The National Trust has questioned how City of Newcastle approved the demolition of historic buildings to make way for the final stages of Iris Capital's Hunter Street Mall redevelopment.
Iris consultant Urbis met with council representatives on April 18 to discuss a development application to demolish "all non-heritage and non-contributory items" on the site of the redevelopment's last two stages between Hunter and King streets.
The following day City of Newcastle issued a media statement foreshadowing it would "expedite processing a soon-to-be-lodged development application by Iris Capital to enable the demolition of the buildings located in Phase 3 of its award-winning East End development".
The media statement quoted lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes saying: "Through close collaboration with NSW Police and Iris Capital we identified that we have some public safety concerns in the final stages of the heritage revitalisation, so action is progressing on the demolition of the non-heritage buildings so the site can be adequately contained."
The statement said the council's planning team would assess the demolition application "as a priority", ensuring heritage requirements would be met.
On April 21, Iris lodged the demolition application, and the council approved it seven days later without placing it on public exhibition.
The National Trust, Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance and The Newcastle Club have since raised concerns that the developer and its consultants have downplayed the significance of an 1860s house on the site regarded as the oldest timber building in Newcastle.
The building at 74 King Street is listed as "contributory" to the Newcastle City Centre Heritage Conservation Area in the council's non-statutory development control plan.
Iris has also earmarked for demolition 1936-built Blackall House at 22 Newcomen Street and a 1926 building at 105-111 Hunter Street, both classified as contributory to the conservation area, in a separate development application for the final stages lodged in May.
Consultant City Plan said in a heritage impact statement lodged with Iris' development application in April that the council's heritage significance rankings overstated the importance of the buildings to be demolished.
The statement says 74 King Street "dates from the pre-1930s but has been considered as being a typical example of its kind with no particular significance".
National Trust Hunter chair Mark Metrikas told the Newcastle Herald earlier this month that the house was "by far" the oldest timber building in the city, was possibly the second oldest building in the conservation area and had important links to the city's history.
He said on Tuesday that the council should have consulted the community before approving the demolition of buildings it had previously identified as contributing to the city centre's heritage character.
"This expedited DA, does it pass the pub test?" he said.
"Iris Capital uses its heritage consultant, City Plan, to argue that the heritage mapping done by City of Newcastle was inaccurate and not robust.
"What this means is that potentially every building that is mapped across The Hill, Newcastle East, city centre, Cooks Hill and Hamilton conservation areas can be challenged.
"It's a worrying concern that non-government agencies can turn around and try to discredit that council's mapping should be used as a baseline for heritage protection."
Mr Metrikas said demolition work could start on the buildings "much sooner than people are expecting".
Urbis argued successfully in the April development application that the council did not need to put the demolition plans on public exhibition because "the determination of this DA is time sensitive" due to "serious public safety concerns occurring on the site including continually vandalism and anti-social behaviour".
It said City of Newcastle could use its discretion regarding demolition in a heritage conservation area if the council regarded the work as "of a minor nature".
Mr Metrikas did not agree that hasty demolition was the only answer to anti-social behaviour in the vacant buildings.
The Newcastle Club, NICRA, National Trust and Anglican Dean Katherine Bowyer have publicly questioned an Iris consultant's view impact report for allegedly understating the impact of the development on views to and from the historic Hill area.
Iris has not responded to requests for comment and Urbis said it would not comment while City of Newcastle was assessing the development application.
A City of Newcastle spokesperson said the April development application was for demolition of non-heritage buildings and had enabled the site to be "adequately contained".
"The application was completed in line with CN's Community Participation Plan and a detailed assessment against heritage considerations was undertaken and specific heritage conditions have been imposed on the development," the spokesperson said.
IN THE NEWS
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.