Historic Changes

Regeneration & Renewal, 1 February 2008

Albert Dock, post-restoration
Albert Dock, post-restoration

Most people now understand the value of reusing historic buildings within regeneration schemes. But, after talking to experts and touring successful projects, Tamar Wilner finds that heritage-based renewal is still a tough road to go down.

What a difference ten years makes. A decade ago, good causes distributor the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) launched its Townscape Heritage Initiative to bankroll the regeneration of conservation areas in towns and cities. To date, the scheme has spent more than £170 million on 218 projects in 175 UK towns and cities. And that investment does more than regenerate: the projects leave us with a growing body of knowledge about how historic buildings can best be used to regenerate urban areas.

The new emphasis on climate change issues provides one good motive for re-using buildings. “Very often there are sound sustainability reasons for re-using historic buildings,” says John Stonard, Liverpool programme manager for government advisory body the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe). “You have to look at whether it’s worth throwing away all the energy it takes to make and transport materials, and to construct buildings.” Old buildings often waste energy through poor insulation, he says, but demolishing them and starting again is far more energy-hungry.

There are also plenty of better established reasons for retaining old buildings. Historic buildings give towns distinctiveness, says Stonard. They often relate to their surroundings more effectively than modern buildings. And they’re often of better quality, embodying good principles of urban design.

Still, the good news about heritage hasn’t reached everyone. HLF director Carole Souter says: “I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve talked to regeneration folk and developers and they’ve said: ‘The problem is that we’ve got these historic buildings in the middle of our patch’.”

This isn’t entirely surprising, because heritage projects are notoriously expensive. They may need extensive remodelling work to meet modern needs. Materials can be pricey, especially those required by listed buildings. And many structural problems aren’t identified until projects are under way.

Souter argues that higher initial costs are balanced by historic properties’ ability to command higher rents and to improve perceptions of entire neighbourhoods. When cities’ best-known buildings are given a new lease of life, she says, it’s obvious that those places are improving. “Historic properties are landmarks, and bases for people’s connection with the area. If you can start bringing them back into use, you say to people working and living in the area that this place is on the up.”

But Stonard says the financial problems with historic buildings can run much deeper. The cost of buying and refurbishing a building can actually add up to more than its final value, he says. “Particularly with small-scale stuff, such as terraced houses, people pay too much. These buildings have been neglected for a long time, and people don’t know what they’re dealing with. So they won’t realise that you may have to insert a steel frame, or that if it’s listed you can’t shove plastic guttering on the front of it.”

Councils need the capacity to advise developers on what is involved in renovating such properties, Stonard says. But he warns that even experienced developers can end up finding that a “conservation deficit” makes their project unviable, and need public sector help to balance the books.

Trevor Beattie, director of corporate strategy at regeneration quango English Partnerships, says it’s often a mistake to begin a regeneration scheme by tackling historic buildings in a piecemeal fashion. He cites Hull as an example. “If you started with the distinctive buildings there, you have a series of quite costly regeneration projects. And if you fund a (single) building, you are left with a long-term management obligation to keep the building going.” Instead, he says towns and cities must start with a well thought-out area regeneration plan that demonstrates how easier wins will fund heritage work.

Funding gaps seem to be a given in heritage projects, and the Townscape Heritage Initiative continues to meet a pressing need. But it has come up against its share of problems. Last October, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee reported that a quarter of HLF projects were completed late, and a sixth were over budget. It said that the application process was too complex. And it found that the fund had failed to test whether applicants could raise money from other sources, with three-quarters of applicants indicating they could have proceeded with less lottery funding.

Souter says that all of these issues are being addressed. The initiative offers advice to councils receiving funds to help them keep to a schedule and budget. The application procedure is being revised so that the amount of information requested is proportionate to the size of the grant. And as for applicants’ ability to raise cash, she holds that the survey results reflect the recipients’ determination to get heritage work done. “People say: ‘Yes, of course, we could do it without the money’,” she says. “Whether this is in fact the case is doubtful.”

