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The Northgate

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Northgate Redevelopment Proposals II

St. Martin's Gate

Back to part I- New material (but not much) was added here October 2014

By the late Summer of 2002, Chester's people had read about London & Amsterdam's plans for their historic and beautiful city centre, and seen the so-called 'artist's impressions'- but were not impressed. Soon, the views of concerned citizens and organisations started to appear in the local press, such as the following:

An open letter regarding the Northgate redevelopment proposals from the Chester Green Party, August 2002:

"Chester Green Party objects most strongly to the Northgate development as it currently exists. We have rarely seen such a poorly designed proposal in terms of visual and human impact.
This is of even greater concern given the high level of heritage status of the City of Chester.
It seems the proposal as it is presented to us has evolved around the issue of money and funding rather than sound consideration of appropriate design merit and proper fundamental development considerations.
We insist you abandon this disastrous concept so we can completely rethink an entire new and appropriate proposal.
Our suggestions are:
1. Abandon this proposal. It fails to consider the enjoyment of all of this city and indeed undermines such.
2. Consider an appropriate heritage theme or themes that complement the existing architecture of the area. For example, a Roman theme to reflect Chester's past history as a major Roman encampment, as seen in the regeneration of Birmingham. Alternatively, a modern theme that acknowledges sympathetically the existing Mock Tudor architecture, again as seem in Birmingham's regeneration.
3. Take account of the value of the area as a unique city centre open space, the character of which we must retain. For example, the retention of a large plaza at the location is critical, again as can be seen in the Birmingham example. This is essential to avoid the claustrophobic atmosphere the current proposal you put before us threatens. This indeed is a main Green Party objection to the City of Manchester regeneration (Arndale Centre). Please take proper account of the Inspector's report on the Chester Local Plan in this context.
4. Consider the redevelopment of Birmingham City centre as a template for a sound regeneration plan for this most important area of Chester. For example, in Birmingham better use is made in linking the adjacent canal area as an integral feature and working component of the regeneration.
5. Give greater consideration to the mix of users of this location including tourism, shoppers and dwellers.
6. Consider access for all, including those with special needs etc.
7. Consider the adverse impact the proposal will have on the sensitive Cathedral grounds nearby.
8. Give proper consideratlon (o all means of access or restriction of such by certain vehicular use.
In any city worth its sait such a major project of this magnitude would be subject to a design competition for such an important regeneration to be judged with great care by experts and the people before diving in on a proposal".

Right: Can they be serious? Another shoddy illustration (£185 million at stake and you get a six-year-old to do the pictures) from the London & Amsterdam proposals, showing what is said to be a 'major' department store- but which looks to us more like a circus tent...

This article from Gerald Roose of Upton, Chester, appeared on 8th August:

