Next City Vanguards Share Design Solutions in First Australian Big Idea Challenge

Vanguards shared adaptive reuse design solutions for two landmark buildings in Newcastle, Australia, as part of Next City’s first Big Idea Challenge to take place outside of North America. The competition, held during each Next City Vanguard conference, aims to make a positive impact on host cities beyond the urban leadership conference.

The 2017 Vanguard Australia Big Idea Challenge produced ambitious redevelopment visions a 19th century post office building and a former rail station from the same era. The two buildings serve as crucial downtown anchors, and their respective redevelopments — both are in the early phases of public processes — hold the potential to be catalytic. In their complex histories, both also offer a window into Newcastle’s evolution from a coastal area inhabited by the Awabakal and Worimi Aboriginal peoples into an industrial powerhouse and major export hub to international markets in Asia and across the globe.  The sites were selected in partnership with Next City’s local host committee.

For the challenge, six teams presented a 7- to 10-minute PowerPoint presentation (all of which are available here) to Newcastle community members and a judging panel, made up of local leaders engaged in the redevelopment of the two buildings, at a public event on Nov. 19. The judging panel, which included Newcastle Lord Mayor Nuatali Nelmes, selected one winning idea for each site. 

“The Big Idea Challenge was thought-provoking, entertaining, exciting and laid out great options for the future of two really difficult sites with complex challenges in the heart of Newcastle,” said Nelmes. “One of the key learnings from the Challenge, apart from providing great city solutions, was making sure that the city will be inclusive and equitable and that we won’t regret decisions we make today in 20 years time.”

The winning idea for the post office calls for selling the grand building to a private developer for conversion into a multi-story hotel. The revenue from the sale would go back to the site’s owner, the Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council. The Council plans to use the capital infusion to meet community needs and seed future investment. “The idea was cutting edge. It was rational. It got straight to the heart of the matter, and it was the best solution in terms of what the land council might be able to do,” said Awabakal Local Aboriginal Land Council CEO Rob Russell, a member of the judging panel. “The acquisition of the post office land by the Land Council was always meant to be a form of repatriation for stolen lands in the past, so the winning idea allows the Land Council to make a financial gain from what was always meant to be a financial gain for the Land Council.”

All three proposals for the railway station featured similar themes: equity, inclusion, reconnecting with indigenous culture, and celebrating innovation. The winning plans for the former Newcastle railway station and surrounding area imagined a transformation into a mixed-use community space with sensory gardens and a maker space. The vision also called for closing adjacent Wharf Road to vehicular traffic and turning it into parkland.

“The outside is a blank concrete canvas, and we’re envisioning this sensory, exciting, vibrant space. The space just invites that,” said Rachel Cogger, a member of the winning railway station team. The urban planner grew up in Newcastle visiting the railway station and found inspiration in the energy the other Vanguards brought to the site. “When you’re there with a bunch of visionaries — whether they’re data scientists or working in AI or community development or planning or architecture — everyone’s coming to it from a different angle, but we all came to a cohesive vision for the site.”

The Vanguards were inspired by the brainstorming Novocastrians had already done around the two sites.

“I don’t think anyone here is under the illusion that we can parachute in and ‘fix’ Newcastle or ‘fix’ these two buildings. I would hope that our feedback at least contributes a fresh perspective to what folks will eventually do with the buildings,” said Max Pollock, who was on the winning post office team dubbed “Korakowa.”

In the months following the conference, the Vanguards’ big ideas will help owners and stakeholders shape and resolve a vision forward for the two sites and surrounding areas.

“Next City is so thrilled to be part of Newcastle’s sustainable, equitable and accountable reinvention,” said Thomas Dallessio, Next City president, CEO and publisher. “Thanks to the support of LANDCOM, Urban Growth NSW Development Corporation, and the other partners and sponsors, Next City’s 2017 Vanguard Australia class will leave an enduring legacy of positive change in Newcastle.”

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