Newcastle City is facing an identity crisis. Parts of town are great; cafés, live music, bars, restaurants, the harbour, the beaches.  Other parts are drab and even derelict.  Somewhere in between are two buildings that we regularly frequent, the Newcastle Library and the Art Gallery.  These two public buildings stand side by side at the slow end of Newcastle’s busy café culture on Darby Street, off on a beautiful tree lined side road.  A public park is across the road and the Baptist Tabernacle stands next door. Needless to say, indirect pedestrian traffic is rare, these two buildings are tucked away, a hidden treasure for parents of Newcastle children.

However, this weekend, the Newcastle Herald published an article about the proposed $35 million dollar redevelopment of the Art Gallery Site, aiming to rejuvenate the civic precinct.  The gallery houses an impressive collection of artwork, much of it not visible to the public, stored in earthquake, weather and temperature resistant vaults.  The proposed construction would use the existing gallery as a framework around which a new building would be created, housing reference rooms, restaurants, educational facilities, and most impressively, retail space fronting the ever popular Darby Street face.

All well and good, but what about the rest of Newcastle, will it suffer to pay for this extravagance? Newcastle’s not a big city, and is faced with aging infrastructure that already poses a shortfall in the vicinity of $12 million dollars to maintain or upgrade each year. 

The call is out there, for visionaries to embrace this idea, and the concept drawings are pretty, it would surely have the potential to  kickstart some rejuvenation of the civic precinct of town, and I’m sure the art and cultural representatives of our community would love it.  But at over $35 million dollars, that’s money council doesn’t have to spare, and if it is such a grand investment, seek private partnership on the construction, maintaining free general public access, with membership packages and special events and travelling collections making some level of profit, as well as rent from the retail space.  I am surprised that council has been so insistent on this project, despite vocal public disapproval.

Quotes like, “it will deliver considerable returns for a long time”, and “its a very attractive proposition”, and visionaries made this place what it is today, and visionaries will make it happen again”, “it has been prudently planned and will act as a magnet for the inner city”.

Perhaps council should consider cleaning up urine smelling bus stops and vandalism and property damage if they are serious about attracting people into the inner city.  A flash new Art Gallery will only attract Art Snobs, not the general residents.

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Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

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