October 9, 2013

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.

9 Comments:

Blogger Marc De'ath said...

I too love the Bus Depot, I think it's my favourite closely followed by the Old Police Station which is also due for redevelopment. Both represent so much social history on a street that has been hugely mistreated over the years - butchered even.

The St Botolph's history project has just begun to scratch the surface of how amazing Queen and St Botolphs Street once were. So many incredible stories to build upon... and as you point out, a really interesting, unique hotchpotch of old and new.

Personally, I think we have just about enough 'fine grain' left for St Botolph's to be special, you know, in that way that cant be recreated. However, only if the right people are making decisions, the process is open and transparent and those responsible have a greater sense that they WILL be held to account if they get it wrong.

I have blogged about St Botolph's a lot and there is no hiding how passionate I feel about the area... but right now, we need action not words. We are running out of time.

You will notice I haven't posted on my Blog for a while. instead I am spending my days (and nights) with a few others, 'scrabbling a foothold' for people like me and you Hana who care about the future of out Town.

If we genuinely care about how this area is developed then I suggest you join us on the first Monday of every month for a 'Town Team' meeting where local residents, retailers and organisations come together. Not just to support the development of the temporary Waiting Room project, but to create its legacy, a community group that for the first time in this largely apathetic town, represents a cohesive, hard to ignore, voice of local people that care.



October 12, 2013 at 9:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hanna, I think you must have arrived here at about the same time as we bought our house in Priory St. on the council's promise of a regenerated 'Cultural Quarter' and a beautiful garden in front of the Roman Wall. Ever since then I feel as if I have been totally on my own battling the council to do something to enhance the longest, continuous piece of Roman Wall in the country and to regenerate the whole area, which has been totally neglected, in order to attract visitors to Colchester which, because of its unique history, should be a beacon of culture heritage for everyone. I have written letters to the paper, gone to meetings, had talks with individuals in charge of town centre planning, our MP etc and all to no avail. Some time ago I just gave up. Everything in this town is sold by the council to developers who just let buildings rot and crumble until they become unsafe and then can be pulled down for a multi-storey car park or a tacky hotel building to be put up instead. Look at the beautiful old Wilson Marriage house on the top of East Hill, for example. We had to fight to save 15, Queen Street from being pulled down.
Marc, I feel as passionate as you do about this area and I love what you and others are trying to achieve. However, when we are up against the complete philistines who control Colchester we seem to be on a hiding to nothing. I love living in Priory St, one half of which was destroyed by a previous council, but I do completely despair of ever seeing it become part of a regenerated, cultural, historical and important area of our town, somewhere that people want to visit and spend time in. Sorry to be so negative but as an oldie.........

October 13, 2013 at 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hanna, I think you must have arrived here at about the same time as we bought our house in Priory St. on the council's promise of a regenerated 'Cultural Quarter' and a beautiful garden in front of the Roman Wall. Ever since then I feel as if I have been totally on my own battling the council to do something to enhance the longest, continuous piece of Roman Wall in the country and to regenerate the whole area, which has been totally neglected, in order to attract visitors to Colchester which, because of its unique history, should be a beacon of culture heritage for everyone. I have written letters to the paper, gone to meetings, had talks with individuals in charge of town centre planning, our MP etc and all to no avail. Some time ago I just gave up. Everything in this town is sold by the council to developers who just let buildings rot and crumble until they become unsafe and then can be pulled down for a multi-storey car park or a tacky hotel building to be put up instead. Look at the beautiful old Wilson Marriage house on the top of East Hill, for example. We had to fight to save 15, Queen Street from being pulled down.
Marc, I feel as passionate as you do about this area and I love what you and others are trying to achieve. However, when we are up against the complete philistines who control Colchester we seem to be on a hiding to nothing. I love living in Priory St, one half of which was destroyed by a previous council, but I do completely despair of ever seeing it become part of a regenerated, cultural, historical and important area of our town, somewhere that people want to visit and spend time in. Sorry to be so negative but as an oldie........ Lorna Wright.

October 13, 2013 at 12:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't want to be anonymous but it was the only way I could post my comment! Hanna, you should get your piece above plus the pictures into the local papers... Lorna Wright

October 13, 2013 at 1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having tremendous difficulty posting. Don't want to be anonymous! Hanna, you should get your piece above, plus the pictures, into the local newspapers... Lorna Wright

October 13, 2013 at 1:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sure most people in the town are sympathetic to all you say, (not only about St. Botolphs but also the rest of the town). Why we never act on our misgivings about council proposals is a mystery. Maybe a lack of leadership? In recent years the only substantial effort I remember was trying to save the land between Coudray Av. and the river from developers. On that occasion I think the demonstration was lead by the Green Party. With the regeneration of St. Botolphs the lead seems to have been taken up by ...? Marc De'ath has had a go and by his recent comments still has a huge interest in the area and creating a community ...etc. All great ideas, are they any better that the councils? I don't know. Do they (Marc De'ath/creative Coop) have a political motive, much like the council. I would probably say yes, or at least it comes across to a layman like that. Marc, if you want to lead this and I sort of believe you have the energy and skill, then stop making this about what you want. Stop trying to create an elite of "creatives" and support the business and people already in St. Botolphs rather than creating competition.

October 14, 2013 at 11:24 AM  
Blogger Marc De'ath said...

I am often told that my motives are political or self serving or that I am attempting to build some kind of ivory tower for the 'Creative elite'. That's fine, I understand why people might draw that conclusion.

However, to be clear, my motive is simple. Like Hana, I care deeply about my home town. As a resident, I see it is full potential that is slowly fading away due to apathy, lost trust, lack of effective consultation and much of the power being in the wrong hands.

The St Botolphs 'Town Team' we have instigated with funding from a number of partners is not a political movement, instead it is starting at the very beginning. Taking the time to build on the fine grain of what we find, and yes, working with retailers, residents and other local organisations in the immediate area.

We hope to use the Waiting Room to draw out new community leaders, mobilise and galvanise those who want to make a difference and help them organise themselves in a way that maximises their collective voice as residents not politicians.

It's funny you refer to us as an 'elite of creatives' - because I see them as an 'elite of doers'. Brave early adopters who haven't lost the ability to imagine how things could be different. People the town should champion and people who prove time and time again to be the first to step up, volunteer and help make our town a better place to live work and play


October 15, 2013 at 9:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For me there are two issues here. Firstly whether you back the council's 'big bang' aspirations for developer led regeneration, or prefer the 'Town Team's' more organic approach.

Secondly there's the question of motive and agenda. Wherever you stand on the first issue I challenge you to come up with a credible argument that Marc's in if for himself. That's ludicrous. He and many like him are putting in the hours, rolling their sleaves up and getting stuff done for zero personal gain.

October 16, 2013 at 9:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

@ Mark, There are plenty of people who do things in Colchester, not just at the waiting room etc. non who are mentioned by you or this article. Okay, "an elite of doers" who don't acknowledge anyone else. Is that better? I still fail to understand how having a creative hub with a bar and shops is going to help rejuvenate the area. You pay a peppercorn rent on that building, and then run in competition with shops, bars and pubs in the area without having their outlay. Shouldn't you be using and supporting these places rather making more competition?
@ above, that's my credible argument. Why are you competing with our businesses with an unfair advantage?

November 9, 2013 at 1:34 PM  

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