A massive underground car park, an oval shaped arts centre, canalside public space and more than 1,000 new student bedrooms have been revealed as part of a £250m Lancaster development.
Some existing overground council car parks would make way for student accommodation, including the potential for teaching space, while the retail and shopping offer on the site has been reduced to around 30 units.
A new planning application for the Canal Corridor area of the city is expected towards the end of 2018, and work could start in 2021, Lancaster City Council’s chief executive Susan Parsonage said.
The focus, says David Lawson, the council’s regeneration manager, would be more on arts, restaurants and bars, and public realm works, and the new scheme would pay a lot more respect to the “historic fabric” of the site.
But not everyone is confident about the plans and concern has been raised over the deal the council is aiming to strike with both the developer British Land and Lancaster University, and the risk involved for taxpayers.
Mr Lawson said: “We went through a very important decision on October 31, and what that has enabled us to do is to get into some more detailed negotiations with partners. It now means we can go and speak to some of those organisations like the Musicians Co-op and the Grand and see how best these organisations can be part of the process.”
Mr Lawson said the city council is “seriously considering” investing in the retail food and drink side of the scheme as a minority partner with British Land.
He said: “We’d expect to get a return on our investment at a minimum of seven per cent.
“We would then use the income of that investment to offset risks associated with the arts hub.
“We would effectively be a co-owner, in terms of the arts hub and the car park, but we still haven’t decided how best to proceed on that.
“We own about 90 per cent of the site.”
He added that the council is receiving “top notch” professional advice and is doing a lot of research on similar developments elsewhere in the country.
Anne Marie Harrison, the council’s economic development manager, said making the most of the former Mitchells Brewery site within the heart of the development was an important part of moving forward.
She said: “We need to be sure about fully understanding what the potential is within the building, and how it would work as part of the arts hub, with a mixture of old and new buildings.
“We’re having discussions about operational management. It’s a really important part of it, we want it to be absolutely fantastic, but the management side of it is really important too.
“We’ve been to see the Storey House in Chester, Home in Manchester, and British Land’s shopping centre development in Hereford, to look at how they have done things.
“It needs to complement the offer of the Grand, and we need to look at it in the context of the overall offer.
“In terms of the Musicians Co-op, we see a building that lots of people are going in and out of all the time in all sorts of different ways.”
The council recently received £300,000 in grant funding from Arts Council England to work up proposals and has also submitted a £4m capital funding bid to the Northern Cultural Regeneration Fund.
But Bulk Ward councillor Tim Hamilton-Cox said this was a case of “the goods might look irresistible but the price tag is conveniently smudged”.
He said: “There is cross-party concern at how the financing of the Canal Corridor development poses huge risks for the city council.
“Remember that buying out the 99-year lease of Lancaster market after less than 20 years cost the local taxpayer over £13m.
“This happened because retail changed and the market operation no longer fitted with people’s shopping habits.
“Yet the public had been told that after ‘extensive comparative research’, Lancaster market would be ‘the very best’.
“There are some great opportunities for the city council to use its land and its investment capability.
“It’s a shame that a retail-led scheme for the Canal Corridor – on the current terms – isn’t one of them.”
The Lancaster Guardian asked Lancaster University what its particular plans were for the development, including how many student bedrooms are being proposed, whether the university would manage the accommodation itself, whether it has any other interests in the site, and how much it intended to invest.
In response, Lancaster University said: “Lancaster University is supportive of Lancaster City Council and British Land’s plans for regeneration in the city centre.
“We are working closely with both parties to explore a number of concepts and this will be ongoing through 2018.”
David Lawson and Anne Marie Harrison talk through some key features of the Canal Corridor development
“The university is looking at around 1,000 student units and they also want some form of teaching provision there. The uni is seeing more demand for better quality purpose built accommodation in the city centre. What this means is you end up with more footfall, but more footfall at different times of the day and night. Currently the night time economy isn’t as good as it could be, so that many more people around would be great.”
“The amount of retail, ie shops, has come down, while the food and drink element has gone up. That said there’s still a demand for floorspace but it’s got to be part of the ‘digital offer’, so they have to be top of their game. British Land can see the potential in Lancaster, they feel it’s undershopped at the moment. There will be a mix of what’s lacking in Lancaster at the moment, high street names missing from the city. It will be around 30 shops, with different floor spaces up to 250,000 sqft.”
“We’re looking at a 786 space underground car park; there are currently 571 on the site.
“The site slips down quite a lot so it lends itself to a tier of underground parking, which means we need to look at the car parking across the whole of the city centre. A new pricing regime would have to be a part of that. The appetite is there for the council to run it.
It’s something we’ve got experience of and are comfortable with. For the council, the arts hub and the car park are the two main areas of investment.
We’re anticipating more cars, staying for longer, which helps to make it look feasible.”
“Residential is still to be decided. It could still happen.
What we don’t have is the ability to build high. But we aren’t going to rule (residential) out.
If you’re up on the canal the views over to the castle are fantastic and we don’t want to lose that. We can envisage one level spilling out at canal level, with open space and a park, and residential or arts. There will be significant public realm works - squares for events, plus something softer by the canal. It’s not really a high density, high concentration plan and there will be an ‘inside/outside’ feel to it.”
INVESTMENT AND BRITISH LAND
“British Land’s primary interest is long term return. They’re not a developer that has to make an immediate return. They’re interested in having a consistent return over 30-40 years. So that is good because it ties them into the city in the long-term.The more footfall they get through, the more rent they can charge. Lancaster University would use their own developer. They’d be seperate but linked.”
Mr Lawson said Lancashire County Council’s “movement strategy” for Lancaster would take into account the Canal Corridor development.
The Park and Ride also needs to be a part of this strategy, and we would see traffic moving into the site from Caton Road. Lancaster is on many people’s agenda. A lot of people are saying “it’s just Lancaster’s time”. We expect to be getting new businesses also within the existing city centre, and supporting our excellent professional services sector as well.”