Peter V Moore Dutton Ltd Plant Hire
01948 663560 / 07970 417772

The Northgate

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Northgate Redevelopment Proposals

A second page was added here 25th August 2002

St. Martin's Gate

Chester bus stationIn April 1998, we heard the first of a city council plan to "Improve the layout and appearance of Town Hall Square and its surroundings" and a series of public workshops were held to gain some idea of what people would like to happen in the area.

Three years later, during the Summer of 2001, news started to appear in earnest about plans being drawn up by the council in partnership with developers London & Amsterdam Developments for the entire area between here and the Inner Ring Road.
The plans- far more radical than anyone expected- are apparently to include the demolition of the Forum shopping precinct and the Market Hall and the northward extension of Crook Street and Goss Street as pedestrian ways into Princess Street. Around sixty new shops on two levels would be created here with apartments situated above.
Also proposed is the complete removal of Chester Library in order to create a new thoroughfare, "providing access to a range of new facilities". Its replacement- planned to be much larger than the present building- may be re-located to the side of the Town Hall on the South side- the rear of what is now the Market Hall- and be on the first floor above shops, but with a ground floor entrance.

We've also heard an idle rumour that an alternative site for the new library could be actually within the present Odeon Cinema! Would this mean the end of cinema in Chester city centre? As the only local alternatives are those on the pub, restaurant and culture-free wasteland of the Greyhound Retail Park- or a flog up the motorway to Cheshire Oaks- we sincerely hope not.

Right: An 'artist's impression' of the proposed new-look city centre: the junction of Crook Street and 'Theatre Square'. The Town Hall is in the centre with Market Square behind it. Below is a view of approximately the same location today..

But then, interestingly, in September 2001, the local press reported that "the future of Chester's only remaining city centre cinema has been put at risk after planners threw out a refurbishment scheme". Odeon bosses were said to be "furious" that they were not allowed to "bring the complex into the 21st century" by replacing the familiar red 'Odeon' sign on the listed Art Deco building with stainless steel letters and blue halo lighting... Good grief.
National Odeon boss Richard Segal even wrote to city council chief executive Paul Durham in the hope he could persuade him to somehow intervene. Segal threatened that if he didn't get his way and the so-called 'rebranding' failed to go ahead, the cinema "could close".
The threat apparently struck home and the Town Hall backed down PDQ, allowing the cinema to do pretty much exactly as it originally intended.

And what is to become of the splendid, listed facade of the current library? Built in 1913 to a design by Philip Lockwood for the Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works, it long served as a coachbuilders and motor showroom and then, from 1973-79 it housed a lively arts centre, the Chester Arts & Recreation Trust. It was completely rebuilt in 1981, retaining the fine original facade, to house the library, which moved here from its original home in St. John Street. (The Arts and Recreation Trust never got the replacement facilities they were promised, however).
We're told that once the library was removed, the historic frontage would be 'opened up' to allow people to walk through the arches into a new, 'continental style' market hall occupying what is now the ground floor of the library. In addition, a few "well designed" outdoor stalls, designed to tempt people into the market proper, would be located in a "transformed" Town Hall Square.

The current drab bus exchange (illustrated above and left) is to be replaced by an equally uninspiring-sounding large department store and the present Gateway Theatre is to give way to what is being inscrutably described as a " variety store".
Hamilton Place, however, today a ghastly eyesore, is proposed to be transformed into a new public square, surrounded by cafes, restaurants and a new library and theatre. See the illustration below.

Left: a study in contrasts- the rear of the Forum, the Market Hall and Bus Exchange, behind which towers the Victorian Gothic Town Hall

In total, around 450,000 sq feet of new retail space is to be created together with 119 one, two and three-bedroom apartments with rooftop gardens built on top of two tiers of shops.
A 700-space multi-storey car park is proposed to replace St. Martin's House, the ugly former Health Authority building on the Ring Road near St. Martin's Gate and a new bus station and link road may appear in Hunter Street, with a link road on and off the Ring Road meaning buses would no longer have to use Northgate Street.

Needless to say, an extensive programme of demolition would be involved which would include not only the Forum but several disused County Council and government office blocks- thankfully to include the absurdly out-of-scale Commerce House in Princess Street (far left of photograph at top of page).

A 'masterplan' for the area was presented to councillors in October 2001 and an exhibition appeared around the same time. London & Amsterdam's 'masterplanners' and architects for the scheme are Michael Hopkins and Partners and Chapman Taylor. The former are responsible, among other things, for the Glynebourne Opera House, Portcullis House in London and a stand at Lord's cricket ground.

City council project co-ordinator, Barry Farnell, emphasised that no decisions will be taken until traders and the public have been fully consulted. "Something like this has got to succeed. We have just got to be careful that it fits into the character of Chester".

Right: Cafe Society- the rebuilt Gateway Theatre from 'Theatre Square'. Looks just like 'Cheshire Oaks' doesn't it?

But which Chester, we wonder? That of the Rows and Walls: the small-scale unique architecture and specialised businesses that people flock from all over the world to visit- or that of the corporate monstrosities seen in lesser cities throughout the country and increasingly here in Chester too, exemplified by Mercia Square, the Grosvenor Shopping Centre or, God help us, the recently completed County Court and car park on top of Chester's Roman amphitheatre?

On the subject of which, the entire area of the proposed redevelopment is exceedingly archaeology-rich, including remains of many of the principal buildings of the great Roman fortress of Deva. The aspiring developers commented, "London & Amsterdam undoubtedly recognises the very sensitive area in and around Northgate and there is a high probability of finding significant artefacts. To minimise any possible damage, a careful evaluation will be carried out before any work begins. The design of the various buildings will be flexible, allowing engineers to change the location of foundations and piles, depending upon what is found".
All very fine, but people still remember when the present Forum was built, resulting in the total destruction of the so-called Elliptical Building- a structure, so far as we know, unique throughout the Roman Empire. They also, of course, recall bitterly the needless destruction of the well-loved facade of the Victorian Market Hall.
One hopes that such needless vandalism will not be allowed to be repeated this time around.

