GPT’s Newcastle ~ A Troglodyte Objects

Filed under Throsby ~ by Throsby on  28 Jul 2012
When a City is Perfect

Editor’s note:  This essay, written in 2008, reflected apprehension at a plan by The GPT Group to carve out the northern side of The Hill in front of Christ Church Cathedral and construct a shopping mall of impressive scale in the heart of an ailing CBD. In August 2010 GPT withdrew from the $600m Newcastle development.
Many if not all URL links will be broken, sadly.


Life is change, and Newcastle must.

Cities are, after all, formed by commerce and the needs of we who serve it.

Here then stands Newcastle in its third century, sculpted by the Hunter Valley’s bounteous produce and townsfolk’s prodigious manufactures.

The sublime process whereby a city hones its form, function, ambiance, and aesthetics by some meandering evolution is readily foiled by any who wish to profit from circumstance.

As Newcastle has. As GPT does.

Despite the paradigm-shifting closure of BHP Steelworks and a half century of retail and manufacturing decline, in 2008 the city’s poise befits a mature-age metropolis.

Retail is in city central’s past.

scotts corner, newcastle, 1952Image: Newcastle 50 years ago. At 5pm those buses were bumper to bumper back to Pacific St., commuters 10 deep on the footpath. Imagine the commotion at the Rail station!
Click images to enlarge

A delightful foreshore make-over, enhanced by Throsby and Honeysuckle developments, drew out the innate beauty of a quaint little city wedged comfortably between river, beach, and hillside.

All who discover her – retirees, tourists, conventioneers, international students, even refugees from Sydney – fall mesmerised by an irresistible convenience and lifestyle.

scott’s dilemma

To save you time deciding where this long story heads, the crux is that Newcastle has two incompatible yet equally desirable futures, the time is ripe to choose, and a moneyed-up speculator is in town stirring the pot.

The image above of Newcastle over sixty years ago – looking rather proudly like the Big Apple’s Times Square, all dressed up for the Queen of England – shows Hunter Street viewed east at the old Scott’s (now former David Jones) Department Store, splitting left into Scott Street towards Newcastle Railway Station, or right up a once thriving retail strip, in recent times known as "The Hunter Street Mall."

Providently, some historic imperative made Hunter Street deviate from the railway to become a retail hub, leaving Scott Street to do its dirty work.   That junction symbolises the dilemma Newcastle faces today, a pivotal pre-option of rail or retail. Whichever is chosen, there is then no turning back, as each choice seriously constrains the East Ends’ alternate yet equally desirable destiny.

Should Newcastle East become a museum city, a renowned and celebrated anachronism of history preserved, or boldly tear itself apart in reinvention to be a great and modern world city?

As always, manipulative forces misdirect public debate according to self interest, and we find ourselves in some small-town wrangling over a railway and a mall, oblivious to the real debate, the big picture – the decision of what we really want Newcastle to be.

Revival is already upon the city and nothing can stop it. We only need select our destiny from two befitting and exciting alternatives:

Museum City: No weathered derelict, but a regional capitol, vital business precinct, and a working city. A centre of excellence enjoying historic streetscapes of deep heritage. Celebrating its final form, fed by the tradition of heavy rail – itself both centre of attraction and repository of historic passions – this endearing old town proudly bears scars from a colourful past, stains and tears to its well-worn garb, and stubbornly shoulders a shiralee of rusting tools and artefacts borne of a tough, productive, pioneering life.

Modern City: Heavy rail, that "brutal divide" gone, freed at last is the grand plan to connect city to harbour and place people in the greened promenades and cycleways. This aging east-coast Tasman tenant is now clean-shaven, sports Armani with chic accoutrements, and bears with understated dignity a worker ethic from hard times past to this plenteous present.

Suddenly a stranger is in town, and at a most inopportune time, ironically both igniting debate and applying the torch, while muddying the sky-blue waters of this fair town with an ultimatum cloaked as city-building that serves a primary agenda to profit.

GPT Group’s Hunter Central Mall, though utterly irrelevant to the future of Newcastle, has captured centre-stage in debate and favourable attention of many influential townsfolk. GPT has no place in this city’s narrative despite inviting itself, and bearing fine gifts. And now, if we don’t play with its toys, GPT will take them and leave.

Caution suggests it’s no time to be seduced by grandiose plans and sweet talk. We can either:

  • choose a preferred future from two most excellent scenarios described above, with due process seeing Newcastle evolve naturally; or,
  • let a global corporation make the running and force the outcome. An interloper clothed in the dialogue of "revitalisation" whose true mission is to harvest communities for shareholder gain using economies of scale typically lethal to local commercial ecosystems. One cannot describe the modus operandi of global funds investors wielding North American mall culture in any other terms.
giant awakes

Post industrial-manufacturing dormancy has finally succumbed this decade to a slow sprouting of variously unattractive towers that herald office and residential regrowth in the city’s heart – a space still bemused by the disappearance of smoky foundries, chaotic wharves, crowded streets, and a vigorous "can do" citizenry.

It was, after all, only a matter of time before Hunter Street’s long-wilting real estate caught the eye of movers and shakers with deep pockets.

In the old days when Novocastrians of eminence waved money at a patch of dirt, a fine structure was sure to rise. They still try, our latter-day city fathers, but edifices of finesse seem fewer and farther between. In their stead, global times bring to our city ruthless investor funds who wave debt at a collection of fine structures and a mall is soon to rise.

Yes, the big boys are in town. GPT Group’s Hunter Central mall development is on the roll, property being acquired, pressure bringing to bear, and nine digits trail the dollar sign in pre-development bandying.

Projects on the massive scale and complexity of an integrated shopping mall require far more meticulous planning, larger bankrolls, crueller choices, and greater sacrifice, than simple residential and office high-rise.

The first two demands are met by corporate forces the rest of us barely comprehend. The third is dealt with reluctantly by government and council. And rest assured that number four on the list – the "sacrifice" – is solely the responsibility of you and me, the mug punters.

Our Town, if concrete poured is anything to go by, has reached critical mass.

Sad to say, Newcastle’s lazy days are over.

noble intent

There is a plan, cloaked as noble intent by expert and very expensive consultants. to ‘revitalise’ Newcastle’s chronically dismal retail district.

gpt visualisation of newcaslte forshore

Image: Connecting the waterfront to the city. View south to Hunter Central from harbour. Courtesy GPT Group.
Click images to enlarge

Brasher concepts for Newcastle City you will never find.

Larger, yes (the Steelworks), but none has aimed at the heart of the city as a people place, or ordained it must be torn so completely asunder for the pleasure.

Commissioned by GPT, it parallels State Regional Cities Taskforce’s Newcastle City Plan but aims for higher inner city population and jobs growth, plus a twist on "City East" to ensure viability of its investment and development strategy for the existing strip mall. Quite a twist, to the surprise of many: construction of a gargantuan shopping complex, and removal of heavy rail.

Not content with adopting the Newcastle City Plan, GPT promotes its carefully researched and most skilfully marketed blueprint for future development, insisting every decision, starting today, should comply with its long-term aims.

magnate attractor

Stage one, reviving the east end of the city, requires a ‘magnate attractor,’ an irresistible shopping complex: "Hunter Central" as we shall lovingly know it, a multi-level, air-conditioned palace of captive retail tenants. "And," beam the guys in suits, "We just happen to have exactly what you need."

Lavished, it is, with all we expect in retail entourage: food courts, concierges, classy shops bearing world-famous names we provincials never heard of, coffee lounges in which to relax and follow progress of the car park gridlock. Ah, yes, car parks, that enigmatic maze of intertwined, brutally hewn concrete, benchmark of successful design being that, when within it, your GPS resorts to taunts and claustrophobic petulance.

newcastle mall in 1983 viewed westImage: Hunter Street mall 1983 viewed west. All city blocks at left including parking will become Hunter Central. New Parking will extend upwards at left to picture’s TOP edge.
Click to enlarge

Inviting this retail beast into our midst is not without risk.

Self-contained shopping malls are single-minded creatures whose quiddity is profit for insatiable investors, earned by filling glassily polished promenades with hordes of well-heeled feet, while eliminating poorer enterprises subsisting outside the castle walls who cannot meet cost of entry.

