In a RTPI blog in 2020 I referred to two examples of bringing new uses into failing high street spaces. One is a disused cinema, converted by Ktesius in Brighton into housing with a foyer on street level which will have public access, reflecting some of the qualities the original cinema foyer would have had. This project is now nearly complete.
The chain store identikit model of High Streets across the country is failing. The second of my examples of a radical rethink is the BHS store on Oxford Street, whose dramatic collapse would have been unthinkable once. But the building has revitalised: the rear half has become a food hall, and provides a valuable location for local workers and shoppers to lunch.
Of course neither of these examples fits into the neat use class typology of the planning system. Both needed strong willed entrepreneurs with vision to push the boundaries. The Peckham multi-storey car park is now Peckham Levels: a mix of bars, restaurants, art galleries, yoga studios and workshops. It is another maverick project, but is exactly what our High Streets need to kick start them back into life.
Can a market town revitalise its retail?
What is essential for the developer of a difficult high street site is to have a vision.
Ashford in Kent is a good example of a local authority-led initiative to improve its town centre experience. There are multiple actions: a new department store opened a few years ago on an experimental ‘square’ surrounded by carefully reworked streets with trees and lighting. Then the town centre manager helped the council to revitalise a failing shopping mall after the Council made a brave move to purchase it. As the then town centre manager Jo Wynn-Carter says on her Retail Inspired consultancy web site:
“Ashford Borough Council is a trail blazer in this regard: purchasing an ailing shopping centre and employing a retail specialist to advise them and deliver a strategy to halt the further decline. The Council saw the bigger picture, supporting the entire town centre and increasing footfall, dwell time and subsequent inward investment.” Source: https://retailinspired.org/
Now the Council has done the impossible again. Near the Station (for both domestic and international rail services) and several car parks are empty 19th century industrial buildings, several now transformed into a new destination. Buying the site then appointing an architect to develop this into something that would draw people was a brave intervention. The architect had experience in Peckham Levels to draw on, but could this city vibe be recreated in a market town? During the pandemic they used social media to great effect and also created a Vegan Market. Now fully open, Coachworks is a vibrant mix of co-working spaces, pop up shops, a community hall for hire, a hairdressing salon and a microbrewery, all surrounding an open sunny space of good proportions with seating and tables, lit at night. At the weekend in daytime the open space is popular for a family brunch, and the hall comes alive at night when it is used as a venue. It is convenient for an early evening meet-up for anyone using the station, but is also close enough to the new Ashford College campus and the town centre to ensure a steady flow of users.
Town Centres need good environments
In Creating Better Places – a book I produced with this title for the Open Government web site- I suggest a key component is bringing the environment into town. The cover image is from the heart of Paris just off the Rue de Rivoli, where carefully managed tree avenues give shaded vistas to connect places. See https://www.openaccessgovernment.org/core-connections-ltd/16276/
In the second of four videos about town centres and the pandemic (created in 2020 with the support of sintered stone company Neolith), the impact of experiments with road closures was examined. Good cycle connectivity with suburbs is important to an image of a 15 minute neighbourhood: schools, shops, leisure and parks all well connected by walking and biking routes to homes. It seems that some of the experiments might stick in the longer term, and meanwhile the quality of front garden displays has greatly improved. To watch the videos visit You Tube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvLEnWtJ0xo