"Before considering the implications of the latest proposal to redevelop the area at the rear of the Town Hall, it is useful to examine what has gone betore. Prior to the demolition of the original Market Hall in 1967, consultation about what should be built on the site revolved around retention of the stone facade backed by low profile buildings or a completely new construction. After a competition to decide what would be best tor Chester, I believe that retention of the market facade, an option which was favoured by the Civic Trust and others interested in retaining the character of the centre of the City, was the preferred solution.
What emerged, following a series of well-publicised artists' impressions in the local press, was a grotesque and intrusive frontage which was reviled both by locals and visitors for the next thirty years. Having followed the unfolding reports and illustrations relating to the current proposals, I feel that we are being led through a similar process. Also, having tried to determine the standard of construction from the information available, I have a dreadful premonition that history is about to be repeated, but (hopefully) without similar archaeological catastrophes.
Having raised these concems with Planning Officers at the two exhibitions relating to this project, I was assured that the proposals were being managed by "experts and professionals"; simiiar claims were doubtless made for the onginal development in the 1960s. However, the public (the 'amateurs') soon had their misgivings conftrmed. Have lessons been learned and has the culture changed sufficiently within the planning process to ensure that things will be different this time? If not, can we expect to be living with any mistakes for yet another generation?
At tbe first public Exhibition of drawings and blilding 'footprints', the amount of information as to what would be within the buildings was necessarily sparse. A questionnaire issued began with the loaded question, "Do you support the redevelopment of Northgate (area)? to which the answer could sensibly be 'Yes' because most of the buildings on the site are either new or low quality relics of an earlier clearance job started c.1926 (and sporadically since).
The second question should have been, "Do you think that what has been proposed will be a suitable (& vibrant?) asset to a historical City like Chester?" As originally put, we might just as well have been asked, "Are you in favour of virtue and against sin?" Nevertheless, having received sufficient 'yes ticks' to this question, it was reported in tbe press that the project had received considerable public support, in spite of the fact that not much information had then been issued.
Any new building which interfaces with the Town Hall and the Cathedral must be of quality materials and sympathetic to these and many other existing buildings around the square and Northgate Street. This is where the last adventure came to grief, to be followed by belated attempts to retrieve the situation by re-fronting the Forum.
All sketches so far released suggest a dominance of glass, steel and possibly a few sheets of facing board here and there. While this approach may suffice where frontages are suitably hidden at the rear of the development, an effort should be made to try and create something in stone which approximates to what was so enthusiastically destroyed 40 years ago. (This is done on the continent, and is an ongoing option in Germany.)
When this type of approach is discussed with architects or planners, the response is often to disparage pastiche and talk-up brave and innovative designs in concrete and steeL However, St. Werburgh Street is just an example of reproduction frontages, designed by John Douglas apd completed in 1899. Thousands of tourists visiting tbe city are very keen to see and photograph such reconstructions. This is in stark contrast to pictures of the Town Hall which evenually contrived to have the previous 'modern and innovalive' Forum frontage carefully edited out!
The present proposals include shops topped with apartments. Observation suggests tbat shops currently available in tbe City Centre are not all taken, many are becoming charity shops or home to peripatetic businesses which seem unable to stand commercial pressures and therefore move on. Before more retail outlets are provided, sureIy an analysis of the reasons for existing shops being vacant sbould be made? A case should then be produced to demonstrate how things could be managed to prevent the building of more shops making the situation worse.
The Performing Arts Center: There is a golden opportunity here to provide a theatre worthy of Chester, recenfly promoted by the Prime Minister himself as a paragon of North Western prosperity. The number of new homes being built nearer the City centre is steadily increasing and more are proposed. We have a large student population and a regular influx of tourists, so each week brings a different potential audience for a long running production. The proposed Performing Arts Centre is presented as a three room flexible facility in which capacity can be increased or decreased by the use of suitable moving partitions. Bare floor conditlons can be provided as required, or auditorium conditions achieved by bringing in seats.
I have heard it suggested that a new theatre in Chester should really be a modest affair and that anyone wanting to see a popular touring production will always go to Liverpool or Manchester. So far, this has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Conversely, when the subject of competing for retail outlets is raised, it is clear that acquiescence in a loss of trade to elsewhere is just not acceptable. I submit that in considering tbe cases for more shopping or a better theatre, surety it is not unreasonable to expect similar criteria to be applied? In short, if the proposed version is the best on offer, I am firmly of the opinion that it would be better to find an alternative site elsewhere within the City and build a conventional theatre with greater potential for the future.
Previous experience of large-scale long-term building operations is that shoppers can be frightened off. If people find that coming into the City is awkward or tiresome, tbey will just go elsewhere. Once the job is finished it might be difficult to entice the lost trade back- a brand new shopping centre but a shortage of customers (Catch 22).
We must be very clear as to why this work is to be carried out and will benefit. We are not dealing wifll a Milton Keynes or Runcorn New Town, where some deft work with a bulldozer would simply restore the situation to what it was forty years ago. Chester is an international historic tourist attraction. Tbe commercial advantages to the developer, the interests of the business community in the city, and, last but not least, the quality of life and aspirations of those living here must be very carefully balanced. That, I submit is the nub of the problem".