Hunter Central is a grand enterprise, intended as a compulsory destination for all residents of, and visitors to, the City of Newcastle. GPT Group has excelled, not only conceptually for a new mall, but in the rather utopian portrait for the harbour’s southern shore, for the length of Hunter Street, presented in their "Decay to Destination" vision workbook.

THREE STEPS TO PARADISE

Consultants, whose specialty analysing cities around the world and studying their renewal, offer compelling case studies to show how Newcastle can, with minimal risk by mimicking precedents, arrive in the future as a world class city.

Under the catch phrase "Removing Barriers – Reconnecting the Waterfront" stands an extravagant and inspiring proposal to divide the city into three development precincts:

  • West District, comprising a new Wickham rail terminus behind The Store, seeding a fledgling commercial centre radiating to Throsby Wharf
  • Civic District, connecting the governance and cultural sector to Honeysuckle
  • East District, an exciting and dramatic reinvention of retail, cultural, legal, and educational zones migrated downhill to within effortless reach of the next Tsunami

Finally, Edge Districts in between foster high-density residential and office space.

new wickham station

Image: Click to view plan full size
Courtesy, GPT Group.

A new Wickham station as Newcastle Terminus creates a west-end centre of growth, and removing heavy rail provides "fingers of green" for cycleways, public spaces, and waterfront connectivity.

Losing the rail would resonate the length of Hunter Street, eliminating crossings, tracks, fences, overhead wires, signalling, and all those forbidding artefacts that make it a felony to enter that alien territory.

The New Wickham proposal is alone startling enough. With a budget of $160 million it would be the beginning of the end of Wickham as a lowly semi-industrial area.

The plan dramatically overturns present use (misuse, or underuse) of the entire area, which is a mix of recycled major sites (formerly a brewery, The Store, Dairy Farmers), light industrial, manufacturing, and residential.

One action shown in the plan above that would buy a considerable heritage scuffle is an apparent or assumed hole through the front of the old Co-operative Store building for the buses to exit – just where the blue arrowhead reaches Hunter Street at bottom left. It might appear a simple drafting faux pas – but they quite easily would do that, and it should be taken seriously.

Inspirational castle-building like this has one tiny problem, however, as as one discovers poring over artistic impressions of tree-studded vistas. Such grand concepts are not only the stuff of dreams, they are dreams.

This is a century’s work that our kids might live to see.

IDENTITY LOST

There’s a problem with elite consultants visualising Newcastle’s future.

Those "plans" in all their magnificent insipidity describe a city none of us will live to see and, should it come to pass, none of us would recognise as our town.

It will be "the city formerly known as Newcastle" and will resemble every great city on Earth .. and thus be nothing in particular.

morgan street newcastleImage: Morgan Street, Newcastle, from Cathedral Park. I would trade the entire fortunes of Hunter Central for the quiet sunlit seat near the tree, and the organic randomness of timeless decay and growth.
Click to enlarge

Blind acceptance that change is always good leads to the consensus trap. City plans all point to the same textbook "people space" that bears no relation to the reality or wellsprings of the community it brashly deigns to supplant.

This Port Hunter, this Coal City, is a locale whose eastern precinct captures almost unblemished the end game, the final perfect stage of a provincial city that knew its role in commerce and government as head of the Hunter Region, and worked its way to as perfect a form possible to fulfil that function.

Within the surrounds of an historic light house and fort, beaches to the east, a harbour at north, and southward an historic hill of Victorian parkland and residences – all nurturing its heart and soul – lies the Greater City of Newcastle.

Newcastle queens wharf southwardImage: Queens Wharf southward to Cathedral., that  will be hidden behind Hunter GPT Central’s car park from this harbour vantage.
Click to enlarge

Set and cured, by a century of frenetic trade between the valley and the world, Newcastle City stands in this third millennium still in close contact with its past.

The docks, the rail, Hunter Street, Nobbys, the Fort, The Hill, the east end city blocks, still clad in their bedraggled magnificence, ARE Newcastle and will always be its appeal.

That is Newcastle’s genesis, its essence, and its ever-lasting value.

Replace these with an idealised "people place" and you have a nonsense city, a place "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing" (to use Roget’s illustration of the concept).

So, too, the lives of its citizens would become bland and tasteless, without vivace or edge, that a diet of nothing but sweetness produces.

Lacking constant reminders of their roots to a precarious and daring past, they will float rather like lost souls blind to the terms of their creation, eyes longingly on a future that will never be.

[Note: No offence is intended to "city planners" as professionals, especially our eminent locals, of whose knowledgeable views the above might seem too derisive. It’s meant as a good-natured caricature of visionary "blind side" – but also to paint the alternate path for the city posed in the introduction]

CREATIVE DEMOLITION

It would be unfortunate if proponents of urban renewal subscribe to a doctrine of city reinvention similar to the recently discredited "creative destruction" of economics.  Manhattan paid dearly for such ideas in the first half of last century, Sydney likewise in the second half.

Demolition is an essential tool of rebirth, working steadily within a city and tolerable while ever the fabric is not too badly torn, or its aim amiss. We are therefore stunned to learn that GPT’s Hunter Central will consume several streets, and with them entire city blocks. And, most significantly, demand removal of commuter rail.

That’s wielding a rather large hammer – and Hunter Central’s staggering size will indeed tear some fabric.

Another surprise emerges from the ambitious city plan’s change of direction: suddenly all roads lead to the harbour. Well, actually, they lead to the city’s heart – and for a reason. It’s where business is done, people work, people live, and is the direction they must travel.

thorn street newcastleImage: Thorn Street ~ You might see dereliction and disuse. I see timeless beauty trodden by the ghosts of our past. Historical archaeologists will curse us when its buried.
Click to view

While conceding the idea’s boldness and merit, I fear it operates transverse to what’s happening. And nice, but … that’s a lot of disruption just to connect to the waterfront when everyone must go to the CBD for legal or medical needs, or simple honest business. Or to the beaches, parks and esplanades. Or to visit, study, and relish the heritage.

Newcastle’s heritage has a considerable role in the shaping of its built environment.

The historic growth of the city led to a unique character manifested in its layout and significant elements like the Cathedral on the Hill, Civic Railways Workshops, Newcastle Railway Station, Customs House, Post Office, Nesca House, etc.

There is potential to build on this special character by incorporating projects to enhance the legibility of Newcastle’s heritage especially in the public domain."

– City Centre Plan Vision, Cities Taskforce

Change should equate to progress, not just demolition and construction that profits a few and disrupts the lives of many, or just because it looks futuristic on a brochure. And growth is NOT always better accompanied by the word "positive." Negative growth can also be good – if correcting excesses of greed, or distortions of economy.

More than a few countries on the planet would benefit from negative population growth. And negative economic growth is a terrifying but essential result from the inevitable popping of property or financial bubbles.

Economic and population growths already threaten our survival. They are the next great narratives signalling frantically for our attention, along side climate change.

The world really has grown enough. It is quality’s time to grow, and for quantity and consumption to take their  place in our past.

INFRASTRUCTURE DERAILED

GPT’s publicity machine suddenly, late 2008, floated alarming news that heavy rail to Newcastle Station and GPT’s proposed Hunter Central Mall are mutually exclusive.

If the city did not remove the commuter rail corridor between Wickham and Newcastle stations, it would not have the pleasure of GPT’s shopping mall.

And, by implication, the eroding east end will languish for another 50 years.

Sound familiar? As Charlestown MP Matthew Morris reported to NSW Parliament in 2006:

Over the past few months GPT, formerly Lend Lease, was out and about threatening that it would walk away from this project (Charlestown Square) if council did not get its house in order, did not participate and come to some arrangement under the compensatory package. Council deserves a little credit in this process. I assure all honourable members that dealing with GPT, formerly Lend Lease, has been, and will continue to be, quite difficult.

Some idea of the stir GPT’s “tactic” generated is how the State Member for Newcastle, Jodi Mckay, reacted:

I can assure you the Government will not give in to threats by developers .. The developer went into this with their eyes wide open or at least they should have .. At no time when they were buying up properties around Newcastle did they say the development would hinge on the removal of the rail line."

