Phil Mayall 26 March 2020

Repurposing town centres

‘Repurposing town centres’ is a property-industry term that has come to the fore in recent times, borne essentially from the need to address highly-publicised issues on the high street. But, is it all doom and gloom?

Now, it’s true to say that town centres are in state of flux currently, but what we’re actually seeing is a paradigm shift to a modern, fresh take on a bygone era. Urbanisation began in the 1700s, with just 15% of the population living in towns in 1750, but fast forward a century, that had increased to around 50% and another 30 years later in 1880, it had risen to 80%. There have been a number of theories put forward to explain urban growth, but they’re all linked to the industrialisation of the country.

Throughout the 1800s, Britain moved on from being just a leader in worldwide trade to become the epicentre of the global manufacturing industry. This increase in mechanisation, mining and the use of steam power meant that employment opportunities were found more in central locations. These advances in technology were one of the primary reasons for people, particularly low-skilled workers, to move to towns to earn a living.

Due to this increase, independent town centres across the country bustled with life and activity. A series of small shops, rather than ‘big box’ retail outlets, lined the streets. The decline of industry in the second half of the 20th century, along with technological advances in both manufacturing and transport connectivity, meant that people were moving out of town centres into the suburbs. A lack of footfall, shop units that had became too small and the lack of a positive experience, brought shopping centres and ‘big box’ convenience retail into being.

30 years ago, when Muse opened its doors, we identified a need for urban regeneration, or ‘repurposing towns and cities’ as it’s now known. Our business model was - and still is - to work within these areas on mainly brownfield land, to reinvigorate and revitalise them; creating vibrant and sustainable places and spaces for communities to work, relax, and importantly, to live.

Throughout the noughties, we started to see a decline in footfall at major shopping centres, with a number of significant closures. This is in part due to people wanting more of an experience, which has in turn brought a fresh approach to how we bring forward innovative town centres. To unlock these areas, strong, open collaboration with local authorities is key and that’s in our DNA.

But are we seeing the death of the high-street?

With the birth of the internet and global organisations taking online shopping and convenience to a whole new level, does that necessarily mean the death of the high street? In my opinion, it doesn’t. While online retail is growing significantly, the latest data from Savills highlights that it still only equates to 18% of the total market, meaning there’s still 82% of retail transactions taking place offline.

We’ve also all read the numerous stories of national retail and leisure operators leaving the high street. While this is a shame, it isn’t all as negative as you may have read. It has created a more dynamic market, which has seen smaller more independent retailers come forward, pick up the baton and create a more experience-led environment in smaller units with active frontages as it was back in Victorian times.

There have been calls to tax online businesses to drive investment into our towns and cities and halt the exit of many of our beloved institutions. Taxation is complex and there’s no black and white solution. However, as a specific example, Altrincham didn’t become a shining light of town centre regeneration by taxing the Trafford Centre. Instead, the progressive council looked within to find what its strengths were, what the community values about the town centre, and invariably its needs and wants. From there they created an offer to make it relevant again, which in turn created the conditions to successfully repurpose and regenerate the town.

With any large-scale programme of urban regeneration, local authority intervention is key. It can’t and shouldn’t be led solely by the private sector, but it’s about creating those collaborative partnerships between both the public and private sector, based on shared values, vision and goals.

Blending the old with the new

Urban regeneration and town centre repurposing isn’t simply putting shiny new buildings in the hope that ‘if we build it they will come’, or wholesale redevelopment. It’s about understanding the needs of the local community and the strengths of the area, or its essence. Then working with the existing grain of the town centre and the community, creating the right infrastructure to bring people back to the area, and essentially putting that purpose back, or indeed creating a new purpose to maximise the positive impact on the community.

Our Time Square development in the heart of Warrington town centre we see as a shining example of successful town centre repurposing and regeneration. Initially the area was home to an old shopping centre, with a market that was becoming tired and not fit for purpose, which was in decline due to the adjacent Golden Square. To arrest the issues, the council stepped in with our support to give the Bridge Street area a new purpose, developing a family leisure experience with a cinema and new bars and restaurants, underpinned by high-quality civic office space and a new permanent home for the town’s award-winning market. This will, in turn, bring forward future opportunities for much-needed homes returning to the town centre.

Along with the new buildings and uses we created with the council, we retained the stunning architecture fronting onto Bridge Street, to make it a focal point for the new market, which will see a European-style food hall blending with the traditional market traders. It’s this blend of old and new that creates striking schemes to generate a real buzz around communities and deliver that all-important sense of place that we strive for.

Urban regeneration and repurposing our towns isn’t an overnight fix, it’s about taking the time to create the right environment and the solution to meet the needs of the community. As an example, our Smithfield scheme in Manchester’s now trendy Northern Quarter on the site of the old Smithfield market. If you look back 20 years, many couldn’t have imagined an international branded hotel opening there and now, following a number of years regenerating the area, there are two.

Again, we worked with our partners at Manchester City Council to understand the area’s strengths, needs and rich heritage, starting off with high-quality, original-designed homes. Further phases and the inclusion of independent retailers created the demand for hotels, which created the perfect demographic for the jewel in the crown, the Mackie Mayor – a full and sympathetic restoration of the former Smithfield Fish Market into an artisan food and beverage hall.

As you can see, it’s not all negative, there is a positivity in the air and a wealth of opportunities around to create something special to benefit our communities. If we innovate, collaborate and go back to basics to create the place, we can, and will deliver transformational regeneration to successfully repurpose our towns, which will stand the test of time.

Phil Mayall is regional director at urban regenerators, Muse Developments

This feature first appeared in Public Property magazine. Click here to register for your own free copy.

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