Deja vu. It’s Honeysuckle On The Hill
By Bruce Wilson, a Newcastle writer and retired academic.
Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald on 24 October, 2004, architectural critic and social commentator, Elizabeth Farrelly, had this to say about Newcastle’s Honeysuckle project.
Venice of the south”, as someone once described it, may be a tad fanciful, but grubby old Newcastle, hill-draped between ocean and estuary, is still one of the country’s – maybe the world’s – most spectacularly sited towns. . . .
Yet, as long as I’ve known it, Newcastle has had that odd half-empty feeling. . . . While for some reason every attempt at improving the city’s plight seems only to worsen it. The Honeysuckle project, over-blessed with state land, federal money and an inner-city residential boom, was meant to fix all that. Sadly, it has fixed Newcastle good and proper. . . .
The intentions were good. . . . The emerging reality is a different deal. Mimicking what you might call the Bondi Junction effect, Newcastle has wedged multi-storey barriers of view-guzzling, mind-numbing mediocrity between itself and its focus, the harbour. A hill town shorn of views? How, with all that government control and money and all those good intentions, could it happen?
Newcastle, so long deprived of this gorgeousness by its industrial base, has now lost it a second time, by allowing the same drear financial pragmatism to run the show.
Now these were strong words and we don’t like Sydney based strangers coming here to criticise our city.
But Ms Farrelly was right. As Novocastrians have long suspected, Honeysuckle is second best. We knew there were better options for linking the city to the harbour. We could have had a strip of parkland right along Wharf Road and Honeysuckle Drive with the necessary commercial buildings inland of the road. Instead what we got was the depressing canyon beside the Crown Plaza, the annoying chicane along “Workshop Way” and the bulky apartment buildings of Lee Wharf with only glimpses of the harbour from the road. Clearly we have allowed ourselves to be dudded by a state government intent on squeezing every dollar it could from land sales and a weak city council unable to stand up against the push for profit.
And so we have a second rate project because, as Farrelly says, we, the citizens of Newcastle, have allowed “the same drear financial pragmatism to run the show.”
And now, on the most spectacular viewing part of King Edward Park, the same slide into second best is about to happen again.
Once more a view-guzzler is to be built on an iconic Newcastle landmark, the site of the old bowling club on King Edward Park. This will not be an amenity for the wider public. It will not be a well designed restaurant and coffee shop nestling into the Park landscape like the successful Surf House at Merewether. No. The citizens of Newcastle are to be denied the best part of King Edward Park because this large building will be a Function Centre to be used only by those invited there for conferences, meetings, trade shows and the like. Sure there is a kiosk but it’s a hole in the corner affair where the greenkeeper’s shed once was, well away from the best coastal views and overlooked by the bulk of the function centre.
This whole area, known as the King Edward Headland Reserve, was hived off from the Park proper in 1889 for use as a bowling club. When the club finally gasped its last in the late 1970s the area fell into disuse, although it was generally believed that the land would revert to King Edward Park. It is zoned “Open Space and Recreational” and certainly as a bowling club it fulfilled this description. The objectives of the zone include “accommodating leisure, recreation and sports facilities in parks and gardens and other facilities that are compatible and consistent with the heritage and character of the open space and with the character and amenity of the neighbourhood”.
Just how a function centre fits into the concept of parks and gardens, open space and recreation is known only to the bureaucrats in the Lands Department who first put forward the proposal for a building.
As citizens we need to ask ourselves what a park is for. Is it a place of repose, of peace and quiet, a place to wander through, take in the gardens and natural landscape, have a picnic and contemplate our luck in having such a magnificent coastline to gaze at or is it a space to be exploited, built on and leased out for profit?
Local historian, Robert Evans, has made an extensive study of the history of King Edward Park and he points out it has consistently been under threat from plans to chop off bits for non park usage. The area was first proclaimed a park in 1856 when 35 acres were set aside and placed in trust and permanently dedicated to the citizens of Newcastle—‘for a public reserve for recreation and for forming a reservoir’ Another 49 acres were added in 1894 when Newcastle Borough Council was made trustee. The Park has had a number of titles: at first it was called the Newcastle City Reserve or the Upper Reserve, then, in 1910 the name King Edward Park was granted, in honour of the King who had recently died.
This area once included the Obelisk and Arcadia Park behind the NBN television studios but during the 1880s the Obelisk became cut off from the Park by the extension of Woolf Street. Then Reserve Road, now a major thoroughfare, was constructed between Ordnance Street and Bingle Street. Instead of the Obelisk being a significant and focal part of the Park it was surrounded by roads and used as a quarry for road building. In the 1920s tennis courts were built and more land was chopped from the Park.
The highest and most southerly section of the Park was sequestered for defence purposes in the 1890s because of fears of a highly improbable invasion by imperial Russia. More usefully it was fortified during World War II and happily this section has been restored to the Park and makes a fine heritage contribution to our history.
As Ms Farrelly has pointed out Newcastle, “hill draped between ocean and estuary. . . . is one of the country’s . . . . most spectacularly sited towns” and King Edward Park with its curves and sweeps and expansive views up and down the coast fully justifies her description. Those Civic Fathers of the Chamber of Commerce and Borough Council over a hundred years ago knew it too.
As citizens we expect to have our best interests protected by the state and as Novocastrians we expect the same from the City Council. Financial expediency led them to let us down over Honeysuckle and is doing the same on King Edward Park.
An abridged version of this document appeared in Opinion andAnalysis, Newcastle Herald, 14/6/12.