State Greens MP Lee Rhiannon failed – despite Ms McKay’s sentiments as apparently those of government – to kick-start parliamentary debate:

.. the retail developer, the GPT group, is engaging in push polling and a range of tactics that is distorting debate about the revitalisation of the Newcastle central business district. The distortion in the way the debate has been handled in the Hunter region is a further reason why we should have this debate today."

Oh to be privy to strategic echelons of this august house of the people, as government statespersons ran Ms Rhiannon in circles upon the finest points of order till her time expired, whereupon colleague Dr. John Kaye concluded:

It is hard to understand how any member of this House could not appreciate the urgency of protecting the rail into Newcastle. At a time when we are clearly faced with major problems with oil and major problems with climate change, a key piece of sustainable low-oil dependency infrastructure is about to be damaged.

Deputy Lord Mayer Michael Osborne was more than blunt:

When public infrastructure worth hundreds of millions of dollars is at stake … Where are the figures showing projected retail customers for both keep-the-rail and cut-the-rail scenarios? "

Has GPT tested alternative city-harbour connectivity scenarios that do not require cutting the rail line, such as those advocated by the community for many years? If so, which ones, and how did they compare?"

Or, as some in the community suspect, is their proposal to cut the rail not based at all on such data, but rather on estimates of the profits the company could gain out of developing the public land that would be released by cutting the rail line?"

Image: Newcastle Station. Bone of contention, or contention of boneheads?   Click image to enlarge

Cynically one can dismiss The Greens as strategically claiming underdog territory, with little to lose.

Yet I quote them extensively here, not only for their colourfully brutal rhetoric but as the few politicians delighted, and willing, to call a spade a shovel.

TERMING THE REFERENCE

The "push polling’ mentioned above was the style of questioning used in the Hunter Valley Research Foundation’s phone survey of 520 "residents" who were asked:

Do you agree or disagree that removing the existing rail line to join the CBD and the harbour Foreshore would help the future development of the city? Note that if the rail line were removed at the edge of the CBD it would be replaced by a fast and modern bus transit system."

HVR Foundation research co-director Robin McDonald said the poll questions were developed in conjunction with The GPT Group – standard for client surveys. Ah yes, the dreaded client survey masquerading as rigorous scientific research. While HVRF is beyond question in their methodology, the ‘clients’ would unlikely pose self-defeating terms and questions.

I’m no professional pollster, nor researcher, but a familiarity with humans and questions, and the mindset of ordinary folk offered simple choices about horrendously complex issues .. well, you know. Are you more likely to say yes to the above question, or this?

Will removing the rail line between Wickham and Newcastle stations help develop the city?  Note that if the rail line is removed you can still use the buses.”

Which residents were polled? If randomly chosen, they would likely be from homes not serviced by, or using, rail transport, and if so, whose default answer is then “yes.”

Rail line patronage comprises 35% from the valley and north coast spurs, 10% from lake & central coast, and 26% ‘other’ which is presumably Sydney, and the remainder "Newcastle."   These disparate groups of ‘residents’ would have quite a different take on the "question."

Rail proponents passionately and not just intuitively claim cutting heavy rail a mistake that would haunt the future, hence their vociferous opposition to the NSW State Government’ previous decision to terminate the rail at Broadmeadow.

In a withering 2005 critique of “research” at the time, Professor Graham Currie, Chair of Public Transport at the Institute of Transport Studies, Monash University, concluded:

The reports of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group are clearly limited in meeting the objectives which they were given. They display a bias in favour of consideration of the closure of the rail line to Newcastle in exclusion of almost anything else.

Despite claims in the reports that their focus was identifying options to improve public transport, no options have been considered which improve services to passengers.

Which, if disappointing then, is now truly ominous considering the magnitude of similar re-promises being made by rail opponents. Professor Currie continued:

… scope of coverage of impacts was weak and based on misrepresentation of secondary evidence.   No consideration of employment impacts of rail closure or the secondary impacts of associated traffic congestion and parking demand growth in the CBD are provided.

The longer term impacts of these issues in an economy with growing car usage are important to the economic sustainability of the region. The long term viability of passenger rail in the Hunter is not considered.

Confidence in our State pollies rather falters when the good professor twists the knife that little extra:

Closing Comments

The term ‘sham’ has been used to describe the analysis which has been used to assist the NSW State Government make its decision to close the Newcastle Branch line.   This is a colourful description of events which implies premeditation.   This reviewer is unable to comment on such issues however it is clear that an assessment of the facts presented suggests that rail closure was favoured in the analysis and that wider options were not objectively considered.   In addition there are significant errors, misrepresentations and omissions in the technical work.   It is at least highly suspicious that in almost every case these act to make rail closure seem more attractive and retaining the line less attractive.

The State Government has every right to review the future of expensive rail services and to test and evaluate options for improved performance.   This is how the general public can be assured of value for money in the taxes they pay for the services they demand.   However this reviewer is surprised at the minimalist level of analysis displayed in the work presented.   Each of the reports reviewed admitted to presenting preliminary and outline assessments but these were nevertheless used to make substantive decisions involving potentially hundreds of millions of dollars.

The passenger rail services in the Hunter region are a high quality feature of the regions public transport system.   Many cities of substantially greater size than Newcastle lack rail services of this scale and would covet the opportunity for such a substantive resource as a means for providing sustainable transport into the future.   Newcastle is clearly gifted in the physical and natural resources it possesses.   It is unfortunate that its sustainable transport system is to be discarded so easily based what can be factually identified as biased, flawed and misrepresented advice.

Deja vu?

DERAIL OR NOT DERAIL?

When GPT’s story broke, fervent supporters of Hunter Central lined up unhesitatingly as pro-anti-rail: "This once-in-a-lifetime opportunity must not slip through our fingers" had the faint scent of panic mongering.

Image: CBD East, viewed from harbour side. Disputed territory or sacred land? Click image to enlarge

electric train at newcastle eastYet, as citizens as dull as myself have noticed, almost any suburb worthy of a postcode seems to sport one of these "shopping centre" thingys.

Residents of the most insignificant communities often awaken to find a mall covertly installed overnight, usually where they last saw their favourite local shops.

Honest, you don’t need to try that hard to get one.

In fact, were I a Westfield, a Stockland, or a GPT, you would have to legislate to stop me dropping a mall into Newcastle East. All that’s held them back these long fruitless years is their distaste for a heritage bunfight, which GPT has deftly side-stepped by deploying that well-worn but freshly sharpened developer’s Swiss army knife: "adaptive re-use."

Or not so deftly, as we shall see.

GPT’s "unexpected" announcement concerning the rail corridor was side-lit by a commissioned report (Nelson Nygaard’s Rail Station Relocation Case Studies, Oct. 2008), obviously some time in preparation, colouring the argument in favour of GPT.

But why would the promoters of Hunter Central even care about the rail? Would it not suit them, in fact, as it does Westfield, where in Sydney nearly all regional shopping malls stand in rail-based centres?

Despite the obvious and huge planning advantages for city renewal of losing 2km of track for a terminus at Wickham, there is still the faint background odour of something else going on.

Why is Hunter Central’s car park so large? How large is it? A thousand (the present combined David Jones and Council), two thousand (Charlestown Square has 3500), three, four thousand? That many extra vehicles each day on King and Hunter Streets? If nobody drove (joke!), how many buses is that?

Typical train capacity is 200 to 500 people. The spill to cars and their parking needs caused by cutting the line might assist a city parking station, especially parking fees at whatever the market can bear – as Sydneyites know, their great city ranking world’s 3rd expensive for parking.

If weekday rail patronage* totalling 4,475 people were denied travel to Civic and Newcastle stations, would that result in 4,475 extra daily vehicles in the city or 4,475 less daily visitors? Or 4,475 extra bus passengers? Somewhere between the extremes, naturally, but imagine the effect on the roads. [*First Report of the Lower Hunter Transport Working Group, 2003]

Whatever the numbers, we still have that puzzle: why is GPT so opposed to the rail?

