Catching up on some recent (non) developments

My local city has seen two big redevelopments collapse in recent months. The first concerned an area of Winchester called Silverhill, for which there have been planning proposals and counter proposals for years.

The latest set sparked a big protest march [blog post by me] and Tory group rebellion, after the putative developers tried to push through a lot of unwanted shops topped by expensive flats, while removing social housing, a bus station, and features such as the re-opening of the marsh-draining ‘brooks’ that run beneath the area.

For a while, it looked as if the pro-developer stance of the council’s officials, plus a lack of inclination to act by the Lib Dem opposition, would see the development go ahead by default [blog post by me]. Yet in the end, Winchester City Council cabinet decided to terminate its agreement with the developer, on the grounds that it had not started work as planned.

While everybody wondered what would happen next, the council launched another ambitious consultation and architects’ competition for two areas flanking the station. These, it wanted to revamp as a new ‘gateway’ for the city, with a mid size corporate HQ (presumed to be for local employer Denplan), further offices, and supporting services (cafes and sandwich shops).

This sounded like a good idea. One of the two areas, the old cattle market, is a low-level carpark with an ugly ‘villa’ that used to house the Conservative Club in the middle of it. And the other is another carpark, anchored by a rather nice ex-register office ex-pub opposite the station.

Both look ripe for a creative project; and there is a real need for modern offices and serviced meeting spaces in the area, which could also do with convenience stores, cafes and small business to support the existing population and a large number of students due to move into new halls of residence just up the road.

In the event, though, only two architects got as far as drawing up plans, and neither came up with anything very creative. The preferred ‘option b’ for the station approach, for example, was a set of uninspiring blocks, with car parking underneath, tarted up with a few ‘locally inspired features’ (zig zag roofs and bolted on overhangs).

Even the council could see these were not going to be popular, and a full council meeting stopped the project this spring. Again, what is likely to happen next is unclear.

The two failures have caused some debate about what went wrong, with letters to the local paper, the Hampshire Chronicle, tending to blame locals for disliking new ideas or the council for failing to take effective decisions, and architects moaning about the competition set-up.

But the bigger problem seems to be that nobody is quite sure what whole chunks of the city should be for or how to make them ‘future proof’. The plans for Silverhill, for example, were drawn up when ‘re-opening the old street grid’ developments of shops, chain restaurants and flats were in vogue.

Exeter and Bath have made these work; but Winchester isn’t as big a centre, and since these developments went ahead there has been a financial crash, the rise of internet shopping, and Brexit.

Winchester is lucky to have an attractive High Street, filled with mid-to-high-range chains, and flanked by the kind of restaurants, coffee shops, pubs, art shops, and studios that most towns are trying to attract to make themselves into shopping ‘destinations’ as the boring stuff goes online.

Even so there are gaps; while the disliked, 1990s, Brooks Centre podium development gets emptier by the day. So more shops, particularly in a development stripped of social benefit, stopped looking like ‘the answer’ – if they ever were.

At the station, meanwhile, the approach project ran into problems because the council demanded massive amounts of parking – despite the ample opportunities for people to get to the new offices by rail or bus – and paid only lip-service to the need to improve cycling and walking routes into the city proper.

On the ‘green’ front, the offices also ignored climate change. The blocks didn’t so much as nod towards ideas on natural insulation or ventilation, or consider how the mobile revolution might mean that staff may want to get outside, hot desk, or mix home and office working in the future.

At some point, both projects will no doubt be revived; but it seems unlikely they’ll get anywhere until someone comes up with an idea of what a small city like Winchester should be for, how new projects can fit into that, and how developers and councils can work together to fund them.

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