Why North Arm Cove’s ‘Port Stephens City’ never happened

This outdated sign from the former Great Lakes Council, located at the turnoff to North Arm Cove, is one of few clear warnings to prospective buyers.

THE GRAND development of ‘Port Stephens City’ at North Arm Cove (NAC) never happened, and in the century since passed, the question still haunts many: “Why not?”

The answer is manifold, including abandonment of ‘decentralisation’, more realistic nearby alternatives, post-war hesitations on spending, and fundamental environmental realities.

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Regionally, between 1911 and 1918, heavy investment was poured into the Port of Newcastle, which today is the largest coal port in the world.

The great hype around development of land at North Arm Cove, fomented by Land Limited and Halloran developers, was exacerbated by the connection with Walter Burley and Marion Mahoney Griffin, which also spawned the ‘Canberra at NAC’ myth.

Globally, the First World War (1914-18) blunted appetites for military spending, as did government servicing of the massive £364,000,000 debt to England, incurred while sending Australian troops to fight in Europe.

‘Henry F Halloran in Port Stephens’, a 2002 Port Stephens Family History Society publication by Yvonne Fraser, also suggests that the ‘deep-sea port’ was fantasy, as “various shoals, strong currents and a shallow harbour” made Port Stephens City appear much better on a two-dimensional map than in reality – all plans for a NAC naval base were forsaken.

In 1924, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works declared the establishment of another port (military or commercial) so close to Newcastle as economically untenable, officially sealing the fate of ‘Port Stephens City’.

Forty years later, then Great Lakes Council officially rezoned most of the subdivision ‘Non-Urban’, prohibiting permanent dwellings on most undeveloped lots, driving another giant nail into the coffin.

In 2023, the North Arm Cove Rate Payers’ Association renewed its community efforts to embrace “modern technology that can allow for ‘urban’ development without the need for sewer lines to be run in”, but still struggle to gain the interest of MidCoast Council, which holds critical sway for such attempts.

Major development in NAC would also inevitably necessitate expensive sewerage and water infrastructure.

“Port Stephens City should be noted for its historical significance, but it is really nothing more than a zombie subdivision,” North Arm Cove Community Association President Bob Reid explained.

“In January 1993, the Hon. Bob Martin MP, Member for Port Stephens, said it was finally time to develop a solution to the ‘nightmare of the 1919 Walter Burley Griffin subdivision’, and to ‘solve this planning mess in North Arm Cove’.”

That solution, much like the railhead and navy base, has never materialised.

By Thomas O’KEEFE

A still image taken from a 1983 promotional video, selling non-urban land in North Arm Cove with some very persuasive wording, and leaning heavily upon the Griffin connection.

2 thoughts on “Why North Arm Cove’s ‘Port Stephens City’ never happened

  1. We as a Non Urband Land Owners have the same rights as the Urband land owners ,we have been paying rates for decades with nothing in return .They told us that 15 to 20 years would be rezone.Some people passed away already waiting for a place to live;others gave up ,could not afford to continue to pay the rates ,with the high cost of living.So Council took those lands(1000+)in liew. With the shortage of households ,Council is keeping those lots in Land Banking.
    Instead the area it is a damping place for
    burned stolen car,iasbestos ,attracting bad people.
    We have a low environmental impact project already presented for the Council.
    We need the support of the Village people ,Council and State Government.
    Majority of us will need a place to live when we retire in the next few years.
    Please who ever read this please help!!

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