Whether some high-level discussion at GPT chose to loose an ultimatum on the rail corridor as a cunning diversionary ploy, its suits their bottom line, or it was just an inadvertent “oh, by the way, this report just in ..”   we will never know.

But are free to speculate:

  • The boring theory posits they simply need to ensure viability of their investment – particularly fee for parking in that enormous car park.
  • GPT’s own documents show the rail corridor occupied by strange new buildings near Scott Street, and the historic Newcastle Railway station earmarked "retail."
  • The face-saving theory finds GPT more than a little cautious right now, with the Babcock & Brown woes, a troublesome tumbling share price, and a quite unhappy parallel situation in that other sad old ex-industrial city south of Sydney. Prudence dictates an ‘exit strategy’ with potential ‘reasons’ to not proceed.
  • Conspiracy theory, everyone’s favourite (any reason will do!), sees a ‘Save The Rail’ furore effectively (brilliantly, in fact) divert unwanted scrutiny from Hunter Central’s latent community cost.

Which it has exactly done.

Missing from that list a possibility I would dare not put in print. A wild idea, ridiculous in the mere articulation. It’s simply beyond rational to imagine high-level political nods and winks encouraging GPT’s ultimatum in return for government assistance fast-tracking their project. After all, what possible benefit would a cash-desperate state government currently slashing a broad range of community programs and trying to sell anything not bolted down … what possible temptation would lie in the mere hundreds of millions of dollars (superficially) saved cutting Newcastle’s heavy rail? Especially if the Feds shoulder the cost of New Wickham.

Silly to even mention it here, really.

newcastle east rail corridorImage: Newcastle east rail corridor approaching Newcastle station, viewed east. I know, fabulously ugly, isn’t it? Click to enlarge
IN FEAR OF NEW WICKHAM

A rail terminus at a new Wickham station, cutting the rail line before Stewart Avenue, despite advantages on paper threatens some collateral damage.

Quite some, starting with the planners scribing the bus circuit through the middle of The Store’s mightily picturesque facade.

Now it’s not much of a building inside, but with a bit of push and shove that magnificent storefront would make a grand Newcastle Central Station. Buses would surely enter by Railway Street and exit via a widened Cooper St. (he said, discarding cries of protest from team Il Volcano).

What we should deeply fear is that New Wickham will not happen overnight, and considering the cost and ambitiousness, will almost certainly only half happen. That’s when disaster knocks and we (the onlookers) are left to contend, in our daily toil, with "the stuff-up."

The projected stuff-up starts as trains stop delivering a presumably ireful cargo to Civic Station (workers) and Newcastle Station (tourists, surfers, workers .. and the half dozen pensioners who have figured how to use ticket machines), but instead to New Wickham Station when and where great fun is to be had as the initial surge of buses begin nosing against the Stewart Avenue throng unable to proceed as the lines are being ripped up, and they are diverted to …? Old Wickham rail crossing? This will all be worked out in advance and sarcasm is completely out of order.

Loss of a hundred car park spaces in Station Street Wickham and many more on the Hunter Street side of the tracks, the mystery of how and where existing businesses relocate or move to make way for the interchange, the larger mystery of how and when Wickham itself relocates so the trains can "arrive at the water" – all these can and will happen, but not without a decade of disruption, and more than a little effort and money.

So, I predict we shall score a station and some buses, whereupon the state government retreats in the proven strategy of letting [insert your regional locale here] fend for itself because their hands are full dealing with the latest Sydaney PPP sell off.

Maitland Road traditionally carried traffic directly into Hunter Street, with which it forms a continuous commercial strip development stretching roughly 8 kilometres, from Mayfield West to the Pacific Ocean. It remains the direct line from the valley and north coast into the city’s heart, a flow that will be increasingly disrupted by further north-south passageways encouraging flows where there were none, just as Stewart Avenue seriously disrupts it now. It is anecdotally odd, but when the Stewart Avenue flow once diverted along Hunter Street to the Wickham Railway crossing via the Bank Corner, the affect on east-west traffic seemed lesser of an aggravation. Despite the queuing along Hunter Street.

So, what would really irk the hardy bitumen citizens?

Buses forcing from the new terminus into Hunter Street at the Stewart Avenue traffic lights in competition with existing eastwards traffic traditionally queued in front of the Store.   Not to mention (so I do) the Railway Street rail crossing traffic joining Stewart Avenue via King Street because – we might mischievously but confidently predict – the Railway St. crossing is closed and Selma Street embellishments are on hold as too difficult, if not expensive, requiring a new overpass and a new road through Wickham to Hannell Street. We might therefore guess that the Railway St. crowd, having joined the Stewart Av. mob, via a scuffle with the King Street gang, will fight a new battle of attrition with an omnibus-invigorated Hunter St. throng.

And who can imagine the exact magnitude of the ‘green corridor’ pilgrims in their east-west migration from New Wickham Terminus to the east end, where everyone needs to be at 08:30 sharp. Busily thumping the buttons on those shiny new pedestrian crossing lights where the railway gates once swung. How many pedestrian light rotations will occur in the same time between those former trains?

Will Hunter Central bring a thousand, or two thousand, additional workers to the CBD each day? And if they’re not bussing, they’re driving.

Has the potential to make the present log jam seem like the good ole days.

NEW WICKHAM – A NEW   "CENTRAL"?

Viewed in purist terms, relocating Newcastle station to Wickham is as inane as, well, terminating Sydney and state-wide rail services at Sydney’s Central Station.

Forcing commuters to fight for light rail, underground metro, buses, taxis, a lumbering China Town light rail, or that exotic monorail, inflicts 30 minutes of each-way daily aggravation on Sydney’s working nomads, and considerable confusion in first-time visitors and tourists, whose only desire was to reach the Opera House and Harbour Bridge after the tedious grind to that great smoke.

The same may be said of Newcastle’s ultimate destination, the East End, and an interchange at Wickham. It defies transport planning, if not city-making, logic

Let someone else say it:

George Paris, President of National Seniors Australia Westlakes … (said) interchanges drive people away from public transport, especially those most needing it who cannot drive because they are disabled, too old or young.

[ Westlakes Seniors on Rail Retention ]

The benefits of a mall are immense and there is little doubt, proclaimed by common sense at least, that Hunter Central would fill the city with shoppers. Just how many? A thousand each day? 10,000 or 20,000?

Despite the exotic urban transit solutions floated in GPT’s upbeat documents to move people between New Wickham and Hunter Central, if Sydney’s best effort since dismantling their tramways 50 years ago is any guide, Newcastle’s "rapid transit" solution can only be "government buses all the way down" – with the added bummer of bus-only lanes and lost parking making Hunter Street even more problematic to do business in.

Ironically, that instinct whispers that removing the rail link is counter-intuitive, that a likely influx of regional day-shoppers from Maitland to Murrurundi, from westlakes to the Central Coast, would be less than amused fighting for buses at a new Wickham Terminus after a train ride already pushing tedious.

Indeed, we know in our bones that the "pull effect" of Hunter Central must overcome the tedium of public transport. We will drive if we can. Our bones also tell us GPT expect their patrons to arrive in vehicles from households of affluence.

Enough downside already!

.. OR, IN PRAISE

Great merit lies in the alternate view of a rejuvenated Wickham and West End.

This attractive proposition, and the detailed thinking embedded the new plan, offers us a modern city that takes full advantage, and makes ideal use of, its natural features.

I have great respect for Professor Steffen Lehmann. My argument is with GPT disruptive mall, not the Professor’s vision for the city.

Image: Wickham? Wow! And barely a hint of artistic licence.
Click to enlarge Courtesy, GPT Group

Speculating as both lay person and total outsider – on what is assumed qualified support of the developer – I might surmise only the he perhaps see GPT an assault vehicle toward progress that could otherwise take more than a lifetime at the present rate.

The Professor considers heavy rail a major chess piece that must topple for this most desirable city plan to unfold. As he told snobs.com:

..   the heavy railway line is a brutal barrier. "

The ‘green corridor’ must not be filled up with buildings, but remain as a high quality public space network."

The arrival point at Wickham Station needs to be revitalised and designed with a large plaza connecting to the water .. to arrive by train right at the water’s edge."

