I WAS at Royal William Yard in Plymouth last week, having coffee in the sunshine with Tom Bloxham, co-founder and chairman of Urban Splash.
No doubt what he wanted to do was talk about the latest refurbished bit of the former naval victualling yard that his company is preparing to spring on the market.
More interesting for me was to find out whether his successful regeneration model would work on the nation’s ailing High Streets.
The rise of internet shopping and out-of-town shopping centres coupled with the economic downturn has hit many High Street retailers hard. In Plymouth city centre something like 50 shops are empty.
“What I hate is Any Town UK – a shopping centre full of all the usual chain stores and with nothing special,” Bloxham said. Plymouth still stands out because the independent traders have managed to cling on.
“You have a fantastic city centre,” he said. “There is an amazing collection of post-war buildings, so celebrate them. A lot of modern buildings are beautiful. When I was a kid people were demolishing Victorian villas. They would never dream of doing that now.”
Royal William Yard has features in common with Urban Splash’s other big projects around the country.
It marries über-contemporary architecture with old buildings, and fills them with upmarket residents and sexy commercial tenants (River Cottage already at RWY and rumours of Rick Stein coming, for example).
Plymouth city centre, on the other hand, appears to be going in the other direction.
LV Asset Management applied to build a new 22-storey tower block on the site of the vacant Woolworths store and fill it with students – and the council in its desperation agreed.
I’ve got nothing against students; in fact, students are good. But they are not enough.
What’s worse, the plans for the LV building look terrible: a slab-sided monstrosity out of keeping with the rest of the centre (and that’s Barcelona architect David Mackay’s view, not just mine).
At least one senior planning officer was at Bloxham’s lecture at Plymouth University last week, so perhaps his messages are getting across.
City planners might also like to take an outing to Totnes. I was there on Sunday night to hear jazz pianist John Walter play, and walked the length of Fore Street on the way to the pub.
The place is crammed with quirky little independent shops, as you probably know, and there does not appear to be a single empty premises.
Translate that into big-city high streets, slash the cost of parking, build some expensive apartments and town houses, and perhaps they will survive after all.
- Worth reading is the history of Urban Splash, full of beautiful architecture-porn and interesting conversation.
by Tom Bloxham MBE, Jonathan Falkingham and Nick Johnson.
(RIBA Publishing, £24.99)