Newcastle City Council is weighing up options for the future of City Hall, including shifting Newcastle Art Gallery across Civic Park to the historic sandstone building.
The council’s Labor majority voted last week to move the councillors’ meeting chamber to the council’s new office building in Newcastle West in early 2020, raising questions about how City Hall would be used and whether it would remain in council hands.
The council decided last year to shift its 400 staff from the City Administration Centre “roundhouse”, Fred Ash Building and City Hall to the new offices under construction in Stewart Avenue.
Lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes told the Newcastle Herald on Monday that the council would never sell City Hall, which would continue to host functions, weddings, concerts and other activities.
But she said a roof-top bar and a rehoused art gallery were among options for the 1929 landmark, which is in the midst of a $16.85 million renovation.
A working party of councillors and staff would explore “complementary uses” of City Hall, including the “potential for higher and better public uses like art gallery, museum or library space”.
“City Hall will always remain in public ownership. It was built for the people of Newcastle,” Cr Nelmes said.
“Council is investing in the delicate and labour-intensive restoration of the sandstone facade for generations to come.
“Whatever the outcome, City Hall will always remain part of our cultural asset collection for the benefit of all Novocastrians.”
Shifting all or part of the gallery could solve its space problems and give City Hall a renewed purpose, but it is understood the council is only in the very early days of investigating if and how such a move could proceed.
The council’s preferred option is for the state government to fund the expansion of the existing gallery in Laman Street, but, if this is not forthcoming, City Hall is an option.
The Herald has been told the council would need to gauge if the technical and storage space available in City Hall meets the gallery’s requirements.
Plans to redevelop the 1970s Brutalist gallery building have been a political football in Newcastle for more than 13 years, and the project appears no closer to proceeding.
The gallery has more than 6400 works of art in its collection but can exhibit only a tiny fraction of them due to lack of space.
The state government has repeatedly refused to help fund the gallery’s redevelopment.
Five years ago, the council set aside $7 million for a new gallery and secured another $7 million from Canberra, but it had to return the federal money when the state would not match the commitments.
Read more: The Herald’s opinion
The council submitted an updated business case to the state government last year seeking $26 million for the entire project, but it was not included in a $600 million NSW arts and infrastructure fund.
The gallery also missed out in this year’s state budget.
The Herald has been told City Hall, without housing a relocated art gallery, could be a break-even financial proposition for the council, although leasing the roof to a private operator could boost its bottom line.
Figures provided by the council show the building hosted 344 events attended by 25,656 people last year.
“This was despite the restoration, which has had a significant impact on its short-term commercial appeal,” a spokesperson said.
“These events include weddings, gala dinners, charity balls, conferences, live performances, exhibitions, day meetings and social functions, including school formals.”
The council said the building’s maintenance budget, excluding the major restoration project, in each of the past three financial years was $80,471, $219,569 and an estimated $130,485.
The largest of these three amounts included remodelling the banquet room kitchen and bar in 2016-17.
City Hall and nearby Civic Theatre have been listed on the State Heritage Register since 2012.
As part of its resolution last week, the council will review whether to update the conservation management plan for both, in part to ensure the council chamber is preserved.