.. "car is king" mentality has to stop. Introduce free bikes or rental bike scheme, like what is now being done in 50 European cities."

The long-term intention is that Wickham and Hunter Street’s west end become a third great business centre, the others being Civic and the East End. Therefore Wickham would ultimately be a desired destination for both travellers and a new local workforce.

This is quite achievable and the Throsby end of the harbour is already a delightful place, one of my favourites hangouts. But it will be decades before Wickham is the destination illustrated above. That it would ever, is, in fact, quite a gamble.

As start and end of this essay say, I am in two minds about the rail. Newcastle’s two possible futures are extremely attractive and exciting. Choosing the final path will be both agony of delight – but a very sad farewell to lost possibilities of the failed alternate.

But worst of all would be losing both the rail and the result promised by that scenario.

TOO MUCH DOWNSIDE IS NEVER ENOUGH

The downside of GPT Group’s Hunter Central mall proposal is more easily grasped listed alongside the ‘Advantages’ column.

However, and unfortunately, subtler permanent impairments to the city and one’s ability to enjoy it won’t be evident till work ends.

christ church cathedral newcastle nsw

Image: Christ Church Cathedral, The Hill, Newcastle NSW Australia. Click to enlarge Cathedral website:
www.newcastlecathedral.org.au

Those who never think much about such big developments yet are fond of this town will be surprised by Hunter Central’s sheer immensity, at the very least.

Sadly though, most hill residents will simply never give it a thought .. till they’re staring it in the face from their apartment window.

As intangible as are the presumed benefits of projects aiming to improve urban environments, likewise harmful outcomes are usually unforeseen. Obvious disadvantages of Hunter Central – outcomes some will consider retrograde that others applaud as progress – are:

  • Loss of several historic streets and laneways
  • Smothering or loss of some iconic if not historic buildings
  • Main thoroughfare closure of King St for nominally 18 months
  • Parking station closure for similar time and 500 (plus DJ’s 500?) cars hunting for (street?) spaces
  • Truck convoys feeding unprecedented supply and construction to inner city and demolition removal. There’s only one way for material: heavy road vehicles.

Should you balk at several years of heavy construction in King and Hunter Streets then you are advised not to consider the scale of disruption that tearing up the rail corridor and building a terminus at Wickham will cause.

For all who must travel this way to work in the city, access services, seek waterside recreation, expect quiet study of historical precincts, or live near this gestating giant, the near future is most bleak. They can factor into their, till now relatively blissful, lives an aftermath of ongoing expansion, and a permanent rise in inner-city traffic to levels not seen for decades, possibly far worse.

The preceding is mere routine misery for us little people.

TRADING ONE DIVIDE FOR ANOTHER

Real disaster lurks on a grander scale, subtler and more disturbing.

hunter central superimposed on newcastle cityscapeImage: Hunter Central Mall inserted (as layer) between Cathedral and Scott St buildings in foreground. ** Note: Despite elevated camera position mall still obscures Cathedral.
Click to enlarge

Hunter Central as presented in GPT’s virtual tours reveals astonishing impairment of Newcastle’s branding and iconography.

Easily missed in the hullabaloo is a threatened visual suffocation of Newcastle’s architectural crown.

The beautiful Federation Gothic Christ Church Cathedral, largest and most superbly positioned provincial Anglican church in Australia, looms as this project’s aggrieved victim, its loss of stature an exceedingly regretful outcome.

The tapestried Hill district upon which the Cathedral sits – an emblematic partnership steeped in history and engraved in the minds of all who love this town – will be obliterated from all future imagery. From our children’s memories, from first, last, or any impressions on visitors, and from this city’s tourism and marketing appeal, rendering its promotional cornerstone, for the lifetime of this private blockade, moot.

Image: Click to enlarge. Cross section of CBD from The Hill (Christ Church Cathedral at ‘0’ at left) to the harbour(Queen’s Wharf at ’16’ on the right ).
profile of the hill and hunter central
Inserted over cross section, and approximately** to scale, is GPT concept drawing at the "green Facade" point, deduced as in line with Cathedral.
** Atop Hunter Central are 6 car park levels, each conservatively assumed 3 metres high (possibly 4), totalling 18 metres (or 22).
Three mall levels below equal that height, by crude comparison (excluding underground). That’s 36+ metres based at Hunter St, about 7 metres above sea level. This places the car park roof at the same height as Christ Church Cathedral’s base, 45 metres above sea level. Confirmed, or suggested, by the colour insert from GPT’s gallery which is an ELEVATED view, this height might be exceeded by up to 10 metres.
Cross section Notes:
1.) Horizontal axis is line from Cathedral to Queen’s Wharf, showing Cathedral at zero, King St at 5, Hunter St at 10, Rail corridor at 15, harbour at 16. Vertical axis shows height above sea level in metres.
2.) If in fact the car park levels are 4 metres each high, add 6 metres Plus equivalent to mall levels, as the car parks and shopping layers show as equal overall height. That would add up to 12 metres to project height … a considerable distance up the cathedral! It appears half-obscured in GPT’s ‘elevated view.’

Note: If GPT or supporters provide more accurate elevations of the Mall construction and the Cathedral base (that I’m not privy to) to refute this, they are most welcome. Corrections will be published here, and the claims diluted or retracted accordingly.

christ church cathedral from harbour

Image: Despite the old council car park’s intolerable pragmatism – it really is a misplaced   eyesore and caused a furore at the time of its construction – visibility of hill and cathedral are only partially impaired. Click to enlarge

Despite GPT designers’ best effort digging down into the hillside, the core mall structure, that immense Borg-like cube, not only equals Newcastle’s signature The Hill in height, it significantly obscures the lower Cathedral, even from an elevated viewpoint, for 120 degrees of northerly aspect – that is, from Carrington to Nobbys. A 300 metre long wall reaching the elevation of – and barely 100 metres from – the Cathedral’s sunlit footsteps.

Hunter Central crudely deprecates the Cathedral to both visitor and citizen, who will find a very large square building where once there was an intricate, endearing cityscape. Even the gentlemen at Hogwarts, Newcomen St., will find the survey of all they command obliterated. And we, in return, shall no longer enjoy the presumptuous visage of their fine old clubhouse.

Car parking levels atop GPT’s 3-level mall protrude greedily into Christ Church Cathedral’s vertical space, shadowing Cathedral Park, standing front, centre, and in the face of this city’s priceless and majestic structure.

Hunter Central, from every vantage of skyline appreciation, west to east, replaces The Hill.

One would never expect cultural guardians of any self-respecting "world-class city" to lower its international esteem for what is ultimately crass commercial development.

What are they thinking?

What the rail corridor does – derided by GPT’s consultants as separating city from harbour – Hunter Central’s inelegant gargantuan structure does likewise to our historic, architectural, and spiritual connect: it completely hides The Hill and ridicules the unique and beautifully ornate structure atop it.

As conceived by the Newcastle’s founding architects, the visible, almost palpable, presence of Christ Church Cathedral on that peak is the town’s inspiration, cultural beacon, and watchtower of her souls.

They probably felt in their bones the irony that one day strangers with greater power would do to the naive city folk what they in turn had so recently done to the revered songlines in eternal offence of rightful owners of Muloobinbah.

What goes around…

Cathedral southwards through west, north, to Nobbys.

Newcastle Panorama - Cathedral to City

Image:  Hunter Central mall creates a barrier – to the height of at least the cathedral’s base (yes, way up there at left) – between the cathedral and everything 120 degrees northward. from Nobbys (extreme right) to Carrington (distant middle). Not to forget the gradations further east and west of those points.
Every building, shown above between vegetation (mid-left to far-right) and bordering the northern side of King Street is subsumed by Hunter Central
HUNTER STREET MAUL (where are you, Bob Hudson?)

Gift horses usually have some Trojan quality, which means those who will benefit and and are making all the noise will unlikely concede ugly truths no matter how obvious. That leaves silly old cranks like me to rabbit on about how change is always for the worse. A cynical troglodyte. I warned you.

When the first excavator arrives, and it is then too late, even uglier truths reveal themselves.

This is going to be a miserable few years of construction and, if shopping malls around the country are any guide, the misery extends indefinitely.