Right: The area behind the Town Hall and Market as it was over a century ago, in 1898. Within yards of splendid civic buildings existed a warren of badly-constructed 'courts' comprising mean terraces of small back-to-back houses, home to large numbers of Chester's poorest inhabitants, each court sharing a single common water source and lavatory.

Then, on August 23rd, we learned that the respected Chester Civic Trust had lodged its official comments about the proposed £185 million development with the City Council. Stating from the outset that the Civic Trust broadly welcomes the rejuvination of the currently-tatty area behind the Town Hall and "the investment and employment opportunities it will bring", but their chairman, Peter Bingham, nevetheless went on to criticise many aspects of the plans as they now stand.
"Our most fundamental cause for concern remains that the scheme fails to ignite the degree of visual excitement which we believe to be both necessary and achievable. The malls will not match the interest or 'feel' of the existing main streets. There seems to be no reference to our spatial analysis, Chester's Townscape Within the Walls, which highlights the subtleties of layout in existing streets and explains the architectural features that give Chester its unique character".
Mr Bingham said views within the development were "dull", the scheme was "lacking any visually interesting spaces, except Theatre Square" and that "there was an absence of landmark buildings except the performing arts centre. The skyline was 'dull' and the similarity of the upper facades of all the malls had a "dulling effect".
Dull, dull, dull... Oh dear.
Other key objections were:
• 'Unsatisfactory' proposals for traffic management
• Bus station too small, unworkable and too close to the residents in King Street.
• Multi-storey car park too tall and not open enough for users to feel safe.
• Question mark over whether library foyer is big enough..
• New Performing Arts Centre in wrong location and the barrel roof is incompatible with the internal layout and acoustic requirements.
regarding this latter, Mr Bingham cast doubt upon whether the concept had been properly thought through. "We would welcome some indication of what types of performance are logistically, acoustically and economically viable".
We reiterate our support for the Northgate scheme... but we insist that the design deficiencies we have identified are adressed for the benefit of Cestrians and our international reputation as a visitor desination".
In a separate letter to 'development co-ordinator' Sally Cuncliffe, Mr Bingham suggested the scheme- drawn up, naturally, in cosy partnership with Chester City Council- was being presented to the people as a 'done deal'. "Unfortunately, we have found the consultation process frustrating because it has been, to our minds, a briefing process from the developers and architects rather than an effective dialogue".

Veteran campaigners down at the Old Port, the Amphitheatre or along the old Deeside Railway *, to name just a few, will know exactly what he means...

Ah, but then, just a week or so later, it seemed that the Civic Trust became worried that they'd actually said something relevant for once, and hurried attempts were made to make light of some of their earlier comments, as the following letter from Mr Bingham showed:
"I must correct the impression given that the Chester Civic Trust is somehow 'bored' with the Northgate development proposals.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
We have been participating fully over the past two years by commenting at each stage of the planning and design process. We continue to do so.
There are many elements of the scheme that we support in the Civic Trust. We like the proposal to go for a mixed-use development including apartments, retail, library and arts centre.
There are other elements that we believe need to be reconsidered and reviewed during this period of consultation with the public. One of these is transport.
Whichever way we look at this scheme it is huge in scale and therefore we have to make sure that it is right for everyone, whether they live or work in the city, invest here, or simply visit.
It is 'risky' in the sense that there will only be this one opportunity in our lifetimes. It has to be right for the city in all aspects.
The Civic Trust has made its views known, as have a number of residents. I would ask all interested readers, if they have not already done so, to visit the exhibition in the Forum and make their own views known".

