IN announcing that a not-for-profit agency, Evolve Housing, will build 30 affordable housing units on the former rail corridor, the state government has ticked off another item on its blackboard full of things to do in redesigning the Newcastle CBD.
At the moment, understandably, much of the debate over the state of the city revolves around the light rail construction, and the disruption it is causing to retail operations. The construction complaints will continue, but in the meantime, Revitalising Newcastle is doing what it can to prove that cutting the rail line at Wickham is all about bringing the city to the harbour’s edge, with any development along the corridor a secondary consideration, at best.
In this regard, it is unlikely to have been a coincidence that the two first developments announced for the corridor are the Evolve affordable housing project and another extension of the University of Newcastle, yet to be finalised. Both are difficult to argue against in terms of their community benefit, and neither are the sort of project usually associated with “greedy” developers.
As the first cab off the rank, the Merewether Street affordable housing project carries a symbolic importance beyond its actual contribution to easing any accommodation shortage. Not that there is any realistic chance of the corridor being used again, but the construction of the first building, even a modest one like this, renders the corridor a thing of the past, and no longer an issue of current debate.
Monday’s announcement also reminded us that affordable housing projects almost invariably rely on public funding, with the Evolve project no exception. It was this lack of government and council subsidy that helped undo the Catholic Church’s plans for a 15-storey block with affordable housing in 66 of its 120 apartments on the old Empire Hotel site. At the time, the Hunter Development Corporation’s Michael Cassel was confident that the failure of the Empire project would have no impact on the Merewether Street development, a prediction that was borne out on Monday.
Already head of the HDC and the Revitalising Newcastle agency, Mr Cassel was named on Monday as the new head of the HDC’s counterpart on the Central Coast. While the Newcastle Herald congratulates Mr Cassel on this appointment, it would not do to have his attentions spread too thinly, when his plate is already so patently full.
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