A project of this size can only cause massive disruption. Massive, like Charlestown Square’s black-hole effect upon that community’s tiny organic shopping strip, and Kotara’s encroaching behemoth – the attractively named "Westfield Kotara" – that like Topsy, has just growed and growed since 1965.

And how strange is that? Charlestown and Kotara are within established suburbia, yet still they grow. From where do they draw shoppers? From where do they attract retailers?  Do retailers desert nearby suburbs, at which shoppers must follow? There is a dynamic at work here that only mall owners and specialist academics understand.

Taken as a benchmark, Waratah Village is a typical smaller "instant" shopping centre, many of which were created in recent decades to usurp or complement existing "natural" commercial centres, yet did not thereafter grow. They seem to lack that cancerous gene consuming and slowly destroying their communal hosts, Charlestown and Kotara.

Thriving shops in superb natural settings scattered around the city’s east end – established businesses not amongst the 95% who fail in the first year, and who have no need of the mall or $5000 a week rents – whose appeal and success is tied to a locale, might be stripped of customers.

Honeysuckle’s success might well buckle if restaurant patrons desert it for a plethora of new indoor food courts. Market Town and The Junction, those hotspots of local commerce, cannot be immune to the assault and also risk desertion.

Existing inner-city business evolved organically without GPT’s mall. As pathetic a retail precinct the old mall is, it is nevertheless stable and in a sort of balanced symbiosis with the surrounding city blocks. The process of "reviving" Newcastle CBD is a decade into fulfilment. The mall’s final form is undetermined, evolving.

For those needing a shopping fix, MarketTown, Westfield Kotara or GPT Charlestown are 5, 10 and 20 minutes away, respectively.

Consider the sum total CBD retail turnover. GPT wants that business and if killing off the rest of the city benefits their bottom line, expect that – exactly that.   Newcastle might indeed witness a "die-back" to make the present commercial vacancy rate seem like good times.

CHARLESTOWN SQUARED OFF

Who can tell? This is speculation, of course. In the absence of prescience we can study a precedent.

Charlestown Square is a perfect case study, in perpetual growth since starting as a 2-level complex in 1979, reaching 3 levels and 170 retailers in 1996, gaining an additional 110 stores in a $300 million makeover.

Also, it’s within the Hunter Region and is owned by GPT Group, who euphorically describe their awesome complex:

Charlestown Square should be the heartland for Lake Macquarie, a meeting place to celebrate the heritage, diversity and future of the region. Charlestown Square should be the regional centre for community activities, entertaining, socialising and shopping.

Admirable sentiments were it not corporate spin. The vision so expressed might well be genuinely conceived, but is secondary, and sacrificial, to the unadvertised but obvious mission, to profit and survive at any cost. Any communal cost. Written in its DNA, child will eat mother to survive.

The growth of these malls is confounding. Barely a year or two ago most would have found Charlestown Square difficult to imagine any larger. Yet in December 2007 Council approved a doubling of its size! From 43,000 square metres to 88,000.

To do so entails the mere trifle of gutting Charlestown’s community assets, such as:

the relocation of a child care centre, tennis courts and a sportsground … to other communities in other suburbs. [Morris]

For those who believe due process will ensure GPT’s compliance with community wishes expressed through the trusty Newcastle councillors, chew on this:

The question is: What is in it for current and future residents of the central Charlestown area? It is clear that the majority of the elected councillors are happy with this arrangement. However, I assure honourable members that the Charlestown community is not, along with elements of council’s staff.

Council has been extremely accommodating with this proposal and there has been extensive public debate over the loss of Ferris Oval. There is no development application [DA] for the project before the council yet council has agreed to and commenced the following: reclassification of Ferris Oval; rezoning of public lands and the closure of Frederick Street, three very important procedures, all under way without a DA or any discussion on public transport arrangements or needs.

There has been no discussion on how traffic will be structured under the proposal, two critical issues for Charlestown. Council now has a problem with the wider community; that is, people believe that the whole project is approved, a done deal. That is far from the truth, keeping in mind that there is no development application before council, although it seems that one will be lodged soon, given the smooth sailing to date.

The question I put to council is whether the development approval, when lodged, will be considered fairly and will address adequately the traffic and public transport issues.

This project has the potential to be either a very beneficial project for Charlestown or the worst in Charlestown.

[ Matthew Morris, Hansard to NSW Parliament, 2 March 2006 ]

It’s more than surprising that Lake Macquarie Shire City Council would sell an historic sports ground to a developer who wants to double their mall size. And then discover council is stuck with the bill for acquiring nearby properties whose rezoned land drops to 25% of its 2007 value. And that these properties are for a park, not a replacement sportsground. And that park might exist some time in the next decade, when the residents decide to move from said properties.

These tales of horror are but trite skirmishes at the edges of corporate squatting upon lives of we simple folk:

He [a resident whose land was rezoned] said he had spoken to his solicitor who had advised him not to trust the council. "If they were fair dinkum they would have paid me a fair price for my property, let me live in it for 10 years or until I want to vacate, with me paying all outgoings," he said.

Charlestown residents’ spokesman Les Powell was among those who had urged the council to make GPT buy the properties at market rates, before it was rezoned.

"The council has done over these property owners; I think it’s wrong," Mr Powell said.

Charlestown MP Matthew Morris said the council should have made GPT buy the properties, so the council had no future liability.

[ Newcastle Herald report, May 2008 ]

More? Sure.

The story gets worse as it has now come to light that GPT wants to remove another public land parcel, Rotary Park, for upgrades of intersections with the Pacific Highway. This will result in the removal of the Miners’ Memorial, located in that park.

The story goes further: the council now wants an additional 10 metres of Charlestown Oval, which adjoins Ferris Oval, to increase the width of council’s proposed Carl Close road construction.

Finally, Attunga Park, which is adjacent to Charlestown Public School, is under consideration for the relocation of Charlestown tennis courts. This will have a massive detrimental impact on the school students who regularly utilise that park.

Interestingly, the council is not prepared to give the school a lease on Attunga Park for any longer than a month at a time, just in case the tennis courts go there. The overall project for Charlestown has the potential to offer significant public benefit with a large increase in economic growth and jobs. However, the cost to the community in public lands and trade-offs is of great concern.

It appears that the proposal by GPT is simply about commercial return rather than a sensible, balanced outcome respecting the public interest in Charlestown community’s public assets.

Even the handling of the proposal to date is questionable, given the secret meetings, the binding agreements signed between the council and GPT, the commencement of rezonings, road closures, the purchase of a private home by council, and the spending of significant council funds, all before a development application was lodged.

[ Morris, NSW Hansard, May 2007 ]

If all this community pain was to fight a war or build an infrastructure edifice of national importance we might squeal like stuck pigs whilst admitting the sacrifice worth it.

But reality check! Charlestown is being steamrolled for plain corporate investor hunger. And for what? To create the most economically and environmentally unsustainable and damaging form of development. I term it the "Dubai Syndrome." Those deep pockets suspended from immense egos believe the future of humankind is to occupy a glass city covering the globe, reaching for the stars, built on the bones of insignificant people, like you and me.

Even if possible, such imaginings – born of science fiction illustrators – rests in the far future, and we of the present appear to be little more than the labourers, our lives spent dragging stone blocks to the Pyramid of Khafre.

Darryl Kerrigan would say yer dreamin’.

BETTING ON A BUSINESS

Retailers who relish moving into Newcastle’s Hunter Central mall, who anticipate a bonanza, who enjoy negotiating steep leasing terms with unyielding corporate lawyers, will only learn their gambit’s outcome when the dice are rolled. Or the hammer falls.

Sure, GPT, Westfield, and Stockland are constant and easy targets of bad press. Yet shoppers, proprietors, and unfortunate residents know from experience the fringes of Charlestown Square and Garden City are war zones, like a bombed city, during expansion phases.

There will always be victims of circumstance, and GPT can no more ensure you will not fail in a venture than you can be certain no ants were trampled by your provisioning sojourn up the old mall one balmy summer’s morning.

