Maitland on the river: reinventing the regional high street
The city of Maitland in the lower Hunter Valley, New South Wales, is built on Wonnarua land. It is surrounded by Wonnarua songlines and sits along the edge of Coquun – the Hunter River. It is the river, with its supply of fish, water and means of transport, that anchored Wonnarua to the area and it is the river that attracted Europeans to create farms and a trading and commercial centre. The unplanned main street mirrored the curves of the river. The city grew.
In the nineteenth century Maitland became the doorway to north and north-west New South Wales. It was prosperous, with impressive public, commercial and private buildings. But their backs were to the river. This was practical: initially boats came up the river with goods and produce. There were warehouses for storing and packing. It also became symbolic: the Hunter River floods. The river is a threat. There were small and big inundations, and haphazard attempts to regulate the flows of water. In 1955 waves of floodwater rushed through the city. There were deaths, huge damage and piles of putrid mud.
In the late 1980s, in the name of revitalisation, the long High Street mall was transformed into a pedestrian only zone. The strategy did not work.
By 1955, building and growth in central Maitland had stalled. Newcastle had taken over as the main centre north of Sydney and, following the 1955 flood (a culmination of a series of floods that started in 1949), there was a downward spiral. Development restrictions were placed on flood prone areas. Residents and businesses relocated. Commercial expansion became focused on shopping malls located outside the city centre and off the flood plain. An extensive planned system of flood mitigation was implemented but there was acceptance that the Hunter River would continue to flood, and central Maitland could one day be inundated.
In the late 1980s, in the name of revitalisation, the long High Street mall was transformed into a pedestrian only zone. The strategy did not work. Retail premises became empty and shop fronts were boarded up. Residents were shopping elsewhere, and the centre had little else to attract them. The pedestrian only mall seemed to hamper rather than encourage visits.
There was one benefit of this flight from the city centre. Only some of the heritage buildings fell to developers. Maitland’s High Street, at least above the awnings, offers an architectural smorgasbord with the work of local and Sydney architects, private and government, on display.
This streetscape and, finally, an acknowledgement that the city is on the river and the river is a part of the city, underpins renewed moves over the past ten to fifteen years to revitalise the city’s centre. The aim is to see a reversal in the downward trend in residential and commercial occupancy, and the creation of a vibrant retail, food and cultural hub that invites residents and visitors to walk, view and experience Maitland’s history and heritage, and the vital place of the Hunter River.
At the eastern end of High Street, diagonally opposite the Town Hall, is the Maitland Regional Art Gallery (MRAG). Paul Berkemeier’s award winning addition to the 1909-1911 Maitland Technical College (designed by then government architect Walter Liberty Vernon) opened in 2009. It provides an eastern book-end for the heritage architecture that spills along High Street. At the western end is another, and earlier (1895), Vernon building – the Maitland Court House (with recent restoration work completed) and, opposite it, the 1968 Bunning and Madden Maitland City Library. The outside walls of the Library now host Walls That Talk, a regularly changing exhibition of images capturing current events at the Library.
By 2010, this main stretch of High Street was the focus of a campaign by the local Chamber of Commerce to pressure Council into funding a masterplan and renovation of the street. Key elements of the design development that followed included the creation of a modern public domain that would respect the town’s heritage, could be implemented over time, improve both the safety and utility of public space, identify suitable sites for future development, and integrate a carefully managed water cycle management plan into its urban planning and design.
McGregor Coxall was appointed by Maitland City Council to lead the masterplan for the revitalisation of the CBD, and subsequent design and documentation for implementation of the project. Working in public consultation with the community, the high street was rebranded as The Levee precinct, after the flood levee system built to protect Hunter River towns in the 1970s. Importantly, the design partially reversed the earlier decision to pedestrianise the Maitland Heritage Mall, transforming it into a shared zone that would build links between the street and the river. The aim was to carefully balance a robust design concept with the flexibility and adaptability needed to allow future development. The result is a regional town that is repositioned as a dynamic retail activity centre, where retail vacancy rates are dropping and the public spaces are increasingly used by shoppers, cafes and for public events.
The redesign of High Street required a careful balance between the existing nineteenth century heritage fabric and a contemporary minimalist public domain aesthetic. Responding to the need for this redesign to allow flexibility for future change the design is a long life loose fit. Parking spaces can be shuffled and swapped with outdoor dining as retail tenancies change. Smart technologies enable with free Wi Fi and the programmable LED lighting system allows the entire street mood to be instantly changed to support the new calendar of events and festivals. The street furniture range, way finding and lighting are all custom designed to complement the heritage fabric.
The result is a regional town that is repositioned as a dynamic retail activity centre, where retail vacancy rates are dropping
A key feature within the High Street redevelopment is the Maitland Riverlink Building, designed by Chrofi with McGregor Coxall. The building is both literally and expressively a sculptural gateway. It brings together, for the first time, Maitland’s rich historical fabric of its High Street and the environmental amenity of the Hunter River. It frames views both to the river edge and back to the street, inviting people to move freely between both.
It combines a covered central public space, public amenities along one edge and a restaurant along the other, inviting occupation and offering seating and shade in summer. Its form is bold and monolithic, yet curiously reads comfortably within the relatively intimate civic scale of this reinvigorated regional town. As such, it is delicately balanced to be both an iconic landmark, and “a part of the furniture”. Braddon Snape’s public sculpture Clouds Gathering sits at the edge of the building and the opening to the river. It contrasts with, and highlights, the Riverlink building and represents Central Maitland’s relationship with water and the river. It is the latest in a series of interpretive and creative initiatives along High Street.
Central Maitland is being revitalised. New businesses are opening and cafes and restaurants now have dining areas that face the river
Under the guidance of the Central Maitland Interpretation Plan, signs, walks and public art are being put in place. These invite people to move, look, see, learn, and engage with different sites and with aspects of the city’s past and present. “Look up” urges a passer-by to pause and appreciate the architecture of a particular building; Pavement Pioneers provide details embedded in the footpaths about nearby structures; flood walks and an app emphasise the reality and damage of flooding; the new “poverty and prosperity” walk will foster engagement with the textured and varied nature of lives lived in the city; alleyway projects have public art and street furniture adding colour and texture to walkways that weave towards the river.
Growing collections of photographs, objects, oral histories, art and documents complement the forms of engagement along High Street and the riverbank. Maitland City Library’s digitised collection Picture Maitland invites immersion in photographs of Maitland and the river, past and present. Its oral histories project records memories of flooding and living with the river. MRAG commissions exhibitions and publications that tell river and Maitland stories through images. Community managed collections gather objects that evoke Maitland people, places and events. The City Council’s current Open Museums Open Minds project is documenting all these collections and activities, and seeking different ways to embed items and stories in the fabric of the city. A trial pop up exhibition, Collect Maitland, was located in the Riverside Plaza, outside Aldi, in February and March this year (2018).
Central Maitland is being revitalised. New businesses are opening and cafes and restaurants now have dining areas that face the river. The Levee offers a user friendly and inviting core for High Street. Riverlink frames the river and encourages people to use the riverbank and enjoy the river. Attention is drawn to the heritage architecture that makes High Street sing with its history. Public art and street furniture are providing places to pause and wonder. Finally, cultural and community organisations are collecting, interpreting, displaying and telling Maitland stories in the streets, on line, and in museums and galleries. It is a beginning.
Joe Eisenberg and Janis Wilton are arts, history and heritage consultants.
Before retiring, Joe was the director of the Maitland Regional Art
Gallery and Janis was an Associate Professor in public and applied history at
the University of New England.