EDITORIAL: Taking a bit off the top

WITH a residents’ forum on Newcastle urban renewal scheduled for tonight, and a two-day state government planning summit taking place over the weekend, the government has confirmed it will trim three storeys from the overall height limit on the Hunter Street mall site.

The full details will be made public today but the office of Planning Minister Pru Goward has confirmed the maximum height on the mall site has been cut from the equivalent of 20 storeys to 17 storeys.

The government says this reduction shows it has listened to the public’s concerns about high-rise buildings.

It puts the new height limit on the same level as the roof of the nave, or main body, of Christ Church Cathedral, compared with a draft proposal that was three-quarters of the way to the top of the cathedral’s central parapet or tower.

Whether this satisfies the mall plan’s numerous critics remains to be seen. It appears that two shorter mall towers will keep their heights, and the government has confirmed it will grant the University of Newcastle an increase in floor space ratio for its proposed new 10-storey ‘‘NeW Space’’ campus at Civic.

The latest changes follow the release in March of a draft set of planning and development control guidelines, which were part of the government’s Revitalising Newcastle program unveiled in 2012.

But critics soon labelled the March changes as the equivalent of a ‘‘spot rezoning’’ that benefited the government’s own agency, UrbanGrowth NSW, which owned two-thirds of the mall site in a joint venture with the original proponent, real estate investment trust GPT.

UrbanGrowth, through its chairman John Brogden, says the critics have it wrong, and the state government’s plans for Newcastle – including the replacement of heavy rail with light rail – will ‘‘revive the dead heart of the CBD’’.

For one vocal group of residents, the future of the city does not lie with high-rise development, as the question posed by tonight’s City Hall forum – ‘‘could urban renewal in Newcastle resemble low-rise Bilbao’’ in Spain? – makes clear.

The Newcastle Inner City Residents Alliance was formed in response to the high-rise plan for the mall, and its message has reached some prominent heritage figures including ‘‘green bans’’ legend Jack Mundey, who is scheduled to speak at the forum.

But the need to drive the city forward means that more large-scale construction would be welcomed by many, and with an election in the wind, the government needs to get real runs on the board in Newcastle.

On the limited information available, the mall height reduction looks a sensible concession for a pivotal city site that needs height to be viable without impinging overly on its historic neighbours.