Remember, however, that just a few years ago the Civic Trust considered that splendid and, locally, much loved relic of Victorian industrial engineering, the Electric Light Building down at the Old Port as "not, we believe of any great architectural merit" and thought it would be a fine idea to erect a bunch of glass-and-steel office tower blocks on its site instead, to "provide a 'gateway' to the city and be a commercially stimulating centrepiece for the revival of the area" (thankfully thrown out largely because of a public outcry)- and later appealed for the retention of the Police HQ building near the Roodee- a structure universally reviled by (the rest of) Chester's people since it was erected thirty-odd years ago. And way back in 1987, they stridently opposed the only decent set of excavation and presentation proposals ever made- those of Tony Barbet- for Chester's much-abused Roman amphitheatre....

* And on the subject of CDTS, the formal planning application submitted by London and Amsterdam at the end of August 2002 for this masive rebuilding of Chester city centre states that "the total spare capaclty of all existing Park & Ride sites based on their current parking capacities is considered to be more than sufficient to accommodate the maximum additional peak-hour generation of 153 arrivals by car".

Which would somewhat seem to put the mockers on our city- and county council's increasingly-absurd attempts to justify the need to build the damned busway at all. Either a large property development company on the scale of L&A has got its figures entirely wrong on this or, as vast numbers of locals have been saying for years, local authority and business interests are trying hard to sell us a (hugely expensive) pig in a poke...
Perhaps everything is not quite so rosy in the Chester City Council / London & Amsterdam love nest as we've been led to believe..

Meanwhile, the residents of nearby King Street are up in arms and have started a £10,000 fighting fund to challenge many aspects of the proposals. This narrow cobbled street, containing a unique collection of 17th, 18th and 19th century houses, narrowly escaped obliteration sixty years ago as part of the Greenwood Development Plans when it was decided to send a new inner ring road along its course and out through an enlarged Northgate. This was later changed and the road made to pass through the city walls via the new St. Martin's Gate instead. Nontheless, the years of uncertainty had their effect and many fine buildings in King Street long stood derelict until a programme of restoration during the 1970s and 80s brought the street back to the attractive and affluent backwater it is today.
But now the residents are worried that a new bus station, moved much closer to the backs of their homes than the current one, and a multi-storey car park nearby will both devalue their properties and cause problems with pollution, noise and vibration.
Environmental consultant and resident Barry Johnston, who runs the Solartwin solar heating company from his home and whose six year-old daughter suffers from severe asthma, has initiated the legal fighting fund among his neighbours to try to get the scheme thrown out. He has written to the Secretary of State for the Environment asking for the project to be 'called-in' so the issues can be properly examined, possibly through a Public Inquiry.
Pollution issues aside, Mr Johnston is concerned about possible economic repercussions of the plans, "Chester's own capacity study is being violated. The large scale of the retail development will effect other retail sites. There are already dozens of empty shop units in Chester- I counted fourteen in the four main streets of the city centre on August 1st. While large stores and retailers are able to absorb losses, small retailers, many of whom operate on a profit basis of less than 10%, are unable to expand or increase productively their overall sales. They will have little choice but to cut back on jobs, premises or both".

Then, perhaps, there's the small matter of conflict of interest. Chester City Council, while cosily partnering London & Amsterdam in the preparation of their plans, is at the same time the planning authority which will determine if they will get the go ahead, and they and County Highways, consultees to the scheme, will be expected to profit handsomely by selling land for the development...

On 30th August 2002, among the applications for dormer windows and garages in the planning column of the Chester Chronicle appeared the following (somewhat spine-chilling when seen in black and white) announcements:

• Demolition of Bus Exchange, Princess Street, for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolition at Dial House, Hamilton Place, for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolition at The Forum Shopping Centre, Gateway Theatre and Chester Market Hall, The Forum, for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolition at 2 to 6 Hunter Street for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolition at land bounded by St Martin's Way, Princess Street and Hunter Street, for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolition at land bounded by Crook Street, Trinity Street and Hamilton Place for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.
• Demolifion of land bounded by Goss Street, Crook Street and Hamilton Place, for London and Amsterdam Developments Ltd.

