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The re-design of city centres post Covid-19

Hammersmith Town Hall - CGI of restored interior, entrance hall (RSH+P)

Future Cities Forum invited Cllr Cowan, Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council along with Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Historic England, Liverpool BID and the BID Association, Yoo Capital and Chapman Taylor, to discuss the development of city centres and high streets post pandemic.

The event asked questions about the importance of preserving heritage while adapting buildings in city centres for modern-day use, and which master plans will be successful in bringing people back to shopping centres and the high street.

The first of our topics looked at the development of the town hall, which has been a focus of civic life since medieval times in England. What role can the town hall play for the community and for business today? The Grade II listed Hammersmith Town Hall which was built in 1938 but was then hidden behind a five story extension in the 1970s is undergoing a transformation based on what local people want to see.

The new Civic Campus, which replaces the existing Hammersmith and Fulham Town Hall extension and adjacent large cinema site, is located at the West of King Street in Hammersmith's town centre. RSHP describes the scheme as 'ruthlessly inclusive' and 'zero harm' stating that it will breathe new life into the King Street area and reinvent the concept of the Town Hall to make it exciting and relevant for the people it serves.

The mixed-use development, including a contemporary intervention to the existing Grade 11-listed Town Hall building, creates a a community hub with flexible office and start-up workspaces and 204 residential dwellings offering 52% shared ownership and social rent homes for local people. All the architecture and materials are of the same quality regardless of tenure. The scheme also provides homework space for young people, a new cinema and orchestra performance space, a public roof-top bar and cafe, public art gallery, and a new public square connecting with the riverside.

RSHP's Civic Campus project includes cutting-edge sustainable technology in its design. Extensive stakeholder engagement throughout all project stages demonstrates the community focus of the scheme, consulting closely with residents through a range of methods. One of the council priorities is 'doing things with residents, not to them'. This innovative community engagement through the Town Hall Commission and Disabled People's Commission and attendants of the public exhibitions, led to planning and listed building consent by unanimous vote at committee with no public objections. Accessibility issues were raised before plans were submitted - and robust, time and cost-effective solutions found early in the process.

Cllr Stephen Cowan, Leader of Hammersmith and Fulham Council explained:

'We spent a lot of time asking what we should do. There has always been a strong relationship between government and community and we have set an exciting industrial strategy for STEM and the arts to benefit the borough.

'What does a town hall look like? They have been bunkers with the people who work in them isolated from residents and there has been little contact consulting with the community other than tick box consultation. So we decided to ask how within architecture we can change that? For a start the central courtyard at Hammersmith Town Hall was little more than a car park with lots of litter.

'But democracy is sacred and we shouldn't be taking it for granted. We inherited a bad deal in our second scheme and we wanted a new start. There was informed outrage, so we asked leaders of the campaign against the second scheme to work with us. We also spoke to Richard Rogers about putting a Reichstag style box in the middle. He suggested a tendering process, so we worked with that and included dis-enfranchised groups such as disabled people. We talked through different options with Rogers Stirk Harbour about putting in an orchestra pit, art gallery and sky bar - also somewhere kids could do homework.

'We have also been talking to some of those big businesses at the centre of STEM. Novartis is moving into the borough and its employees will need somewhere to live, so we need to build affordable housing and deliver it because we want to blend economic activity with a range of people living here from corporate employees to students to create a balanced healthy society.

'We also want to create places around the town hall where people will like to meet and have fun, but some places have become boring - almost like British food in 1950s - so we need beautiful spaces to be created. We also want to reach people from the inside of the town hall and people walking past will be able to see the Alfred Daniels murals from King Street, so our heritage will shine out and touch peoples' souls.'

Mark Rintoul has been the project architect at RSHP and he described the practice's approach to creating a new set of proposals for the town hall:

'It wasn't the case of re-writing the rule book but being pioneering. We were introduced to 30 plus community groups who became part of the design team. Every aspect and detail became part of an exemplar approach to inclusive design.

'Heritage has to be balanced against new design, so we worked with Historic England to create that. It was a case of taking away the 1970s extension, activating all the frontages of development and reconnecting to King Street. We want to extend the town hall boundary by working to create places around it where hopefully things like pop-up markets will appear and use the lessons we have learned about street furniture and way finding that provide inclusivity. There will be 52 per cent ratio of affordable housing and space for local creative business.'

On the subject of preserving the heritage of buildings while modernising for current use, Duncan Wilson, Chief Executive of Historic England felt that it was possible to have the best of both worlds:

''Heritage is so important in defining a place and heritage will not be there, if we don't adapt it. It has to be sensitive, not just a series of things that land. Not all heritage is listed and we can if the need is justified change listed things. There is a process to identify the most precious features so keeping a remarkable character. Town hall schemes can be and are very different. Hackney is an example of where the old and new have worked together. Hammersmith is a good exemplar of constructive dialogue where a building adapts to modern needs, and this is important, otherwise they won't succeed and then they end up derelict and need rescuing. Now Hammersmith has a brand new sustainable future.'

