Newcastle City Council approves rail corridor rezoning

ROLLING ALONG: A section of the former rail corridor which is being transformed into the Market Street Lawn. Picture: Marina Neil
ROLLING ALONG: A section of the former rail corridor which is being transformed into the Market Street Lawn. Picture: Marina Neil

Newcastle council approved the rezoning of the city’s former heavy rail corridor on Tuesday night despite strong objections from Greens councillor John Mackenzie, who said there was no evidence the land would not be needed for future transport needs.

The decision paves the way for a mix of open space, university buildings and residential and commercial development on the strip of land between Worth Place and Newcastle station after a bitter debate stretching back at least 27 years.

Cr Mackenzie was the only councillor to vote against the plan – independent John Church was not at the meeting – and the only councillor to speak on the issue other than lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes, who moved the motion to support the rezoning.

He said after the meeting that he accepted the decision of the council, the issue had been “divisive in the community for far too long” and it was time for a “truce”.

But during the meeting he came out swinging against a report from council staff on the rezoning, saying it was open to accusations of bias and left the council’s decision open to legal challenge.

He said staff had “miscategorised” 137 negative submissions as form letters, and he took exception to a section of the report which said those in favour “expressed excitement” about the university precinct.

“We need objective, formal information, not speculation on people’s emotional state,” he said, noting there was “no corresponding speculation” on the emotions of those against the proposal.

Cr Nelmes cited the results of a council-commissioned survey of 955 residents by ReachTEL, which she said showed almost 60 per cent of people supported the rezoning while 34.7 per cent wanted the land retained as a transport corridor.

But Cr Mackenzie dismissed it as “push polling”, a marketing technique designed to sway opinion under the guise of a survey.

A group of 38 community and transport activists wrote an open letter to councillors before the meeting also rejecting a poll “framed to elicit a predetermined response”.

Cr Nelmes praised the council for securing concessions from the state during the rezoning process, including an extra $150 million for public domain, a more sophisticated light-rail design, affordable housing and an integrated transport plan.

But Cr Mackenzie said the council had received no guarantees on affordable housing or the university and the state’s transport plan was “little more than a brochure”.

There was “zero evidence” light rail would meet the transport needs of the growing CBD and no traffic plan existed to address congestion once Hunter Street lost two driving lanes to trams.