But a bigger problem may lie ahead. From April next year, more than £160 million will be diverted from the HLF to help pay for the 2012 London Olympics; the distributor expects its annual grants to fall from £325 million to £180 million. As smart as practitioners have become about heritage-led renewal, they’ll soon have to get even smarter.

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The Albert Dock: Emerging from the twilight

Project: Albert Dock
Location: Liverpool
Reviewed by: Professor Michael Parkinson CBE, director of the European
Institute for Urban Affairs, Liverpool John Moores University

Liverpool Echo arena 400

Picture by The-Northshore via Flickr.

It was the bit of Liverpool that everyone said I must see. It’s been done up wonderfully, they said. So, eight years ago, this reporter began her first trip to Merseyside with a wander round the Albert Dock. And I was disappointed. What was supposed to be a revitalised public space felt dead, the shops and cafes waiting for the next customer to blow in like tumbleweed. It feels like regeneration heresy to say so, but my overriding impression was: “Is this it?”

Michael Parkinson assures me I’m not a heretic. “Albert Dock was the ’80s phase of Liverpool’s regeneration: heritage, tourism and leisure,” he says. “It made a statement about architecture and high quality public spaces when the city was badly run-down and tired. But it looked like touristification.”

Now, though, Parkinson believes that Albert Dock is coming into its own. And this hasn’t been prompted by any radical change at the dock itself, but by what’s going on around it. Immediately upriver, what was a car park for 20 years is now an arena and convention centre complex, opened last month. Across the dual carriageway that divides the docks from the city centre, developer Grosvenor is putting the finishing touches to the first phase of its vast Liverpool One retail development, due to open in May. When the second phase opens in September, ‘L1’ will offer 92,900sq metres of shops. Just downriver, more shops, offices and homes are being built, with the office buildings at Princes Dock, 101 Old Hall Street and Temple Square already fully occupied. “Albert Dock has been a building,” Parkinson says. “Now it’s a place. And it’s connected not simply to what Liverpool was, but what it is.”

The dock opened in 1846 to provide ships with loading and unloading space sheltered from the bitter Mersey winds. But with the advent of steam ships, the vessels soon outgrew the dock, and by the 1860s it was already in decline – a process that would continue for more than a century. The buildings were damaged extensively in 1941 bombing raids, and the dock closed altogether in 1972.

By the 1980s there was concern about the site among public bodies – including the now-disbanded Merseyside Development Corporation, on whose board Parkinson sat. It was at this time that Michael Heseltine, then environment minister (and now the chairman of Haymarket Media, which publishes Regeneration & Renewal), decided to act: “Heseltine said: ‘Let’s do up the dock’,” Parkinson remembers. “Did they have any idea of the dock’s purpose? Probably not, except that they couldn’t knock it down. It’s bloody great architecture.”

Parkinson describes the dock’s first phase as “museums and kitsch”. Regeneration chiefs soon realised this was insufficiently ambitious, he says, and tried to bring in upmarket shops. But that purpose doesn’t suit the dock. “It’s difficult for someone to say: ‘I’ll just pop across this six-lane highway and do some shopping,'” Parkinson says wryly.

Now, the pendulum has swung back. The dock is still anchored by museums: Tate Liverpool, the Beatles Story and Merseyside Maritime Museum were joined last August by the International Slavery Museum. In between lie souvenir shops and eateries, mixing chains such as the Ha! Ha! Bar with off-beat local offerings such as Circo, which advertises itself as a “bar/restaurant/freak show”.

During our Tuesday afternoon visit, the dock is far from swarming – perhaps because it’s raining heavily. Besides, none of these bistros seem likely to attract much business before 5pm. Parkinson says they provide a perfect counterfoil to the convention centre next door. “The centre will bring in business people. They’ll shop, they’ll sleep, they’ll eat.” And now, he adds, there are hotels to house them.

In Parkinson’s opinion, the Albert Dock’s revival opened the door to all these other developments – though he concedes its impact has been felt only slowly. “Throughout the post-war period, Liverpool didn’t have decent buildings,” he says. “The dock set a standard of urban design ahead of its time, and we’ve not been able to match its ambition and scale until now.” The convention centre, which Parkinson describes as “the best designed I’ve ever seen”, shows that scale. And its quality is matched, he says, by the Cesar Pelli-designed tower at L1, across the road. Towering above the Three Graces to the north, the 16 storeys of 20 Chapel Street also reflect a new sense of ambition in the city.

