What's happening to St Botolph's?
We've been keeping our mouths diplomatically shut since we moved to Colchester several years ago, on the subject of the 'Cultural Quarter'. We arrived at the peak of the boom when the plans for 'regenerating' the area were being optimistically displayed for public consultation. Like many projects around the country, it quickly became clear that the adopted masterplan - a typical early 00's confection of mixed-used perimeter blocks, retail ground floors and residential above - was based on figures that wouldn't stack up. (Sorry to the councillor who said the masterplan would last 200 years.)
Since then the site's been boarded up, with the odd fit and start that never leads anywhere - a rumour that the Premier Inn deal might actually come through - the decanting of the bus station to free up the land for development, the moving of a Heras fence or two. Meanwhile, energetic small-scale organisations such as the Creative Coop have scrabbled a foothold in cheerful temporary projects around the edge, on derisory amounts of funding (we've been involved in a tiny way.)
The forlorn no-mans land, waiting, waiting, waiting. (Bus depot in the background, waiting room on the left, the old Keddies on the right, firstsite out of view)
We've been spurred into writing this now by the news that the council are buying yet another site - the current bus depot adjoining the Roman wall - to add to the landbank that they are trying to remarket for the umpteenth time.
The bus depot built from the ruins of the burnt-out Theatre Royal
But remarket for what? The masterplan is ten years old, from an economic moment that has passed. We no longer have any idea - as citizens or as a local business - what the council actually hope to achieve any more. When the financial reality is so altered, what are their metrics for regeneration, for success? How are they deciding what is best for the quality of lived experience for residents, shopkeepers, workers and visitors, or for the future of the town?
It seems deeply questionable to hand a huge area of the town centre on a plate to developers without any idea of what you want them to do, because in that vacuum, you'll probably get the worst. The local paper was fronted last week with the story that £4.7m has been spent on the 'Cultural Quarter' without a thing being built - why couldn't the council find a bit of that to figure out what they really could and should achieve on this site and (god forbid) what the local community might actually want or need in these changed times? We've mapped the whole area building by building, floor by floor, for the St Botolph's Waiting Room project, but the council haven't cared to use this research. Why is the strategy for the area being outsourced to the developers, who have, at best, a conflict of interest between the needs of the town and their profit margins?
There are plenty of questions that should be investigated - maybe even projects that could be delivered on the ground - before the council spend yet more money on site acquisition. Do we really want a budget hotel towering over Queen St, with all the quality of architecture that will bring? Why doesn't the Keddies site get turned into a focal public space, which narrow, congested Queen Street could really do with as a lung, and which isn't found anywhere in the town. (OK, so it might not recoup the most 'value' to the council, but it might recoup 'value' elsewhere by pulling more people towards firstsite, the £28m art gallery most people don't know is there because they can't see it, by creating a better aspect for development on the rest of the site, by giving the skateboarders somewhere to entertain us now they're banned from the expensive Vinoly-benches. And public realm is a lot cheaper than buildings, or buying sites.)
Blink and you'll miss the £28m golden curve. Most people do.
The old Keddies department store, boarded up, to be demolished and replaced by a Premier Inn if the council has its way. Couldn't it become a public space - even just temporarily, before a development proposition becomes properly real? Can't we reimagine the process of 'regenerating' this area to be something other than 'comprehensive'?
Meanwhile the council are spending more money and effort buying up - and probably ruining - the best facade in the town. The bus depot is built up against the Roman wall, which from the south side exhibits an extraordinary accretion of strata from bottom to top. Patched up Roman flint and brick, medieval infill, some stuff that looks 18th century, certainly some brickwork that is 19th century and dates from when the bus depot was the Theatre Royal (yes, really), then on top of this a series of angled planes of patent glazing, corrugated (probably asbestos) sheet, polycarbonate rooflights, more corrugated sheet and more polycarbonate. It's beautiful, meaningful, industrial, historic - resonating all in one. It should be the inspiration for how to graft on new uses to this part of town, one layer at a time.