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    Overwhelmingly positive or disgraceful? - Newcastle Post Office concepts unveiled to mixed reaction

    Nathan Johnson

    While they’re just hypothetical, there are three design concepts floating around of a renovated Newcastle Post Office Building that are causing a stir among the community.

    Designed by EJE Architecture and DWP|Suters, the concepts were unveiled last week by the Property Council of Australia to a 200-plus crowd of local stakeholders, gathering to consider a different future for the circa-1902, heritage building in Hunter Street.

    But while they’re just ideas, designed to get the ball rolling on the development and to open an expression of interest period for private investment, they have been subject to mixed reactions from the public.

    "I think they're disgraceful, actually," Sydney-based architecture critic, Elizabeth Farrelly told the ABC.

    "I was really shocked to see what looks to me like disrespect for such a fabulous building.”

    But Farrelly’s reaction reportedly contrasts those of the stakeholders who attended the unveiling, with a statement from the Property Council suggesting the response of the event “was overwhelmingly positive from all angles.”

    Both proposals feature a new addition to the top of the building, EJE’s would be a deeply setback 10-storey Indigenous Art Hotel, while DWP|Suters provided two versions of an Indigenous medical institute, one is curvaceous and features a black-mesh facade, the other is a box form addition with large chamfers on its bottom corners.

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    Left: EJE’s proposal for the Newcastle Post Office.
    Below: DWP|Suters’ first and second proposals
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    Of most concern for Farrelly was the height of the proposals, calling suggestions that the only way the building will survive is if it becomes high-rise “ludicrous." But Property Council’s regional director in NSW, Andrew Fletcher disagrees unequivocally:

    “Extra height on the site and the income it generates through commercial uses will be the only way to pay for repairs and ongoing maintenance of the heritage façade,” Fletcher says.

    “[the alternative is] a steady decline to the point, very soon, when the only realistic option is demolition”.

    GOING UP OR BUST

    The site is owned by the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council who was handed the keys to the building after a successful claim to ownership at the Land and Environment Court in 2014. Since their successful claim, Awabakal have been trying to restore and redevelop the historic building but are at a roadblock due to the expense of redevelopment, estimated at $20 million.  

    The Property Council were called in to help come to a solution, and they came to the conclusion that a commercial addition to the building would be the only way to deliver sufficient revenue to preserve its heritage values.

    They established a technical advisory panel, including architectural firms EJE and DWP|Suters, who were tasked with identifying a range of potential site solutions that could lure investment and, best-case scenario, a joint venture from a private developer.

    RECURRING PROBLEM

    There have been calls to renovate Newcastle's historic post office building for some time, the much revered building in Hunter Street was almost renovated by EJE Architecture in 2009, but that plan failed when the developer went bankrupt.

    In 2014, the Awabakal Aboriginal Land Council was handed the keys to the building after a successful claim to ownership at the Land and Environment Court, and quickly made plans to convert the historic site into a training and healthcare centre.

    Fast forward to 2016 and by all accounts the building is deteriorating and is almost in a state of disrepair. It’s been reported that the building’s interior is so far gone that it will need to be ripped out entirely. 

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