However, legal action by a group of former Charlestown Square retailers against GPT is compulsory reading for future Hunter Mall tenants, if only to make them aware of how cyclonic winds of giant shopping complexes draw small business owners into stormy seas with no survival guarantee. For example, that a franchise as "bullet proof" as New Zealand Natural could fail at Charlestown is disconcerting.

If the possibility of failure in the new mall worries prospective franchisees, they should consider the storm before the storm, the construction phase.  Wollongong’s Keira Street experience makes the present Hunter Street mall, by comparison with Keira St, look .. well, like peak-hour Charlestown Square (I almost said "Hunter Street on a Saturday morning" as they once did, 50 years ago). This from the Illawarra Mercury in September 2008:

Wollongong’s highly anticipated $311 million West Keira development has been shelved for at least two years [till 2010].

The west side of Keira St, being prepared just days ago for a CBD shopping revolution, looks set to remain a strip of locked doors, empty stores and colourless windows, with cardboard signs advising of new shop addresses.

I wonder how Hunter St’s retailers can survive the two year construction phase. That noisy turbulence I, a shopper, will avoid like the plague.

EYES ON MARKET TOWN

The Cities Taskforce has the jury out on the retail winner in the Newcastle business district. In fact, one wonders if planners and council have left these giants to determine the city’s future by the outcome of hand to hand combat. Has this has ever been the case?

A further task lies in retaining and enhancing current retail opportunities in the centre. Competition with regional scale shopping centres, such as Garden City and Charlestown Square will be difficult.

Furthermore, developments on the city centre fringe – including the expansion of grocery retail at Market Town – could draw everyday shopping away from the Hunter Street Mall.

An opportunity exists in being able to provide focused and unique services within the city centre, especially to the daily commuting workforce and increased residential population. Attracting a supermarket anchor to the mall area would be desirable.

Perhaps it’s time to not only give up on Hunter Street east as a failed retail precinct, but let Market Town take the Guernsey. There are two ways for the east end to"revive: "organically" via gentle carrot and stick of alternate uses, allowing the 25-year plan to work its wonder -   or put all its eggs in the retail Hunter Central basket, which seems increasingly seems high-risk.

Worse, Market Town wins while Hunter Central flounders, the east end stuck with an impossibly large brownish-green white elephant. That would be a bigger disaster than no mall at all.

OR NO MALL AT ALL

GPT needs Newcastle more than Newcastle needs GPT.

While a retail revival induced by GPT’s shopping mall is a good thing for some business folk, it isn’t necessarily great for all retail, and unlikely to benefit what business the city is really about.

GPT is an enterprise in town to take money from us. What they give in return their shareholders will ensure is the strict minimum set by government legislation and council stipulation. Not a whit more, except perhaps to score brownie points. What damage they do in the process that is not illegal .. well, stiff. But we expect this. It’s the first law of business.

Admiring the scale of GPT’s vision one cannot resist seeing it through Novocastrian eyes. That is, covetous eyes. And if, in that euphoric greed, we visualise only the final enterprise in isolation, out of context as depicted in the illustration below, then it’s time for a little reality check.

gpt aerial of hunter centralImage: Conceptual perspective, view south west. Newcomen & Hunter Streets left, right respectively. Courtesy GPT Group.
Click to enlarge

Newcastle is beyond lean times and set to organically revive, with or without a giant shopping mall and its crushing footprint on our city’s most labyrinthine and time-worn "archaeological" heart.

This is a city, not a suburb.

Which simply means it does not need a shopping mall.

Newcastle is its own "magnate attractor" sustained by a breadth and depth of theatres, art galleries, restaurants, high-quality office and residential, bustling sea port, medical centres, quality and backpacker accommodation, surf and harbour regattas, festivals, conventions, beaches, stunning beaches, world class incredible beaches, heritage buildings and historic precincts, and copious breathtaking parkland. Did I mention beaches?   All supported effectively by a mature transport infrastructure of bus, train, ferry, seaplane, and free-flowing private vehicles within its compact stability.

Let’s look long and hard at this purely commercial venture and decide if the pain is worth the gain.

Commuters, office workers, medical and police, residents not addicted to shopping who simply enjoy the easy-going ambiance, tourists seeking to relax (they don’t all shop) – in fact, all the goings on about town that are not connected to retail success – will probably find their lives impaired. Severely.

Residents and visitors who love the place for its "oldness" will find that love sorely tested.

WHY does a "magnate attractor" always need to be a shrine to greed and consumption, and WHY should the the most deliciously woven streetscapes of Newcastle’s "old city" be flattened for such avarice-inspired destruction?

Shopping might bring crowds, but they’re more akin to locusts than native wildlife, with similar effect on the city’s vitality and appeal as a people place by comparison with more ‘organic’ populating. And where are shoppers after dark? Still we have a darkened ghost town CBD, dusk till dawn. It will be much darker outside the castle walls at night.

Community thinking on city regeneration must escape from the consensus knee jerk that always declares ailing retail is the be-all and end-all of a metropolitan revitalisation, and therefore demands a huge development whereby a developer profits and the majority – the non-participants, that is, everyone else going on about some business quite happily thank you and nothing to do with "retail" – need suffer.

A shopping centre would be fun. Everyone you ask says so. The vision of a renewed city is splendid. We all agree. But it’s a loaded question.

Hunter Central and "the revitalisation of Newcastle’s CBD" might be the city’s finest moment – or worst nightmare.

LIFE WITHOUT RETAIL?

Imagine Newcastle East with the focus OFF the retail sector:

  • Coax a diminished but hardened core of surviving retailers to a more concentrated and resilient circling of the wagons near Scott’s Corner, employing the presumably vacated DJ’s space.
    And let me say, David Jones I would dearly miss. Not the glitzy David Jones in Garden City Westfield Kotara which feels like, well, nothing in particular, but the old-style department store DJs, like Scott’s and Winns once felt (see photo at article head). It might become another dereliction like "The Store" but that’s hard to imagine considering residential and worker density surrounding it.
  • Join this enclave to the village ambiance of King Street retailers.
  • Encourage, legal and commercial office to advance on the retreating retail; a variation on existing plan.
  • Encourage a cultural enclave of art and educational campuses, somewhat as proposed already.
    This would draw students to invade the east end, recycling perennially unusable, less "sellable" space – maybe a mini Greenwich Village, for example.
  • Retain the rail as ready access for patrons of all these groups, in particular the inevitable growth of white collar workers and upstate visitors as the intrinsic attraction of the east end emerges
  • However, introduce light rail stock for the Wickham – Newcastle line. The ugly rail corridor becomes pedestrian and eyes friendly green tramway, exemplified in so many world class cities not prepared to prematurely pronounce rail in the city dead.
  • Leave the raucous mayhem of shopping frenzy to Market Town, Kotara, Charlestown, etc. Let them take the shoppers on and deal with the headaches.

This is speculation off the top of a foggy head, one that’s had little time to search the myriad documents describing this precinct’s possible paths and city migrations already in progress, such as the legal precinct.

Still, on that point again, what if retail was encouraged to vacate the Hunter Street mall? Perhaps migrate to and around Scott’s corner forming a tight-knit, niche, high-value centre adjoining nearby King Street retail community. Expansive modifications to the existing east end plan could fill the void as they vacate and breathe REAL life back into the area.

Imagine a quality city-suburb, a self-sustaining, delightful high-rise sea-side community. And imagine the great distinctive regions of cities like London, Paris, and New York, that attract visitors and residents and based on culture!

All Things Considered

Newcastle? For me it’s big enough and tall enough and "full" enough.

I like it’s shabbiness and ever-surprising little corners of the forgotten. I delight at having lived here forever while still uncovering hidden appendices, nooks, and crannies, or touches of cultural treasure that miraculously escaped some beancounter’s banal stinginess.

And the rail corridor?

Each side of any issue has merit. The agonising and ceaseless debate will sadly never end, whatever the outcome, because each side is correct. Light rail from Wickham to Newcastle is the perfect compromise.

Two agendas are in play for the future of Newcastle:

  • Total city renewal is a most desirable future state of sophisticated ambiance whose success depends on removing those obstacles like the rail corridor.
  • The rail corridor, however, is the key to an alternate future where all roads lead to Rome, where the business happens, and the past is fully celebrated.

