We must protect our old shopping streets.
As Newcastle densifies, we must not let property owners destroy suburban history by tearing down familiar old facades.
Certainly, land needs to be reused to suit new needs. Blocks of flats will surely be built above what were once shoe shops, stationers and bakeries. But the character and history of the old streets must also be kept by protecting at least the facades.
A strong case in point is before Newcastle council. A developer proposes to knock down the century-old Victory Buildings on Maitland Road, Mayfield, to erect a five-storey apartment building. An adjacent old shop building is also intended to be demolished as part of the project.
The developer company is quite within its rights to make the proposal, and the council has not specifically protected the buildings. But its 2017 policy for Mayfield does say the "character/scale" of facades on that stretch of Maitland Road should be retained.
In fact, this matter should be clearer and absolute. The council should simply have declared that the facades must be kept.
The Victory Buildings facade, behind which are three apparently separate old structures, is redolent with the most important phase of the history of Mayfield, and indeed Newcastle.
Notice its year of construction, seen in the photograph accompanying this article: 1919. So it went up in the days of frenzied development of Mayfield that followed the opening of the BHP steelworks in 1915, the days that really made Newcastle.
South of Maitland Road had been fields; to the north had been big houses on semi-rural blocks. Now all was being subdivided for workers' houses, and Maitland Road was blossoming with shops to serve them.
And notice the name, "Victory". Australians had just helped win World War I, and they were proud of it. A business in the building, maybe a small cinema, was called The Empire. The British Empire was as important to Novocastrians as it was to the rest of the country.
In its application, the developer says heritage issues do not apply. But the council can still consider Mayfield's potential loss in the proposed destruction of the facades.
Developers usually don't want old facades because keeping them adds to construction and maintenance costs, and it often conflicts with ideal floor and window arrangements.
For this case in Mayfield, how about a compromise? Maybe the developer and council could agree that the facades will stay and, in return, the building can go two floors higher? The state is trying hard to increase inner-urban housing density, anyway, and seven floors won't look at all excessive for Mayfield in a decade or so.
For the future, the answer is simply to put all old retail facades on Maitland Road under full heritage protection and to do so quickly.
If that slows down redevelopment on the street, then so be it.
What's Mayfield's problem today will be Adamstown's and Wallsend's tomorrow. We need full protection for all old commercial facades in local shopping streets in Greater Newcastle - at Lambton, Waratah, West Wallsend, Kurri Kurri, Cardiff, Maitland, East Maitland and many other places. Vincent Street, Cessnock, is an under-appreciated gem.
In every case, the facades record local history. It doesn't matter that most have modest architectural merit and may indeed have been based on standard designs from pattern books. Almost all look pretty good, especially if spruced up.
What's Mayfield's problem today will be Adamstown's and Wallsend's tomorrow. We need full protection for all old commercial facades in local shopping streets in Greater Newcastle.
Nor does it matter that such facades can be seen all over Australia. That brings up another reason to treasure them. Newcastle may be the second-oldest city in Australia, but it is pretty lightly stocked with old buildings. We need to keep what we have.
Councils have arranged for certain special old buildings to be given full state government protection, even in outer suburbs. An example is the T.C. Frith store on The Boulevarde, Toronto. But the point is that all old facades need to be kept, each as part of a local collection, whether they're individually special and historic or not.
How old? Well, anything from before 1960 for a start. Buildings completed in the 1960s and 1970s probably need to be considered individually, bearing in mind that our successors will value them more than we do.
Keeping facades would not mean freezing old shopping streets in time, nor should it: land use must adapt to new requirements. So we should accept that larger structures must be built to make better use of the sites, usually for housing.
The upper levels of apartment buildings can be set back from the property line, sitting above podiums that are fronted by old facades. In such an arrangement, the facades seem to have a purpose, not looking like they've been incongruously tacked on to new buildings.
Also, if a developer and architect are forced to keep an old facade, they'll have to find a way to make their new building conform to it in some pleasing way. That can only improve the quality of what has often been pretty ordinary high-density residential construction around Newcastle.
Finally, there's a special set of old commercial buildings that we have to think about. Outer suburbs that used to be mining villages often have magnificent old brick pubs, which must obviously be kept, but cheap wooden shop buildings.
While some of us may admire the ability of our forebears to get their priorities right, this raises a question: should we also preserve the plainly built wooden shops?
Yes, we should. The modest retail buildings at Teralba, for instance, record part of the history of the suburb. They may never be beautiful, but they are interesting and moderately attractive features of the shopping street.
The challenge for owners and architects will be how to make good use of them.