Planning Application: P10/1429 Proposed Redevelopment of Crown Centre Stourbridge
Dear Chairman and Members of the Planning Committee,
With apologies for this direct approach, I had intended to register to speak in objection to the above Application at this coming Monday’s Committee Meeting, but found upon telephoning to do so that I had inadvertently missed the 10.00 am deadline to do so, which I accept has to be a firm deadline. I have been trying to access the Planning Officer’s report since notification of the Committee date was received, but for some reason the link to Committee Information from the Planning & Environment pages of the website has been inoperative since. I have only this morning seen sight of the report having been directed to it via alternative route by a Planning administrator by ‘phone. Feeling to be something of a single voice on this matter I was well prepared to ‘put my head above the parapet’ to have my opinions heard in the greater public domain.
I have made personal representation regarding this Application at Public Consultation stage where I am afraid to say my constructive comments were quite evidently unwelcome, and following the submission of the Application and my detailed analysis of the proposals by letter of objection. As a Chartered Architect running a Registered Practice in Stourbridge, with not insignificant retail experience over the last 25 years I feel I am well placed to speak objectively and professionally on this matter. Not withstanding that, I am a lifelong resident of Stourbridge and understand the needs of the Town. Had i had the opportunity to speak, the content would be as follows:
My objections are not based on the principle of redevelopment, I could not agree more that this is overdue. Despite the previous Developer of the Crown Centre now being one of my Clients, I am not afraid to say that the Development failed from an Urban Design perspective and is as stated very much ‘of its time’
My objections are not based on the inward investment into the Town, this is very welcome.
However, my objections are based on the fact that Stourbridge will become, if this scheme is Approved in its present form, a victim of commercial retail efficiency. A very large standard retail foot print has been imposed on the urban fabric of the town with very little apparent site specific consideration. Retailers such as Tesco have had a relatively easy ride over previous decades and retail footprints such as this could easily be adopted for the many out of town and edge of town A1 Food retail developments that occurred and where the development could be designed as a ‘stand alone’ building in its own right, I was personally involved with such schemes for another supermarket chain along the A3 corridor. Even the previous proposals for Angel Triangle in Stourbridge and the realised proposal in Cradley had sites which allowed this to happen. The current proposal however sits within the Urban grain that constitutes Stourbridge Town Centre and for it to succeed Architecturally and as an exercise in Urban Design a different approach must be taken. I have worked directly for retailers and supermarket chains and am aware of the pressures that can be imposed on their designers with standardised design manuals and the like.
It is not appropriate for such large scale development to be allowed to pay the ‘lip service’ that it does to our streetscapes. The Planning Officer’s report infers that active frontages have been achieved; this is simply not the case. Whilst a variety of materials can break down the apparent scale of a building, they do not increase activity or vibrancy. Nor in the instance of Bath Road do wider footpaths and planting increase activity; similarly the glazing in the revised proposals, which will be at a high first floor level simply will do nothing to increase active frontage at street level. there are windows at this level in the existing building; I doubt that few passers by even acknowledge their existence, similar to first and second floor activity in the High Street, it is above the focus and attention of the man in the street. I note in the Design & Access statement submitted by the Applicant that the Planners have advised them that the elevation fronting Bell Street, albeit somewhat removed from the pavement edge is considered to be a principle elevation; quite right, it is indeed the first impression visitors using motor vehicles will have of the development: the Developer’s response, to propose the use of large scale metal cladding panels: cheap and not even cheerful, a material which is quite inappropriate on this scale for Town Centre development; had it been on the Angel Triangle site, a stand alone building, it would be a different matter, but not in a location where it needs to assimilate with the existing grain and scale of the Town. Instead of having active frontages I have the temerity to describe the current proposal as ‘a beast with three backs’
Vital links across the site are to be lost due to the design of the Development. As someone who has had to relinquish my driving licence through health reasons late last year, I have over the last few months been doing far more walking, no longer able to rely on my cars. The importance of connectivity within a Town Centre has been made that much more acute as a consequence; carrying my weekly shop home for example has made me very grateful for routes I would not otherwise have used. Hopefully I will be able to drive again shortly, but I have used the experience constructively and will certainly place less reliance on cars in the future; the development however is very ‘carcentric’ and links badly to the main residential areas of the Town from a point of view of pedestrians.
The current proposal for the elevations around the Town Square are sadly far less than the proposals discussed with the Planners pre Application as described and shown in the Design & Access statement. Diluted, and lacking in aesthetic quality is how I would describe the current proposal. Stourbridge has a chronology of fine buildings from over the Centuries; given the scale and impact this development will have, there is every reason to demand commensurate quality from the Developer. This is all the more relevant considering the sites juxtaposition with Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas
I have attempted to engage the Planning Department constructively over the duration of the Application, I followed up my objection with e-mail to the Officer direct. Suggestions regarding the fundamental setting out of the building could see this Development a success in every way; for the Developer, for the people of Stourbridge, for the environment and for the urban integrity of the Town. There seems however to be a desperation to accept the redevelopment as if it is a ‘last chance’. The Developer has demonstrated commitment to the Town and is hardly likely to walk away now, the Town needs the Developer, but that alone should not be a reason to allow them to inflict a poor quality development upon us. I made reference in my objection to the Tesco development in Ludlow; a relatively smaller development by some percentage, but the Planning Committee there had the temerity to dictate to Tesco the level of quality that was required, and were successful in that respect; a refusal developed into an open design competition which resulted in an award winning building that compliments and adds to Ludlow’s urban fabric and is of the quality of the historically retained buildings elsewhere. The proposal for Stourbridge simply compromises it, the fact that it is massive in comparison to Ludlow is all the more reason to hold out for the quality required.
Simple fundamental suggestions which could transform the proposals could include:
• Position of retail trading floor at Bath Road grade level; the developer is already committed to a mezzanine and travellators and there is no reason why that level could not be entry level. Many examples of supermarkets on the continent take this format.
• Such location of the trading floor would allow a true active frontage to Bath Road and the mezzanine level would sustain activity at Town Square level
• Such location of the trading floor would allow an entrance to the store on Bath Road itself, again enhancing activity and vitality. This would serve both pedestrians and potentially those using public transport for some of the bus services at least could have a lay-by bus stop on this side of the road
• Such location of the trading floor would give protection to the retained subway that the Developer has audacity to suggest could be a ‘secured by design’ issue after their development has made it worse! An entrance here would actually make a new grade level crossing viable and allow the subway to be removed…
• Such location of the trading floor would remove necessity for the service yard to be artificially elevated as is the case with the current proposals and would therefore reduce the necessary height of its enclosure
• The two parking levels would be split as a consequence of this simple change, one would be above the store, one below, but this is not a significant issue, the necessary vertical circulation and indeed the route through the parking could easily be accommodated. The parking to the top could even be open air thereby reducing the burden of mechanical ventilation
• Routes through the development could be sustained and enhanced as the retail foot print would not be creating its natural obstacle at the important levels. The potential entrance from Bath Road could create its own route through and act as a new gateway to the Town.
I have done all I can as a trained professional in an observation role; more so than some of my fellow Architects might argue as being appropriate. The Planners have done what they can, their hands being tied to some extent by their own policies which supports this development, which in principle I do myself. I now call on each and every one of you as elected representatives, in this instance for the people of Stourbridge irrespective of your own Ward, to do what you can and must do to safeguard the future of our Town.
Thank you for indulging me this far; we rely upon your discernment and I look forward to hearing your active discussion on the matter on Monday evening.
Alun R Nicholas RIBA