On the subject of which, back in August 2001, eminent archaeologist Dr David Mason wrote to us, "I`ve been involved one way or another in the latest proposed development in this area for the last dozen years or so going back to the time I was responsible for overseeing the first assessment excavations in 1989 for the city council. Last year, I was commissioned to prepare an archaeological audit of the now much bigger area- basically sorting out which areas still have some archaeology left in them, depth and nature of deposits, historic importance etc. In general terms any development will probably approach archaeology on the lines of `leave it alone if at all possible`. Some excavation will of course be inevitable and, unlike the 1960s/70s situation, will be properly financed. As you know, most of the best archaeology, or at least that most displayworthy- the Elliptical Building and its adjacent bath-building (report recently published)- was totally removed c 1969 and large parts of the central portion are archaeologically sterile.

My main concern, and one I am currently trying to gather support for, is the disgraceful lack of any facility in the present or proposed buildings which explains the great historic importance of this core area of the city and what was found during those major excavations of the 1960s/70s/80s. This ought to be included for locals and visitors alike. Given the vast numbers of tourists who visit this part of the city it seems a bit shortsighted not to have a heritage interpretation centre here, perhaps in the ground floor of the proposed library and incorporating the tourism info centre and the little piece of the headquarters strong-room. Can you conceive of any other great historic city ignoring the cultural, educational and economic benefits to be derived from the imaginative presentation of its heritage?"

The shape of things to come was hinted at in a local press interview in March 2002 with the head of the city council's archaeological service, Mike Morris- an individual, to say the least, not exactly noted for his ability to stand up to the demands of developers and planners.
The article commenced with an assurance that "attitudes have changed, and legislation tightened up, since the 1960s... The mistakes of the past will not be repeated". (We recall him saying something similar on TV just last year, while ironically standing in the midst of of a hurried archaeological rescue dig brought about by Brown's/Debenham's unnecessary and unchallenged expansion of its commercial premises).
We got nearer to the truth when Mr Morris said a "pragmatic standpoint had to be assumed nevertheless. The developer pays for a 'certain amount' of archaeological work to be carried out which would not otherwise take place. But at the same time it is not possible to look at everything in the ground because it would be too costly in monetary and time terms which might put the development- along with hundreds of jobs- in jeopardy".
What rubbish. Does he seriously think London & Amsterdam, with a £185 million project at stake, are going to pull out because the city insiists that its archaeological heritage is treated properly- as it should have been all along if responsible officials had done their jobs properly?
"l think this is heading for an excellent result for both heritage and development interests" concluded Mr Morris, who, we're told, hopes archaeological investigations can be worked into the construction programme "to prevent delays"...

The developers, who are part of Dutch bank ING, say they could finance the entire project alone or in partnership with others. They claim it will have great benefits for the city and help to fight off competition from Cheshire Oaks, Broughton Shopping Park and the Trafford Centre near Manchester. The new retailers would pay business rates to the council and increasing numbers of visitors, apparently flooding into Chester as a result of the development, would also have a significant beneficial effect upon the economy of the city.
Reassuring us as to the quality of the new buildings, a company spokesman said, "It will not be a pastiche- a toytown, mock Tudor, mock Victorian edifice... The buildings will be modern, futuristic, and above all, graceful and elegant, representing the best 21st century architecture. None of the buildings will become dated and their distinctive lines will ensure that Northgate will remain visually exciting and dynamic for generations to come".

We don't know about you, dear reader, but, when it comes from the mouths of here today, gone tomorrow property speculators, what is it about that word futuristic that sets alarm bells ringing?

Left: Princess Street and the entrance to the new Market Hall.

We also wonder about the potential effect upon Chester's historic Rows of large numbers of businesses relocating into the shiny new development, 'competitively priced' as its units will doubless (at least initially) be- and free of the restrictions and maintainance costs of occupying centuries-old, listed buildings?

It is probably worth bearing in mind, moreover, that London & Amsterdam, much as with Scottish Widows and all the others who have dabbled with Chester's townscape over the years, possesses nothing at all in the way of local loyalties- nobody had heard of them until all this blew up. All they'll be ultimately wanting out of their 'futuristic' vision for our unique city centre, surely, is the money...
It is their intention to submit a planning application to the city council by late September 2001. Work could start by the end of 2003 with the development opening by the end of 2006 and completed by the following year.

Chester's citizens have long been dissatisfied by the ugly buildings, traffic problems and long term, apparently-wilful neglect of the area over the last few years and hopefully these new plans may result in a handsome, vibrant, people-friendly new civic space which will age well and of which we and future generations may be proud.
Without a doubt, many of the proposals sound extremely exciting, but, what with so much mediocre modern architecture springing up in our unique city- notably the recently-revamped but still extremely third-rate Forum right here in the square- and remembering past abortive attempts at large-scale developments, such as that by Scottish Widows and the laughable Millennium Wall project- it will be understandable if many Cestrians exhibit a degree of cynicism about the current proposals and leads this resident at least to reserve judgement until much more is known.

Of course, in many other cities of the cultural importance of Chester, major redevelopments such as this would be the subject of an international architecural competition- as opposed to a mediocre set of proposals presented to the people as a virtual fait accomplis by council and developers.
But then, this is Chester after all...

Now go on to part II of our exploration of the Northgate development proposals: what the people think...