In July 2016 UrbanGrowth NSW released its planning proposal for the heavy rail corridor between Hamilton and Newcastle stations, which has been closed since Christmas Day 2014. The proposal – prepared by UrbanGrowth NSW, Transport for NSW and HASSELL – aims to lay the foundation for the rezoning of surplus land to connect the city to its waterfront and to achieve the overall objective of creating jobs and economic growth.
The visual material provided with the submission enables the public to visualise the proposed land use changes to the corridor. The animated presentation is particularly evocative, with trees sprouting out of the grassed former corridor, which is populated by scores of people occupying vibrant active spaces along the harbour. UrbanGrowth’s focus on connecting Newcastle to its waterfront is commendable; this has always been the rationale for removing the heavy rail back to the western edge of the city.
The proposed route of the light rail leaves the heavy rail corridor at Worth Place as it heads east onto Hunter Street and Scott Street to Pacific Park and Newcastle Beach. This route frees up the former corridor east of Worth Place and provides an opportunity for visionary uses of the land. There are still some who feel the wrong decision was made regarding the route for the light rail. But the decision was made and as the planning process proceeds there is a growing feeling in the community that uncertainty is worse than the disruption that it may cause. We just need to physically start the project. Building the light rail will bring certainty to public transport in Newcastle. The rezoning of the old heavy rail corridor also needs to bring certainty to how this land can be developed to benefit the city.
The rezoning proposes several sites along the old heavy rail corridor as potential development sites and proposes controls and zonings to match sites nearby. While the rezoning is still evolving, there has been some criticism that the visions presented to date do not fully address the broader context and issues of the city outside the specific boundaries of the individual project sites proposed. This follows on from the light rail proposal by Transport for NSW that looked at creating an optimum ‘technical’ light rail solution, without addressing the light rail’s impact on existing parking and lane closures. The best outcome for UrbanGrowth’s proposed development sites and the city is the amalgamation of the sites with the adjacent land, to create improved development sites, public spaces and connections throughout the city. UrbanGrowth’s task is to rezone this land in a manner that will encourage others to do just that.
The rezoning proposes controls for the heavy rail land, which when consolidated with adjacent properties make sense. However, if they are not amalgamated, then the outcomes are uncertain. For the section of rail corridor from Worth Place east to Civic, the proposed controls (30 m and 3:1 FSR) match the land to the north of the corridor. However, if these controls are used only on the corridor, then they would create overshadowing and amenity problems to the existing and proposed development to the south; with a height limit of only 24 m and both sides of the lane being compromised in their inability to adequately comply with the guidelines of SEPP 65, if residential development is proposed. A solution might be for Council to propose specific DCP controls to ensure the stepping of buildings towards the north on the corridor to ensure adequate sunlight and amenity for development along the north side of Hunter Street.
On rail corridor land west of the split of Scott and Hunter Street, again UrbanGrowth has proposed this could be suitable for shop top housing. While this may be possible, again the amenity of these apartments is likely to be compromised by the narrowness of the site and the proximity of the existing commercial and residential buildings to the north. It would be difficult to comply with the Apartment Design Guide. The controls proposed will therefore not provide any certainty for developers or the community until these issues are addressed. In this situation, alternate uses or landscape options for this thin strip of land linking to the green open spaces to the east might be better outcomes.
Newcastle is growing; the tower cranes on the city skyline are a testament to this increased activity. The goals for the city’s future development should be the rejuvenation of:
– a liveable city;
– a sustainable city which is not governed by the car;
– a city connected to its surrounding suburbs by an integrated public transport network; and
– a city connected to its natural assets – its coast, beaches and harbour.
Rejuvenation of Newcastle as a vibrant and connected city needs to be done in a holistic way. While a city is a collection of buildings and public spaces activated by its community and commerce, it is actually the connections between those buildings and the public spaces that make a city liveable and desirable.
In leading the way for this rejuvenation the NSW Government needs to focus on the creation of connections through the city from east to west and south to north that link active public spaces and existing and new buildings to efficient public transport. The UrbanGrowth images are positive and the current rezoning approach is going in the right direction. Hopefully, the controls will be correct, they will have the support of Council, they will be defendable and development will be able to work within them to create the vibrant amenity-filled internal and external spaces that we desire.
Newcastle city has incredible potential, only a fraction of which has begun to see the light. The older part of the city east of Civic has the capacity for extensive redevelopment into one of Newcastle’s premier residential suburbs with its heritage buildings and tree-lined streets, proximity to the harbour and beaches and a lifestyle that would be the envy of anywhere in the world. The rezoning of the heavy rail corridor is a linear strip that can tie the whole city together and boost further development along its length. However, getting it right is crucial. If Newcastle Council can work with UrbanGrowth and with the inevitable refinement – concentrating on connections across the city rather than just on built forms – then UrbanGrowth can achieve their objectives and create something special.
Glen Spicer is a director of EJE Architecture in Newcastle