Is Light Rail A Road to Recovery for Inner-City Newcastle?

Nikola Jokanovic looks at what the light rail means for the troubled present and fingers-crossed future of business and culture in Newcastle’s CBD.

Very soon Hunter Street will be paved with near-literal gold. The Newcastle Light Rail, which will make use of $250 million dollars of state funding, has been the town’s talk for some time now. With plenty of both supporters and detractors, it’s hard to know what the massive multi-hundred-million project will mean for life, business and culture in Newcastle’s long-troubled central business district.

A good starting point is the plan itself, and its hopeful outcome. The finished light rail will begin at the newly-built Interchange station, run down 500 metres of the old heavy rail corridor before jumping onto Hunter street a further 1.7 kilometres, and will finish on Scott Street at Pacific Park, shuttles running every 8 minutes. The multi-hundred-million dollar project was pitched in 2014 following 2012’s closure of the heavy rail corridor. Construction began in September of last year and we can expect to be done with it around the same time next year.

From the horse’s mouth, the NSW government says that: “Newcastle Light Rail is a key part of revitalising Newcastle and will provide a frequent and reliable travel option throughout the city centre, connect key activity precincts, reinvigorate Hunter and Scott Streets, and open up great renewal opportunities.”

A vision of Newcastle in a few years with a completed light rail. 

Reinvigoration is surely needed as it’s been a long and bumpy road for our humble CBD. Newcastle’s Wikipedia page shows an image of a “bustling Hunter Street, 1968”, a far cry from the street we’ve had the past few decades. Westfield Kotara began as a fair in 1965, and Charlestown Square opened in 1979. Both have long been owned by huge national companies, Westfield and GPT Group respectively, and both are host to a massive number of international retailers. It’s not hard to see how the CBD turned out this way; why buy clothes, goods or produce locally when H&M, Big W and Woolies have it in your own suburb and at half the price? Despite this, the CBD clings to life as Newcastle’s hub for culture and entertainment, with a proliferation of pubs, clubs, restaurants, cafes and local retailers.

The past and present of Newcastle’s CBD lead to important questions about a light rail’s place in its future. Could construction have been handled better? Is it truly the best transport option for a future Newcastle? Most importantly, will it bring people back into the CBD?

Navigating inner-city Newcastle has been difficult ever since construction began, occupying important main streets, public access and parking spaces. Complaining about access and transport is a Novocastrian pastime, and now is truly the season for it.

“The light rail, at the moment, is causing a stir because it has shut down most of the thriving shopping precinct that is Hunter Street,” says Marcel Stadoliukas, a developer at Downing Property with twenty years experience in the Hunter region. He sees the challenges currently facing local businesses as a symptom of change. “It’s definitely a growing pain, especially for the shops that have minimal customers in the first place. Shops like Frontline Hobbies, targeting an exact audience.”

But growing pains sometimes become more. A number of staple Newcastle businesses, some with decades of history, have folded under the weight of significantly reduced accessibility, foot traffic and revenue. Frontline Hobbies, Vinyl Cafe, the Tuff’N Up gym, the Hunter Street Mall’s Sushi Koo and Newy Burger Co are among those who have either closed permanently or relocated.

While difficulties are to be expected during growth and development, what might not be is the Council’s hot-and-cold attitude towards providing financial assistance to affected businesses. Sydney businesses were happily granted compensation for light rail construction along George Street; but hopes for a similar compensation scheme in Newcastle have repeatedly been shot down. The NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian defended the unlikeliness of rent relief or compensation for Newcastle businesses during a January visit by noting that business will be booming when the light rail is finally complete; she may be forgetting that businesses in the CBD will need to actually stay open that long.

Former and current NSW Premiers Mike Baird and Gladys Berejiklian had some words about the Newcastle Light Rail back in 2015.

So what’s all this in service of? What vision of Newcastle’s future is the light rail trucking us along towards? This leads us to what may be the hottest part of the debate; the heavy rail corridor. Why is light rail necessary when there’s a perfectly fine heavy rail track already there?

A little-known fact is that the heavy rail corridor is one of precious few areas in Newcastle not severely undermined by Newcastle’s coal-mining past; in other words, one of few places in the CBD and elsewhere suitable for high-rise and below ground developments (apartment buildings and underground car parks come to mind first).

“We could have had the heavy rail though there, but there wouldn’t have been access to the land. I don’t think it’s a land-grab, so to speak, but rather opening up for tourism in Newcastle,” says Marcel. “They’re gonna put more hotels there and the light rail infrastructure will allow for people without cars and without transport to access prime locations around Newcastle.”

The official reason for removing the heavy rail is to ‘open the CBD’ by allowing for direct access to the harbour’s waterfront. Although a noble cause, it seems a bit slim to justify the massive, quarter-billion dollar undertaking of taking out heavy rail and putting in light rail. It’s hard to ignore the dollar signs practically painted on the heavy rail stretch.

Development isn’t bad. Change, development and growth are good things. It just depends who development is done for; the actual community, or for investors and shareholders? Whatever shape the heavy rail corridor takes, and whatever role the light rail plays in the future revitalisation of Newcastle, the hope is that it begins from the ground up, with the community first, and not from the top down, with grey-slab residential apartments and a corporate clutch on local development.

By the end of next year the light rail will be done, up and running. By the end of the year after that, it may well be a staple of Novocastrian life. Ultimately, only time will tell what direction the light rail will take us in.

Marcel is brightly optimistic, and there’s good reason to be, too. “I think the government has made the right decision, trying to expand Newcastle into a thriving young city. Putting the light rail in is going to open it up to a variety of people and opportunities, especially for businesses along those streets.”

“At the end of the day, the people who have lost out on this, will they rebuild bigger and better with the completion of the light rail? We will only find out once it is completed, maybe two years after it’s done. We’ll see a whole different city.” For better or worse.

Feature image provided by NSW Government.

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