Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Mediocrity spoils another view
A major development fails to do Newcastle justice, writes Elizabeth Farrelly.
We’ve always known Sydney couldn’t plan its way out of a paper bag. But suddenly it’s becoming even more dazzlingly apparent. Just as the South Sydney Development Corporation, having failed, is recommended for expansion, the Honeysuckle Development Corporation’s willingness to trash Newcastle’s one opportunity for poetry continues to meet with applause and encouragement.
From inside the tent, at least. Nothing new in the reasoning, either; it’s all about power, politics, money.
“Venice of the south”, as someone once described it, may be a tad fanciful, but grubby old Newcastle, hill-draped between ocean and estuary, is still one of the country’s – maybe the world’s – most spectacularly sited towns. Home, too, to some truly luscious architecture, from the worn-weatherboard seasidery on Nobby’s Hill to the grandeur of Vernon and Barnet’s sandstone precinct; from the arts-and-crafts intricacy of the old Technical Institute to Brian Pile’s brutalist Art Gallery and Stutchbury’s recent award-winning hilltop house (with Bourne + Blue, architects).
Not only that, but the loss of the city’s industrial youth, so often catastrophic, seems to be moving lithely into a hearty maturity as greater-Sydney’s foremost lifestyle dorm.
Yet, as long as I’ve known it, Newcastle has had that odd half-empty feeling. Half-empty as opposed to half-full, and half-empty as opposed to exuberant, bustling. While for some reason every attempt at improving the city’s plight seems only to worsen it. The Honeysuckle project, over-blessed with state land, federal money and an inner-city residential boom, was meant to fix all that. Sadly, it has fixed Newcastle good and proper.
The intentions were good. Early masterplans promised low-rise, ped-friendly, mixed-use development, strong city-harbour connections, view corridors, public access and major urban design moments like the “cove”, where the harbour itself was recessed inland to give the place a focus. Even now, the rhetoric has a Colgate smile – “revitalising the City of Newcastle by creating jobs, stimulating investment and attracting people … Honeysuckle is a place for people by the harbour”. Blah, blah.
The emerging reality is a different deal. Mimicking what you might call the Bondi Junction effect, Newcastle has wedged multi-storey barriers of view-guzzling, mind-numbing mediocrity between itself and its focus, the harbour. A hill town shorn of views? How, with all that government control and money and all those good intentions, could it happen?
The answer is drearily familiar. In the 1940s, when our first strategic plan showed Sydney surrounded by green belt, planning minister Pat Hills was busy flogging off bits of green before their status was even gazetted. Nothing has changed – except that the system now positively encourages the minister to favour private over public interest.
In part we have the develop-ment corporation model to thank. No doubt it seemed a good idea at the time to keep local government from ratbagging anything important. But in London it produced Canary Wharf, in Sydney Ultimo-Pyrmont and Green Square, and in Newcastle, Honeysuckle. Twelve years ago, with flagging development pressure, 50 hectares of frontal rustbelt and a heavy-rail line emphatically isolating city from harbour, Newcastle’s much touted metamorphosis from industrial port to designer-burb seemed about as plausible as gentrifying Launceston. Which is no doubt why the Commonwealth’s Building Better Cities program devoted $71 million to giving it a leg-up. The state threw in the land, plus a further $29 million, and so was born the Honeysuckle Development Corporation.
For the first few years the HDC didn’t seem to be doing anything at all. Now, arguably, there’s way too much quantity and not nearly enough quality.
It all revolves around the railway. Railways in cities are like staircases in houses – functionally crucial but always somehow in the way. And, like stairs, they need to be positioned first, since everything else spins off them. In Newcastle, as in Sydney, the 19th century’s near-total disdain for waterfront-as-leisure allowed the railway to run right along the harbour’s edge, linking the town to its fertile backyard, but severing it from its own front room.
That was fine, then. A century on, though, as Newcastle began its post-industrial evolution, the downtown rail spur became as much a hindrance as an asset – made especially obvious by the ripening-for-development of the huge Honeysuckle site, harbour-side of the tracks. Which is why the earliest Honeysuckle masterplan, by Newcastle architect Brian Suters and the Paris-based Philippe Robert, had two main planks: reconnect the city to its harbour and, to this end, remove the rail line back to Civic (a stop before the current terminus).
The city-harbour reconnection is a universally acclaimed Good Idea, although the subsequent erasure of its main feature, the cove, has left it eviscerated. The removal of the railway is more controversial, partly because rail is so vital to city life and partly due to public fears that the land so freed would be sold for private development. Rather than opening up the city to its waterfront, the move would intensify the separation.
This hasn’t stopped a recent transport working group, including Lord Mayor John Tate and Gary Kennedy, both board members of HDC, recommending closing the entire spur-line, right back to Hamilton (where it branches from the main trunk) and selling the land to “benefit” public transport. Whatever that could mean.
Not surprisingly, the recommendation was that the process be managed by HDC.
That’s what makes the heart sink since HDC’s product to date doesn’t exactly proclaim its desire or capacity to do the right thing by the town.
Apart from bits and bobs of peripheral redbrick suburbia, the main Honeysuckle buildings are the $35 million Breakwater Apartments, by Becton Group, the $37 million Boardwalk (mixed residential and commercial), by Stronach Group, and the $46 million Crowne Plaza Hotel, also by Becton. Why are they so bad?
By Sydney standards they’re not that high – six or seven storeys so far and more like nine or 10, depending on litigation, when the controversial Lee Wharf buildings eventuate. But the way they sit there – closing streets, blocking views, dominating the boardwalk like a lifeless copy of some American communitarian dream, with their patronising in-pavement “memories” of the tall ships era and polished granite light-bases “like coal” – is offensive.
It’s hard to say whether they would be less offensive if the architecture were other than regulation dead-flesh developer-plastic, or whether their bulk and location are such that any architectural translation would leave their essential offensiveness undimmed. Perhaps, at root, it’s neither of those, so much as the niggling consciousness of a poetic opportunity dramatically and deliberately missed.
Newcastle is a hill town, blessed with a street grid that runs willy-nilly over the topography. Sounds dull, but it’s exactly the same device that gives the Maltese town Valetta, say, its immense seductiveness, ending every stonewalled street in the sea.
Newcastle, so long deprived of this gorgeousness by its industrial base, has now lost it a second time, by allowing the same drear financial pragmatism to run the show. But the wall-of-buildings syndrome should be avoided at all costs; to give those pretty, steep, tree-lined streets a harbour terminus would give the city a sense of full-blooded presence it hasn’t had for a long, long time, if ever.
PHOTO: Missed chance … Newcastle’s Honeysuckle development is the result of dreary financial pragmatism. Photo: Stefan Moore