What a truly tremendous surprise. Didn’t see that coming.
Submission to the official Newcastle City Council rail rezoning memory hole
The first thing to say about this submission is that the proposal to rezone the rail corridor to allow development in it is an utter disgrace. In announcing the closure of the final 2.7km of the Newcastle rail line in 2012, then planning minister Brad Hazzard gave very explicit assurances that there would be no building on the corridor once the rail was removed.
Save Our Rail were accused by politicians and commentators at the time of being ‘conspiracy theorists’. How dare this community organisation question Hazzard’s pledge and actually believe that the plan to develop the corridor that had previously been pushed by (former NSW premier) Nick Greiner and later by (former NSW treasurer) Michael Costa was still on the cards.
^ True lies .
And yet, here we are. The draft rezoning proposal suggests allowing some 232 apartments and ~2000m2 of office mixed use space on the corridor (for now). By the time it is built – if this vulgar arterial blockage of a designated transport corridor proceeds – it is not a stretch to suggest a retail value of around half a billion dollars for this initial raft of buildings.
Additionally – and acting as an ideal fig leaf for the sacrifice of the transport corridor at the altar of the developer gods – it is proposed that the University of Newcastle is gifted a further 5600m2 for its city campus. This other main aspect of the corridor rezoning can also be expected to represent a further half a billion dollars in new construction.
So together, $650million will have been ‘sunk’ to allow for about a billion dollars worth of development to occur on the corridor. Quite a heavily subsidised land grab, if we are honest.
This submission is based on the assumption that in coming years and decades – after the hubris has worn off and the reality is plain for all to see- the decision to remove the busiest part of the heavy rail connection to NSW’s second largest city will be widely recognised for the idiotic blunder that it was.
Even key proponents and supporters of cutting the line will admit it was a mistake.
As that new consensus emerges and the difficult process of getting Sussex street to commit to an expensive reinstatement of heavy rail in Newcastle begins, the only realistic way for this to happen is if the old rail corridor is in some sort of vaguely salvageable condition. Compulsory acquisitions and demolition of multi storey buildings, and / or tunnelling through a swiss cheese of old mine workings and the footings of tall buildings would add to the cost of reinstatement massively.
Keeping the corridor open: a necessary extra expense.
Platform type construction which allows development over rail corridors exists in various cities around the world. It is more expensive than a regular build, to be sure. However part of the reason for this this added expense is that there is usually an urgent need to get the build done as quickly as possible so that the transport corridor can be reopened, avoiding inconvenience for commuters.
Newcastle does not have this issue as a conscious decision has been made to downgrade the citys public transport and deliberately inconvenience passengers for the foreseeable future. Contractors building rail ready buildings here can at least take their time.
^Proposed rail corridor airspace development in Melbourne.
My view, like others who have made submissions, is that if the proposed rezoning proceeds and allows for buildings on the corridor, then the Development Control Plan must require any development on the corridor to be built in such a manner that allows for ground floor heavy rail to be run through the buildings at a future date.
Any office or mixed use space at ground level would operate on the explicit (and legally binding) basis that a ‘fair price’ compulsory acquisition of this ground floor could occur at any time. A minimum period of notice could be included so that businesses have, say, three years to relocate from the time a decision to reinstate the rail is formally passed by the parliament, and the beginning of construction work.
It is worth observing that maintaining a rail ready corridor would have flow on effects in terms of access and egress and fire escapes, since rail ready buildings (unlike a regular development that isn’t on a rail corridor) could not have utilise corridor itself as a primary access / egress point and could only have temporary furnishings and fittings at ground level, which would be removed in the event that rail is reinstated. In some cases this may mean that developers or public institutions who buy airspace rights above the corridor would need to wait to acquire adjoining properties that could be demolished or reconfigured before they can develop over the rail corridor airspace. This would of course add to the value of those adjoining properties.
Would such a DCP provision regarding the maintenance of a rail ready corridor add to the cost of buildings on the corridor? Undoubtably, and substantially. Not only would the buildings need to have a suitably engineered ground floor space with lofty ceilings, the rest of the building would need to be engineered to withstand the vibration of trains running underneath. It would be important for the DCP to indemnify Newcastle City Council and the NSW government against any liability for future complaints pertaining to noise and vibration from a reinstatement of the rail.
It should not be up to residents and community public transport advocates to make the case for why a longstanding transport corridor in the middle of a major city should not be permanently blocked off. This should be utterly self evident.
