After the long campaign to revive central Newcastle, this is almost unbelievable. The state government is seriously considering crippling what is supposed to be the CBD centrepiece.
Treating Newcastle like a far-flung suburb of Sydney, it's looking at putting 30 per cent social and affordable housing into the Honeysuckle HQ development.
If the policy goes ahead, HQ will at best become just another collection of mediocre apartment buildings, like any that can be found in clumps around Australia's major cities. At worst, nothing will be built at all.
Planning Minister Carl Scully's department should promptly drop the destructive idea of using this very special location for publicly supported housing that can easily go somewhere else.
Most Novocastrians have probably missed the momentous importance of HQ, which is the last parcel of land to be released on the harbour front and is supposed to become the grand finale of the decades-long Honeysuckle project. The enormous, three-hectare site between Hannell Street and Cottage Creek is to be our Circular Quay, the place where the intense part of the future city centre around the interchange will meet the water. Concept artwork from the Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation, the planning agency that manages development at Honeysuckle, shows attractive buildings of high design standards and lots of ground-level activity.
Those concepts have been quite realistic. The one part of central Newcastle that has consistently attracted developers willing to invest in superior design has been the Honeysuckle waterfront, where we already have a line of good-looking buildings.
Retailing at Honeysuckle is not meeting expectations, but HQ's envisaged scale and intensity promise to finally get harbourside food and beverage up and running strongly.
We can forget all that if the state crushes the sale value of the prospective project by imposing an utterly inappropriate requirement for social and affordable housing.
The problem is readily understood, even though no one will speak plainly and publicly about it: alongside its majority of respectable, decent tenants, state-supported housing accommodates many who are anti-social nightmares.
Newcastle has indeed already had an experience rather similar to what the government of Premier Chris Minns is looking at. Labor in the 1980s built public housing on a superb development site along Nobbys Road overlooking the Foreshore Park, harbour and ocean. The succeeding Liberal-National government saw the mistake and sold some, but not all, of the flats to private buyers. Three decades later, residents describe the complex as bedlam, with "out of control" drug crime. How is a developer at HQ supposed to sell ritzy flats to people who know they might be buying their way into misery?
(I'm no snob in this matter, by the way. I grew up on the NSW Housing Commission estate at Waratah West.)
If 30 per cent publicly supported housing is imposed on HQ, the project may become simply unbuildable.
At best, it could go ahead as a low-grade development. With prospective sale prices driven down by the government policy, developers would drop any ideas for expensive facades, innovative building shapes and extensive ground-level facilities. Instead they'd build something that was plain and ugly but cheap enough to be profitable.
And then we'd have lost our chance for a harbourside jewel that would have made us proud and become the standard postcard view of Newcastle.
The former Liberal-National government excluded HQ from a requirement that crown-land development include the 30 per cent quota, instead requiring only 10 per cent affordable housing on the site. It recognised that HQ was special for us - "the centrepiece of everything we have been working towards in Newcastle," former Liberal planning minister Rob Stokes said.
Labor, on the other hand, seems to regard the site as just another parcel of crown land, like some it might have at Campbelltown or Hornsby. It's evidently taking a Sydney-centric view of the state.
NSW does have a pressing need for more publicly supported accommodation, but it doesn't have to be built on the harbour front. There are plenty of other potential sites in Newcastle for such housing, whether classed as "social" (provided directly by the government) or "affordable" (privately built with a subsidy and rented out).
Indeed, the last place for publicly supported housing should be one that has high potential redevelopment value, such as HQ. If Labor left HQ with a 10 per cent quota or, even better, none at all, the state would get a higher price for the site, money it could use to buy a larger area of cheaper land elsewhere in Newcastle.
Labor seems to regard the site as just another parcel of crown land, like some it might have at Campbelltown
For example, the long queue to get into social housing includes many mature women who have left failed marriages and find themselves with little money and low incomes. Yes, it would be nice to put them into an enjoyable city-centre location close to water. But it would be more realistic to use our limited resources to shorten the queue by making more accommodation available in acceptable locations that cost less.
Consider, too, that the social disturbance of publicly supported housing - from that minority of tenants who cause trouble - should be kept away from areas of intense activity. If there must be disturbance, put it where fewer people will be disturbed, not slap-bang in the middle of the city.
And we should avoid concentrating publicly supported housing and snowballing the social problems. That's just what the state would be doing at HQ. Judging from the site's size, the 30 per cent quota may equate to something like 1000 publicly supported tenants, all together in one place.
I asked for an update on this matter from HCCDC. A government spokesperson replied blandly: "With housing a key focus for the government, HCCDC is now exploring opportunities to deliver social and affordable housing at Honeysuckle HQ."
Well, Minister Scully should tell it to quit that exploration and get back to the task of creating a highlight precinct for Newcastle.
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