Shepherd's Bush Market stalls today

Historic markets are another important feature of thriving city districts, so we asked our panel how they can be preserved and adapted to remain relevant?

Yoo Capital has started work to renovate the 19th century Shepherd's Bush market in Hammersmith and has also been consulting with the community. Managing Partner Lloyd Lee gave a picture of how his investment firm goes about the process:

'The way we approach every project is about tapping into the individual story of the place. If you don't do that you find that every high street looks the same - it has all been copied and pasted too many times. People fear losing the original story and in Shepherd's Bush market that means the story of its late 19th century origins and the 1950s developments, so we work with that and don't paste over it.

'All collective voices make the original story special. Among the market traders there will be those who remember that their great grandfather was there and want it to be restored to how it was, and the problem is that it has become cluttered, so they asked us to look at this, to bring back the original character.

Start up businesses want to be part of a community, so in Shepherd's Bush Market they want spaces where they can chat to the next business across the hall and they want to convey the image of what they are about, shared thinking, shared ideas. They love being part of the 'Victorian fathers' who invented in those spaces, so as innovators they feel at home. The community can represent your corporate ideas better than a glass building on a block can.'

Preserving the heritage of Coventry has been an essential ingredient in Chapman Taylor's new mixed-use retail master plan for City Centre South, Coventry. The scheme, which has planning permission, will upgrade several areas such as Bull Yard, Shelton Square, city Arcade and Hertford Street, which will make the city a significant shopping and leisure destination in the West Midlands. The whole scheme will connect the city's much-loved circular market with the rest of the centre, with the aim to have the development open for business by 2026.

The development proposal includes up to 50 new retail units, a number of new public realm spaces, a pavilion containing independent and start-up retailers and restaurants, a premium cinema and other leisure uses, new restaurants, private rented residential accommodation and a hotel.

Coventry City Centre South - CGI aerial view (Chapman Taylor)

Project Architect, Daniel Morgans commented how people may be attracted back to the city centre or high street if master plans help to unclutter some of the over-built environments from bad decisions taken in the 1970s:

'We can't predict the future but it is about reconnecting to the historical past and recognising why Coventry is special and why some of the buildings are listed. The form they create is worth preserving. It is almost going back to Gibson's master plans as well as the medieval plans of the city. The trouble is the way the building of the 1970s has got in the way. The construction blocks the city and prevents good public realm. We need to open up the spaces to allow experimental brands to come in and provide community meeting places. In City Centre South, Coventry, the public realm picks up the structure of the medieval walls and we have opened up the structure for businesses too, so that we will be creating a city centre resurgence with a mixed environment. There will always be activity and things going on and you don't necessarily need a car, you can walk.'

Duncan was asked about funding the restoration of important heritage sites for the survival of cities and their high streets and whether at the moment with the effect on the economy from Covid, it was still possible:

'We have been working on The Burges in Coventry and there is a big role for public sector and the Lottery here. If we start others follow. In fact we have put several million pounds into Coventry's street regeneration in various parts of the city. Originally shopkeepers saw it as disruptive but have now entered into match funding and engaged with the scheme. Peoples' image of Coventry is probably ring roads but there is a lot of medieval Coventry still left, often behind cement render. We can give it a new lease of life. There will be sceptics and we may not be able to do everything because of cost, but the evidence of our investment has started to create momentum. There is a realisation that historic buildings are not just a liability but make places where people want to be.

'On high streets and residential density, it is important to say that people come to high streets because they are public places and we don't want to turn them into private realm. We are concerned about permitted development rights and the spaces above shops that can be turned into flats. Long term we want city centres to engage with people in more positive ways.'

Bill Addy, Chair of the BID Association (Business Improvement Districts) and Chief Executive Liverpool BID described how Liverpool has lost some of its rich architectural heritage since medieval times and is facing a new challenge about its (historic docks) UNESCO world heritage status:

'Liverpool has grown since 13th century and it has grown because of its river and transport. We have lost a lot of historic buildings through the second world war and we had a clean slate in 60s, but some of that hasn't worked. Fortunately we had £1 billion pounds of investment put in to build Liverpool One and it was an investment for the long term, enabling the new shopping centre to connect to the waterfront. It is an open shopping centre that uses original streets to connect and it looks organic.

'The on-going questions are how do you curate the place, who owns the city and the big chunk of retail there, pension funds or sovereign wealth funds? Stakeholders who work and live there should come together to have their say. '

Future Cities Forum will be releasing its longer report on city centres and high streets soon.






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