Rather, the onus for proving why it is a good idea to permanently and completely obstruct a transport corridor (just to hock off a few parcels of land and then save a few bucks during construction) lies with:
- Property developers seeking to develop on the line, including the University of Newcastle
- those organisations advocating on behalf of developers who want to build in the corridor (Hunter Development Corporation, Hunter Business Chamber)
- those who cut the line with no political mandate to do so (the Liberal NSW government)
- those who very explicitly promised at the time of the closure that the corridor would remain open space (again, the NSW Liberal government, and its spokesperson on the matter at the time, former planning minister Brad Hazzard).
If a DCP requiring a “heavy rail ready” ground level transport corridor as part of any new development means that it takes longer for UrbanGrowth / HDC to sell the plots and longer for the plots to be developed once purchased, so be it.
The final say.
It is worth recalling at this point the fact that at no point throughout the marathon Newcastle rail debate has there ever been a definitive public vote on the matter. Those who support developing on the corridor and who (ironically enough) decry their opponents as a ‘vocal minority’ should have the courage of their conviction and support putting the matter to a citywide referendum.
If permanently blocking off the rail corridor is as popular as they suggest then the matter will be settled once and for all. However if not, then the collective wisdom of the city, as it were, should be respected and the corridor should be kept open for future rail reinstatement. It is utterly ludicrous to suggest that idea at no point in coming decades and centuries as the city inevitably doubles and trebles in size would a rail corridor come in handy. Its loss is already being felt.
The election of Liberal MP Tim Owen to the seat of Newcastle in 2011 may be described by proponents of cutting the line as representing a mandate to proceed; however none of Owen’s campaign material explicitly stated he would cut the line; and his election came in the context of a rotten and corrupt NSW government being thrown out of office after ramming through power privatisation. Certainly not even die hard Liberals could make the case that any of Owen’s material said anything like “vote for me and the government I’m a part of will cut the rail line AND push for development on the corridor”.
Moreover, halfway through his maiden term Owen resigned amidst the infamous ‘brown paper bag scandal’ – for accepting banned donations prom property developers, it should be remembered. Labor candidate Tim Crakanthorp was elected in the by-election that followed by a significant margin on an explicit promise that he would campaign to reopen the rail line. Indeed the combined vote of candidates who ran on a crystal clear platform of reopening the line at the 2014 Newcastle by-election (Labor, Green, Socialist Alliance) was some 60% of primary ballots cast.
So if there is a mandate for anything, it is for keeping the rail corridor there (and with rail on it). And if there is a vocal minority it is those with money and influence barracking for their clan’s profit margins. Being a well heeled vocal minority does not diminish ones status as a vocal minority!
Let the people decide: the Berlin precedent
A citywide referendum in Newcastle regarding what is to be done with the rail corridor would not be without precedent. In 2009 Tempelhof airport in Berlin was closed, leaving behind a massive piece of green open space in the middle of one of Europe’s largest cities.
The space was soon repurposed by residents of the city, who quickly began using the airfield as a public park. Cycling, walks, kites, rollerblading, community gardens, games of football, barbecues, fashion shows and outdoor performances followed.
Eventually city authorities sought to bring an end to the fun and start developing on the site. There are parallels with the current proposed Newcastle rail line rezoning – 25% of the land was to be developed to begin with. However this was met with protest by the community and eventually it was decided to hold a vote to determine what would be done with the space.
Tempelhof: what can happen when the majority get a say over town planning rather than unelected bureaucrats and developers and lying politicians.
The result? 64.3% of Berliners voted to permanently keep the airfield as public open space.
The next NSW election is due to be held on March 23, 2019. Given that the rail closure affects the amenity of rail users in the region more broadly there is an argument that electors in Maitland, Charlestown and Wallsend should also get a say. But at the very least a referendum should be held to allow voters in the seat of Newcastle to have the final call over any rezoning.
View corridors and density can and should be debated and considered by council with input from the community. But the substantive overarching issue of whether to permanently block off a transport corridor in the state’s second largest city must be put to a referendum, not intuited from tea leaves, strongly worded op-eds and politicians who have demonstrated their propensity to lie through their teeth. It would be criminal not to put this to a democratic vote. The citizens of a crowded Newcastle 100 years from now can’t vote to keep the corridor open, but the current crop should at least be afforded this basic decency.
May winners be grinners. And may the real ‘vocal minority’ eat humble pie.