Redeveloping Nottingham Broadmarsh
|An image of the proposals by Thomas Heatherwick Associates.|
The ruins of Nottingham’s Broadmarsh Shopping Centre resemble a film set for a post-apocalyptic world. The sight of it is truly shocking, but its history reflects the tragedy of so much urban redevelopment during the post-war period. The themes it encompasses are all too familiar: the replacement of treasured townscape with characterless, poor modern buildings and multi-lane highways; the subsequent realisation of what has been lost; and the failure of that townscape to provide for the needs of the present. What makes the Broadmarsh saga different is that Nottingham is now in the unique position of (potentially) being able to undo the damage.
This can be put down to the coincidence of several factors. The crisis in the high street had weakened the resilience of retail operators, but a massive programme of capital works to modify the Broadmarsh Centre was nevertheless under way. It was just finishing its limited demolition phase when the Covid-19 pandemic hit, halting works and driving Intu, the city council’s development partner, into administration. The council was left as the sole owner of a vast wreck.
In these days of urban living and cafe culture, it is easy to forget the parlous state that UK towns and cities had fallen into in the post-war years, and to regard the modern-day crisis in the high street as an existential threat to city life without modern precedent. Our cities are, however, about more than retail. As many will recall, when the Urban Task Force published ‘Towards an Urban Renaissance’ in 1999, city centres were struggling across an array of measures – the most marked of which was that people had increasingly chosen not to live in them.
Since that time most UK cities have enjoyed a rebirth, with vacant historic buildings converted to offices and flats, roads tamed with pedestrian-oriented public realm and vacant sites redeveloped for mixed uses. What has proven more difficult to tackle are the larger rents in the fabric: the shopping malls and urban motorways that were meant to herald a new way of living, illustrated so starkly in Sir Colin Buchanan’s 1963 report ‘Traffic in Towns’.
The Broadmarsh Shopping Centre was constructed by the city council with Town and City Properties. Designed by Turner Lansdown Holt and Partners, it covered around 30,000 square metres. It has been a drag on the city’s aspirations almost since it was opened in 1972. Replacing a dense pattern of streets that straddled the famous Lace Market Cliff, it reduced the dramatic change in levels to an anodyne escalator ride. Regarded as poor even at the time of its opening, it was flanked on three sides by new multi-lane roads.
Perhaps the most remarkable of its shortcomings was the face it presented to the south (the main route from the railway station to the Old Market Square): a pair of PVCu doors, not unlike those found fronting many a domestic patio, in a blank wall 100 yards long. This was accessed across a four lane contra-flow system. In terms of visual and physical severance it was disastrous, but the desire lines were fixed. You had to use it if you wanted to get to the city centre.
Prior to the Intu project, during the late 1990s Nottingham City Council had been keen to extend the shopping centre. It is perhaps indicative of how much things have changed that those proposals in their original form sought just to enlarge it along the same lines. This proposal was quickly seen as retrograde, and the new lease holder, Westfield, was engaged in discussions about a joint venture to both enlarge and better integrate the centre, looking towards the example set by Birmingham’s Bull Ring.
Unfortunately, the final plans were anything but enlightened in their concept, involving expansion over a further two city blocks and the creation of a sea of rooftop car parking in direct line of sight with Nottingham Castle’s lower terrace. It may be regarded as a mercy that subsequent events prevented it being built.
The significance of the site and timescales involved have meant that the English Heritage/ CABE urban panel (now the Historic England places panel) has advised on each of these iterations over a period of 20 years, more than any other nationally.
In 2004 the New Economics Foundation published ‘Clone Town Britain’, which lamented how our high streets had become identikit replicas of each other, with essentially the same range of shops in each. In less than 10 years this phenomenon had largely vanished. Already at tipping point due to online retail, the credit crunch and pressures on capital led to the demise of vast numbers of them, leaving large gaps in high streets already under pressure. Suddenly large retail developments made no sense. The departure of these chains has caused a seismic shift in town-centre commercial property management. Largely gone are the 25-year full repairing leases that used to set the standard. This has led to fundamental questions about how buildings are used and the quantum of retail floorspace that is viable. These issues speak directly to the future function of our town centres and what we want of them.
