a linear pathway through the city was important. With light rail destined for Hunter Street, and pedestrian paths already along the harbour front and Hunter Street, the logical move to benefit from a new safe linear pathway was bicycles. Allowing riders to quickly and safely navigate the city without the threat of opening car doors or running pedestrians over is an opportunity not to be missed.
The Fifth Opportunity creates new viable building sites east of Worth Place through the amalgamation of Hunter Development Corporation land currently used for car parking, with the corridor, giving shape and closure to public squares around Civic. Additional sites are identified for development at the end of Darby Street, with care taken to create new public open space that ensures historic view corridors are maintained and create Darby Common.
In the east the axis from the harbour to the cathedral is showcased. The removal of barriers to the heavy rail corridor leaves major roads side by side within 50 metres of one another with identical roles. The Fifth Opportunity boldly realigns Scott Street to continue on the Dangar grid and connect it into Wharf Road. This negates the need for Wharf Road to continue from Queens Wharf on to Watt Street, and develops the opportunity of connecting the widest part of the rail corridor, at the former Newcastle Station to the harbour. This connection creates the opportunity for a landmark building to co-habit with the heritage listed Newcastle Station in the same way as Paul Berkemeier’s Maitland Art Gallery extension relates to its heritage sibling. This site can become the statement for a contemporary Newcastle which respects its past but looks to the future as a financial and tourist drawcard as seen in many post-industrial cities. This site could house any number of functions – art gallery, community centre, aboriginal arts or cultural centre – to establish a destination and focal point for the community and visitors to Newcastle.
WHERE TO NOW?
The taskforce has briefed the Premier’s office and they were impressed by the leadership shown by the group and that there was a plan to make the government’s vision for Newcastle a reality. It was progressively presented to interest groups to widespread support and presented to the people of the Hunter at the Property Council’s November lunch.
This illustration of a vision for Newcastle’s public domain will present an image that will encourage divided groups to stand together and give the NSW Government a clear direction to ensure the city’s success and liveability.
Director, EJE Architecture
Member of the Property Council’s Urban