The most significant planning challenge facing the incoming Newcastle Council is the urban renewal of Broadmeadow.
Successive regional plans have identified the suburb's potential, especially its substantial areas of former industrial land with opportunities for employment and housing, connected by the network of public and active transport links to the Newcastle city centre and beyond. In the heart of that precinct is 63 hectares of publicly-owned land that has never been developed for housing. Swampy and prone to flooding from Styx Creek, the flat land has provided an ideal location for sports fields and public events - league, soccer, tennis, hockey, trotting, exhibitions, markets and circuses.
Local sporting clubs and public trusts were set up to manage and expand these facilities - the showground, entertainment centre, and the International Sports Centre (now McDonald Jones Stadium) became major community-owned assets for the city.
Over the past few years, the NSW government, through Venues NSW, has been taking over these assets and consolidating them into what they call Hunter Park: "a blockbuster precinct of regional significance delivering a thriving entertainment, sporting, commercial and residential destination of national and international significance".
A "blockbuster" precinct is an alluring prospect, but from the outside it is difficult to identify what is being actually proposed. To date, there are at least three "concept plans" that have been presented by Venues NSW and one proposed by a local architecture firm. The only one Venues NSW makes available to the public is a 2017 concept used for a brief round of public consultation that is already out of date. The later concepts, shown briefly to selected audiences, are only available by tracing their ghostly footprints on the web.
Despite the lack of detail, there are some consistencies. About half the precinct is devoted to sporting facilities already - that will continue, with some (basketball and trotting) moving out, others moving around, and upgrades for existing facilities. The showground and entertainment centre disappear and are replaced by an indoor and outdoor "event space". There will be a pedestrian avenue from Broadmeadow Station to the stadium.
To pay for this, the rest of the site, about 30 hectares, will be released for housing development, mainly along the eastern and northern perimeter. The plans show generic, grey milk-carton blocks of 2600-3000 apartments, housing up to 7000 new residents. For comparison, this is more than Adamstown, and almost two Cooks Hills.
For what amounts to a new suburb, there is shockingly little detail provided. This is a familiar story, as a Sydney-based government corporation makes major planning and development decisions on public land in our city with little or no consultation with the community or elected council. Many current councillors and our local state MPs have endorsed it regardless.
Venues NSW's brief is to "take an integrated approach to the development of stadia..." and to "raise revenue through commercial activities such as hiring venues to sports and entertainment organisations...". This does not sound like the starting point for creating a liveable new community.
Nonetheless, the very lack of consultation and detail leaves the possibility that we can still make this 'blockbuster precinct' live up to the hype, not just for the big sports matches and public events, but most importantly for the people who will be living there.
Over the next two years the Hunter Central Coast Development Corporation is preparing the Hunter Park business case for Venues NSW. It is critical that Newcastle Council takes a leading role in planning this emergent new community.
Hunter Park must support a variety of housing types from apartments and townhouses to single storey bungalows and group homes. It needs to address the region's shortfall in housing needs - first-time private owners, public housing, affordable housing, and aged and disability care units. The housing should be designed to integrate with the existing 100 residences and small businesses sandwiched between the showground and the sports precinct.
It needs infrastructure fit for a 21st century carbon-neutral city, with high-speed internet and car-charging stations, and solar access for rooftop panels. There must be new parks, playgrounds, and shaded outdoor spaces for the 7000 new residents.
This new community is optimally situated. It is a five-minute walk to the station and schools, 15 minutes by bus to the city and the beach, and an easy cycling distance from the university and John Hunter Hospital. There would not be a more prime located inner city renewal opportunity on the eastern seaboard.
Right now, this is public land that we own. Its future development should reflect our ambitions, our needs, and our vision. A whole new suburb can't just be a planning afterthought or a funding mechanism for some smart new entertainment and sporting venues. After the December 4 local government election, the new council must make it a key priority project to develop and advocate for Newcastle's vision of what's possible at Hunter Park. It can't be left to the machinations of Sydney planners.