Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Open Letter to the Minister for the Hunter

The Hon Jodi Mckay MP Minister for the Hunter.
Governor Macquarie Tower
Level 37, 1 Farrer Place,

Dear Minister,

HUNTER DEVELOPMENT CORPORATION Newcastle City Centre Renewal Report to the NSW Government March 2009

The Parks and Playgrounds Movement is a community organisation established in the early 1930s. Its secretary was the C E W Bean, the historian, lawyer and journalist. It was brought to Newcastle in 1952 by R.E. Farrell, and continues the work to safeguard our Natural and Cultural Heritage. The Movement’s early work included the protection of the openspace provisions of the 1952 Northumberland County District Town and Country Planning Scheme.

Parks and Playgrounds Movement wish to respond to the Report on the HDC Web Site and a News Release from the Member for Newcastle and NSW Minister for the Hunter titled Newcastle City Centre Renewal Report to the NSW Government (March 2009).

The Movement does not share the News Release enthusiasm for the Report on the HDC web site.

The Movement has seen many visions and rejuvenation reports come and go over the past fifty years. Sadly it is at the time of crisis as with the current World Financial Crisis and the December 1989 Newcastle Earthquake that vested interests promote visions and reports with little consideration of the interest of the general public. City planning must serve the general interest of the public and not be based on property speculation and arbitrary individual wants.

To be effective, planning must be based on a realistic understanding of needs and the morphology of the City and this is best achieved by sound incremental development that identifies and protects the essential heritage features that give meaning and understanding to the development pattern while recognising the potential and problems of the future.

As Minister for the Hunter, you said there is no hiding from the issue of rejuvenating the Newcastle City Centre and the NSW Government wants the community to help shape the future of inner-city Newcastle and the Hunter region.

The HDC Report is full of motherhood statements that it then denies in its detail.

The Report is unmistakably biased and prejudiced against passenger rail services which are in reality crucial to the 21st century liveable city.

The report boils down to a plea for more money for the HDC and for the Commonwealth to finance the arbitrary movement of facilities to new locations.

A perfect example of this faulty thinking in action was when the Royal Newcastle Hospital was removed after the 1989 Earthquake from the Newcastle East where it had an excellent location and public access, to New Lambton Heights where it was sited on the Highway 23 road reservation causing intractable problems such as the requirement for a new and more environmentally destructive highway relocation and transport and access problems. The removal of the hospital from Newcastle has been the single most debilitating action in the old town. The HDC and City Council have been hiding from this fact and blame everything else but themselves for their action. No amount of residential redevelopment can return the activity that had evolved in that area around the Hospital over nearly two centuries.

The report makes a plea for money to finance four principal projects:

* relocation and expansion of the University of Newcastle’s campus in the city.
* relocation of the Court house and legal offices to the Civic.
* removal of railway infrastructure from the city and construction of interchange facilities near Wickham.
* redevelopment of Hunter St Mall.

None of these wish list projects really require the removal of the rail infrastructure from the city to be initiated. Indeed, all of the projects, if really needed, would benefit from the retention of passenger rail services.

Ironically it is the Maddison Wing at the Hospital site that was the first real university push into the city, and that has been earmarked for demolition! Of course the university should be encouraged to consolidate its city campus and student accommodation but that will be much more successful with passenger rail services are retained.

The existing Court House precinct has a logic and distinctive presence that is capable of expansion where it is rather than be relocated at Civic. It would be far more logical to return the NSW Department of Planning to the civic where it would have a logical presence as it used to have when the Northumberland County Council and the SPA were located at the Civic.

The GPT suburban mall type proposal should never have been facilitated by the LEP for the CBD. It will destroy permanently the historic Dangar Axis which defines the old cathedral town and will overpower the pedestrian scale of the existing Hunter Street Mall area with its ugly elevated car parking structure. This elevated parking structure will also obliterate the historic panorama from the Cathedral. The existing Market Street –Queens Wharf –Cathedral (Dangar Axis) link should be emphasised by any new development in the Mall area. Newcastle Council had an excellent proposal recently before it that satisfied this important criterion.

The removal of passenger rail services from Newcastle as proposed would wipe out the opportunity of Newcastle to show off its unique sense of place and prevent the Newcastle Lake Macquarie and Maitland urban area from having a transit orientated future.

The following check list is provided to help understand what is happening to Newcastle.

Living City – since HDC the city has declined, principally because of the1988 CBD Business Plan which was meant to revitalise the city but unfortunately became a blue print for its demise.

The $100 million dollars Building Better Cities funding which should have been used to created a public domain foreshore park extending the Joy Cummings 1981 Harbour Foreshore Scheme through to Throsby Creek was not well used. The public domain foreshore parkland is still needed as the centrepiece of the Central Honeysuckle development. The Honeysuckle Approved Scheme Masterplan proposed a rail overbridge crossing at Wickham which should have been built at the same time as the Carrington Bridge with Building Better Cities money.

Economic Diversity - should be encouraged by developing the natural and heritage advantages of the City Centre. The positive promotion of the city has never been attempted and it is always stories of woe. We have a magnificent theatre in the Victoria Theatre, but it is empty.

Revitalise retail – It is not practical or in the public interest to try to make the Cathedral town of Newcastle a suburban shopping mall. It needs to retain its traditional character and be a speciality market orientated place something like the university Cathedral town of Durham in England or The Rocks in Sydney.

Commercial Investment- since HDC and the city centre Committee, the inner city has fallen prey to property speculation rather than to sound commercial development. This HDC Report unfortunately is heavily skewed in favour of property speculation rather than practical public interest planning for a future city that will feature Transit Orientated Development.

Public Transport – the report as shown above struggles to thwart the creation of a public transit orientated city by being prejudiced against passenger rail infrastructure. Passenger rail services have been an essential and distinctive feature of the city of Newcastle for over 150 years. Yes the services should be improved and modernised and trains should not be stabled in the open corridor.

We hope that the current passenger bus fleet will be replaced by lighter electric powered vehicles in the new city of the future also. Criticism of 8 car rail sets with only a few passengers have been made but Newcastle is currently the end of the CityRail electric service and 8 car sets will only be full when special events are planned in the city on the foreshore. There is no reason why sets could not be more often split into 4 car sets at Gosford for services on to Newcastle. Special daily excursions should be organised from Sydney and the Central Coast to visit the Convict Mines, Macquarie Pier and Nobbys, Fort Scratchley or Christ Church Cathedral. These things are merely operational details that can be altered to fit circumstances. Newcastle never promotes its natural and historical advantages. If there is an interchange to be constructed on the City Rail network in the northern area it should be as planned at Glendale in the Lake Macquarie Local Government area where it is supported by all local Councils

The proposals for public transport in the report are not well conceived and are not in the interests of the public who use public Transport.

Revitalising the Hunter Street Mall, Celebrating the special character of Newcastle and improving the quality of the public landscape and obtaining a better standard of architecture in new buildings are matters we all strive for but they will not be achieved until we truly identify the problems and potential of the existing city and promote the city in a positive and practical way.

Yours Sincerely,

Doug Lithgow
Freeman of the City of Newcastle
Parks and Playgrounds Movement

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