The Broadmarsh re-imagined
The challenges that the redevelopment the Broadmarsh present to Nottingham City Council cannot be over-stated. Balancing the various fiscal, political, legal and design considerations among a host of others is something few local authorities have been equipped to do for some time. This is not the type of site that can simply be sold and left to the market to deliver. Among other things it is essential to Nottingham’s prosperity that safe routes across the site are reinstated as soon as practical. Added to this, generations of Nottingham residents (myself included) have indulged in pipe dreams about building anew, and now, almost unbelievably, the chance has arrived.
The council has stepped up. Perhaps the earliest demonstration that it meant business was when it secured £25 million in funding from D2N2, (the local enterprise partnership) to demolish the western half of the shopping centre, something that would have been unthinkable even five years ago.
This has coincided with a flurry of suggested proposals from a variety of local sources. Perhaps the best known are Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust’s proposal to re-wild the area and conservation architect Peter Rogan’s sensible suggestion to simply reinstate the lost routes and block structure. Such has been the level of interest, news of it even crossed the Atlantic, with a big article in the New York Times.
To get a handle on the debate, the city launched its excellent Big Conversation on the Storymap platform. Using archive illustrations and photographs, this has presented the fascinating history and significance of the area to the general public in an accessible way that reveals the challenges and opportunities that the site represents. It resulted in over 3,000 responses.
Nottingham has a strong creative culture, and the Nottingham Project, funded by Arts Council England, provides a capacity beyond that of the city council to convene conversations about the city’s future. Its chair, Greg Nugent, also now chairs the Broadmarsh design and delivery advice panel, a group of local stakeholders and national experts. This commissioned a vision for the site from Thomas Heatherwick Associates, best known for Coal Drops Yard in London, and the controversial Garden Bridge project.
Heatherwick unveiled his vision at a high-profile event at Nottingham College City Hub in December. Overall, it represents a refreshing level of aspiration for the city, but largely it defines rather than responds to its context. This is intentional: the thought of simply reinstating the lost urban structure has been dismissed as insufficient for the city’s needs.
The proposal would introduce a mixture of homes, offices and shops, with the addition of a boutique ‘art hotel’ in a retained Severns House, the unlovely office building which sits opposite Caruso St John’s flamboyant Nottingham Contemporary.
Redevelopment of the western part (including the old People’s College site) is set against retention of the concrete frame on its eastern side, to be populated with structures that will sit within it. This chimes with the city council’s ambitious carbon neutral 2028 pledge, but also recognises the inherent difficulties in redeveloping this area, which accommodates the greatest changes in level. If this proves feasible, it could be a truly epoch-defining piece of design.
The opportunity for an entrance that does justice to Nottingham’s City Of Caves visitor attraction, a set of scheduled rock-cut caves dating from the medieval period, is a tantalising prospect, as is the desired reinstatement all the main historic routes on the site. Perhaps the most questionable part of the vision is the central public space. Described as equivalent in size to the Old Market Square, the extent to which this can be activated, and thus be made safe, is a moot point, and the profusion of planting that forms such a key motif of it will require a great deal of maintenance. The size of the space has perhaps also influenced the height of some of the buildings near to the Castle, which may prove controversial.
This intriguing vision is unquestionably a product, perhaps a blend, of the many aspirations for the site, and the chorus of approval from many quarters seems to confirm this. Does this equal successful place making? Time will tell.
This article originally appeared as ‘From the ruins of Nottingham Broadmarsh’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 171, published in March 2022. It was written by Clive Fletcher, principal advisor and lead specialist (historic places) with Historic England.
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