Those who, in pursuit of information as to who these London & Amsterdam chappies may actually be, and managed to come across their website, will definitely be disappointed, containing as it does on its spartan single page merely its adress- Malta House, 36-38 Picadilly, London W1V 9AP, its phone number, 020 77734 5599, the names, 'Milton Keynes, Chester (apparently implying they've worked here before? Which they haven't), Bracknell, Hull, Murton' (wherever that may be- but not Amsterdam?) - and the following statement:

"London and Amsterdam are market leaders in retail shopping centres and mixed use developments. Our success is based upon always achieving the very best possible results. We work with leading consultants including firms of architects, engineers and planners, all expert in their own field. The combination of our joint experience means we can deliver our vision through the efficient management of the development process, to breathe life into great ideas"

About as meaningless and generalised a pronouncement as one could get, it strikes us. There is also the name 'Cygnus' with a logo of a crane or some such bird and the statement 'a member of ING Real Estate'. No links, no details or pictures whatsoever of such work that may have been undertaken at the above locations- or what their citizens thought of it.
Poor stuff indeed. These days, most businesses- and most certainly a 'big shot' development corporation such as L&A claim to be- are more than keen to blow their own trumpets on the world wide web. It's cheap, it's efficient, it's great PR. Why, then, would L&A's be so very poor and supply such extremely sketchy information regarding their past achievements?
And why, considering their apparent low profile, does Chester City Council consider them the best- nay, the only- choice for such a very important task as the redevelopment of a sizeable chunk of our unique city centre?

The Chester Civic Trust are not the only ones, it seems, to appear toadyingly anxious not be seen to upset London & Amsterdam's ambitions, as this letter of 13th September 2002 from Councillor Steve Davies showed:
"There have been a series of letters and articles recently criticising the proposed Northgate redevelopment scheme. As the city council's portfolio holder for development and regeneration I'd like to redress the balance.
I welcome Chester Civic Trust's overall support for the scheme and its recognition for the urgent need to revitalise this part of the city centre.
However, I must take issue with some of their criticisms:
• The scheme is far from dull. It has been designed by renowned architect Sir Michael Hopkins and Partners
• This is one development and therefore has common themes. Today's large-scale projects cannot be designed and built on an individual unit basis, although the shops and streets will have their own character and a variety of appearances.
• The traffic management proposals are not unsatisfactory. Professionals at developers London & Amsterdam, and the city and county councils have carefully designed them.
• The bus station is large enough and not unworkable.
• The developers are already looking again at the design of the car park in the light of comments received, but the objective is to build a car park that wins awards for its safety and dedgn.
• The library and foyer will be much larger than the existing building.
Chester Civic Trust has been privileged to receive over and above the level of consultation required of the planning process. Although it is not a statutory consultee, it has been party to a number of discussions with London & Amsterdam.
The trust knows that it is in no position to 'insist that the deficiencies we have identified are adressed for the benefit of Cestrians'.
The people of Chester voted for a democratically elected council tto make these decisions after consultation with them.
It is now in the hands of the planning board. But like many people I back this scheme for the economic, social and aesthetic benefits it will bring Chester.
The Civic Trust's views will be considered along with those of many others. It is not 'a done deal', but I hope it will be".

16th September 2003: Much has occured during the last 12 months- little of it encouraging. We promise to bring you up to date as soon as time allows.
We can report, however, that the Chester Evening Leader today reported upon the concerns of market traders, many of whom will be forced for at least two winters to trade out in the open street while the rebuilding takes place. The city council has granted ING Real Estates temporary planning permission (until March 2009) for market stalls to operate outside the Town Hall and Library.
This, however, was the first anyone had heard of a council/developer plan to chop down the fine young trees currently gracing the square in order to allow for the erection of the temporary market stalls!

Eleven years later! October 2014: This, for the moment, very brief update is just here to inform you, dear reader, that not a trace of the grand scheme is still yet to be seen..