If the Albert Dock is now repaying the investment made in it 20 years ago, it is not a case study likely to interest private investors: only the public sector can wait two decades to see its money make an impact. And while its beautiful historic buildings provide a fantastic anchor for the new developments springing up around it, there is no solid evidence that the dock catalysed this resurgence rather than simply benefiting from it. Yet Parkinson sees the dock’s regeneration as an essential kick-start for a city then in the doldrums of recession.

“Twenty years ago, it wasn’t a matter of producing a masterplan (for the city),” he says. “It was: ‘Hell, let’s do something!'” With the regenerated docks in place as a symbolic turning point, he says, the young urban regeneration company Liverpool Vision was able to start asking questions about the wider city’s future. Then the city council started asking the same questions – as did the European Union’s Objective 1 funding programme. Around the same time, private developers such as Neptune and Urban Splash were beginning to realise that they could make money in Liverpool. Add that to a recovering economy and high public investment, and you have a recipe for rapid regeneration. “Ten years ago, people said we couldn’t (foster this regeneration), and I don’t think we thought we could do it,” Parkinson says. “We’d been talking about things like this for so long, and now they’ve just shot out of the ground.”

The lesson of Albert Dock, he concludes, is for cities to take stock of their historic assets and ask serious questions about how they should be used. “You must see them as a bit of the modern economy, rather than a mausoleum,” he says. The dock did its job eventually, raising the curtain on opportunities around it. It just took a few years to get there.
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Great Yarmouth: Fishing for Compliments

Project: Time and Tide Museum
Location: Great Yarmouth
Reviewed by: Duncan McCallum, head of planning and regeneration, English

A former curing plant, sensitively restored.
A former curing plant, sensitively restored.

“These schemes in small towns often struggle at the beginning to get noticed, get investment, and make use of what might seem to be fairly modest resources,” says Duncan McCallum. “But Great Yarmouth has restored over 90 historic buildings.”

The town, which was a bustling medieval port and a 19th century seaside resort before a long decline set in, has achieved good results by steadily renovating its historic buildings over a number of years, McCallum says. “Often, where regeneration comes unstuck it’s because of the focus on a single building. One of the reasons we’re quite keen on an area-wide approach is because then you’re thinking of the whole context of investing in the area.”

The Time and Tide Museum is a former herring curing plant, whose exhibits include the original smokehouses, a recreated Victorian terrace and the inside of a fisherman’s home. “One of the issues the town faces is trying to get people to visit and stay longer,” McCallum says. “Obviously, having an attraction like this is really important.” And by focusing on what makes Great Yarmouth unique, the museum is also a boon for locals: “It draws local people in to understand their town history and how their personal history fits into the town,” he adds.

The museum’s value has been boosted by the subtlety of its restoration, McCallum says. Visiting it, tourists and locals alike get drawn back in time. “What makes industrial buildings special is that they are quite modest. So the restoration you need to undertake is not a brash, ‘make it all shiny’ kind of approach. You want to carry on the piecemeal evolution of the buildings. This project successfully retains the gritty feeling of the place. It feels like you’re seeing the real thing.”

That the place feels so “real” is a tribute to its designers’ caution and sensitivity. Project architect Nigel Sunter of Purcell Miller Tritton says they actually had to change quite a bit. A couple of the smokehouses had to come down because they’d been so badly damaged over the years, and a number of walls came out to create spaces large enough to hold the museum’s exhibits.

But careful choices preserved the spirit of the place. One was to leave visible the marks of its evolution: for example, the gaps and fixings where roofs were put in, taken out and put in again. New additions such as staircases were made in galvanised steel, so it’s clear what is modern. And finally, the fish have been allowed to linger on: timbers have been painted with a special coating that seals in the arsenic left behind from years of fish oil – but lets the smell waft free. The town’s fishing fleet may have faded away, but Great Yarmouth’s herring curing plant has found a modern calling. This ancient mariner lives.


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