These aims, despite their overlap, conflict at a crucial point – commuter rail.

Is this to be a model city reinvention where workers, shoppers and tourists throng to the harbour, or a historic place where visitors, workers, and residents throng to the city? The latter choice is the incomplete present, while the former demands considerable sacrifice for a desirable potential future.

Neither requires the presence of GPT’s Hunter Central, which not only complicates our choice. Its overwhelmingly disruptive presence and almost guaranteed creeping expansion could well destroy EITHER scenario’s chance of success.

Whichever of these two great futures awaits Newcastle East, both will be disasters if the railway’s premature disappearance is accompanied by evaporation of money and resolve.

We shall need to be most cautious about removing that gosh-darned railway.

Mini-Disclaimer: The author has nothing to disclaim, being neither affiliated with or directly supportive of any group in the preceding article, of either side of any argument. He is not a rail enthusiast, yet loves rail. He is not a shopping enthusiast, yet loves shopping. He likes tall buildings .. and open spaces. Most of all, the author simply enjoys the fabric of the City of Newcastle and does not wish to see it too permanently and badly torn.

See also Disclaimer at end.

Afterword

IN PRAISE OF UGLY

This is a confession. I love the raw ugliness of that anachronism called "heavy rail" whose steel claws reach back to the steam age and our industrial birth.

A still living generation’s fondest memories were being simultaneously thrilled and terrified by several hundred tonnes of hot black iron spouting deafening clouds of steam into station crowds, great piston-driven steel wheels taller than a man spinning steel on steel as perhaps 10 thousand horsepower were applied – maximum torque at zero revolutions. Close enough to touch.

The railway doesn’t divide the city from the water! It livens the anaemic visions of urban designers who see us as hapless mannequin upon their tree-studded water-colour promenades.

newcastle east 1910Image: Roads of iron.  Click to enlarge

The heart droops at every proposal to sweep away yet more irreplaceable charm for some steely-glassed chrome-plastic shopping experience – which admittedly has ever been the rationale that largely shaped this or any city to the present.

However, as hinted throughout this tiring piece, there can be a time to stop building stuff.   Because people like shopping doesn’t justify ripping the heart out of a city already ringed by suburban malls.

Newcastle’s east end is no longer a retail precinct, it is, quite simply, itself.

Removing the trains from Newcastle Station will not open the city to the waterfront unless buildings along the northern side of Hunter Street are demolished. Sure, the plan makes it clear how it would "open" the city, but sticking to the plan, experience teaches, will be difficult with powerful competing interests. For example, it would provide a breezy outlook for Scott Street – briefly, till those mysterious structures on GPT’s plan materialise to fill the gaps. And without great care and much luck, a “re-used” Newcastle Station could readily be just another sad collection of under-patronised shops selling the same old sameness.

magic trainAnd while the revitalisation pivots on removing that "brutal barrier" there are demonstrated ways to get around it in many great cities of the world who chose to retain rail.

Image: Magic train ride. Click to enlarge
A SHOPPER OF DISDAIN

Like anyone, I appreciate shopping and enjoy a trip to these spectacular venues. Of course they’re fun. Yet part of me is contemptuous of the shopping ethos, and considers it a facile distraction from what makes a life of true value. I’m not enthused by the idea of pondering from my death bed what made my life so special. Hmm, … I shopped?

This viewpoint encapsulates a mindset that believes the city’s future needs only a time-worn quick fix:

Maitland Mayor Peter Blackmore reckons the people of the Hunter should give The GPT Group a fair go with its $650 million plan to transform Newcastle’s central business district into a shopping mecca."

Reckons he, indeed?

But sir, it’s a business district and does not need to become a Shopping Mecca.

Despite the apparent precedent mid last century when Hunter St east was the shopping hub of the entire Hunter Valley, Newcastle City proper was never a retail district. Historically "shopping" comprised a tiny percentage of its commercial street frontage, a strip from Bolton to Brown Streets. Further west to Tudor Street retail also thrived, but the core was the east end.

That’s a fragile reason to upend the entire business district. With the greatest respect to the valued retailers adding quality and interest to the lives of east-enders, I must question why retail is driving the future of this precinct and dominating the agenda?

"Retail revitalisation" is an obfuscation diverting us from the important issue and future directions.

Malls? Wherever one appears I see only a blight on the landscape, an unnatural disturbance transplanted into naturally growing communal commerce. An artificial “village square” more honeypot and flytrap than communal exchange.

A private retail city with with retail laws, retail police, a retail council – a selfish agenda replacing public spaces.

It is no gleaming edifice of futurism.

ILL WILL WIND

I bear GPT Group no ill will, though accuse it of bringing an ill wind to town in the form of an oversized, inappropriate, and unneeded development.

GPT presents as a responsible corporate citizen judged by the sheer quantity of noble mission statements on its website.

It’s also a meticulous planner and skilled marketer (would we expect less?).

No matter how grand a corporate citizen it is, or well meaning its management and designers, GPT is a beast that cannot be trusted to place Newcastle’s interest ahead of the ruthless and intrinsic rules of property investment and development that are its essence and creator.

Examples of such failed promises, if not outright betrayal, are easy to find. Melbourne’s Decay to Destination, for example, appears increasingly like a ruse, as Melbourne 2030 is to our unfortunate southerners who see the "liveability" of their fair city decline as the actions of the Victorian State Government belie its support for the document.

GPTs of the world are global entities answering to no national government, no local government, and pay lip service to communities. They answer only to an amorphous cloud of investment funds whose fickle play of funding is the greatest threat their existence. In the end, the GPTs of the world are sharks acting only in fear of all the other sharks. The shiny windows held up to us, the minnows, are nothing more or less than how they feed.

IF PEOPLE HAD A SAY

Newcastle’s vision for the future is worthless to the citizens if it means decades of demolition and reconstruction on such a scale as we are discussing here.

Why would the dwellers of a perfect city keep turning their lives upside down in endless "creative destruction" in worship of the God of Progress, or the God of Greed, whose natures and purpose we don’t comprehend, yet keep doing their bidding?

Why should we allow such a bull into our china shop?

At which the cynic offers a few depressing truths. That cities are not "citizens’ playgrounds" but politico-economic chess bits in a game of global supremacy, their growth driven by production and consumption ornamented by tail-chasing social evolution.

Even if we understand cities are "strategic places that concentrate command functions, global markets and production sites for the advanced corporate service industries" [Sasken] there’s little hope of controlling such inexorable processes any more than we ever prevented war or starvation.

People have demonstrated only one thing in their short history: they are delusional, believing they intelligently chart the course of humankind when in reality they have tiger of destiny by the tail, not the scruff of its neck.

Newcastle will go the way of the biggest spender, and most of its ‘citizens’ will grovel in adulation, imagining the outcome their grand design, themselves its wellspring.

Meanwhile if Newcastle’s residents and working inhabitants – its raison d’etre, the overlooked people who must interact with Our Town on a daily basis – actually had a choice, would we not prefer to just get on with living and wish this silliness away.

Really, the place is okay as it is.

LINKS

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DISCLAIMER
  • All research was conducted online.
  • All and any information reproduced or inferred within texts above were obtained from publicly available documents.
  • All direct quotations are from press releases, downloaded official documents, or Internet sites. Accuracy of those sources is not guaranteed, but due care was taken to ensure reproduced quotes are identical to the source, and sources deemed reliable.
  • The author is not a resident of, or operates any enterprise in, Newcastle CBD. Nor has personal or financial interests in GPT (obviously) or GPT Group’s competitors, or stands to gain in any way by failure of GPT’s Hunter Central Mall.
  • Except, of course, by personal enjoyment of the city.
  • The author is not an insider or works in any professional role within government – or in businesses privy to confidential information.
  • The author has an interest only in the currents of history as they flow through the streets of this fascinating old town and is enthusiastic about its potential futures.
  • NewcastleOnHunter.com is NOT affiliated or associated with ANY partisan grouping in Newcastle, nor is the editor a member of ANY group, of any type. It is a non-profit website and carries no paid commercials. Expenses are met entirely by the author who is a humble wage earner, his only source of income.
  • Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect or imply expression by any persons named or quoted.


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