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Gloucestershire Business News

The future of Gloucester city centre

Property experts from Gloucester gathered this morning at one of the city's oldest buildings to discuss the conundrum facing many urban centres - the future of its high street.

Staged by surveyors and planning experts, Evans Jones, in partnership with Tayntons Solicitors and Quattro Design Architects guests at the commercial property breakfast forum also received insight into the council's plans by its former chairman, councillor Paul James.

The long room next to Llanthony Secunda Priory beside Gloucestershire College within the precincts of the city's Quays was the venue - a building which in its 900 years has witnessed its own rebirth and that of its surroundings on more than one occasion.

David Jones, managing director of Evans Jones, did not hide from the issues facing the city - but this was an upbeat gathering which sought to describe a possible pathway to the Holy Grail for the city - a bustly, prosperous, sustainable inner quarter.

It also highlighted the tremendous goodwill and expertise here in the city and the county willing to be part of making that happen.

"If we don't collectively take action now the high street as we know it will be gone," said Mr Jones.

"But neither do we want to turn Britain towards the US model where there are no high streets, only commercial centres, with all the retail on the outside."

He made no bones that the challenges, outlined elsewhere many times, are stark.

"In the UK currently - one pound in every five pounds spent is now spent online. Footfall is down 10 per cent in the last seven years. 1,300 retails have closed in the same period. There is seven million square foot of unused retail space," he said.

What we needed to look to, said Mr Jones, was where the successes had been - and they were in making retail an experience, in making visits to the city centre more than just about shopping, in encouraging more people to live in our city centres, which would in turn have knock-on effects on both the daytime and night time economies.

That was not just about planning, he said, "landlords had sat on their hands for too long. They need to think 'how can I make this building fit for purpose'."

And then there were the other players - central Government, retailers, local enterprise partnerships and BIDS (business improvement districts).

Cllr James told the room of 80-plus business people that two of the city's key projects were due to go before council planning officers for a decision in March, after which they were expected to begin in earnest.

These being the King's Square development and the adjoining plans for the old bus station site - an ambitious scheme, in preparation for which the demolition of the former Bruton Way car park and adjoining offices is already being demolished.

Bringing people in to live in the many empty spaces above the existing high street shops was all well and good, but many buildings have restrictive covenants restricting their use.

Jaron Crooknorth, of Tayntons Solicitors, had this headline message - do not be afraid of the detail if you want to re-purpose a building. Where there is a will (and some skilled legal advice) there is often a way, he said.

Legal obstacles to property development, he said, were often surmountable - even in the traditionally conservative world in which contracts existed.

"With the right legal advice you can change the use of a building," was the positive message he left everyone with.

Jonathan White's message was the most radical of the morning - although that is perhaps because his brief was less rooted in the here and now than his fellow speakers.

As noise from the cranes and lorries of the adjacent on-going development provided a fitting soundtrack, reminding everyone present of the momentum Gloucester has, Mr White laid out an imaginative plan for making the city fit for the next 100 years.

A senior associate at Quattro Design Architects, his gran plan was based on using the existing successes in the city to breath new life into the rest of the centre.

Focusing on the draws that are the Cathedral, Gloucester Rugby, the Quays and the Docks, he then suggested how some clever - albeit radical architectural surgery - could open Gloucester's arteries to spread the love across the city.

'Magic wand' stuff it might have been, but his was a vision put together at a firm which knows Gloucester as well as any, having its offices in the Quays and the city centre before that. And it was just close enough to what you might think possible to get imagination racing.

There was talk of exploiting the footfall that the rugby stadium draws with a vision of a Kingsholm boulevard, of knocking down Eastgate Shopping Centre to deliver a plaza, complete with new retail space and accomodation for all ages, which linked into the forthcoming King's Walk and King's Square developments.

Another inspiring solution focused on the pinchpoint that is the crossing point from Kimbrose Triangle off Southgate Street to the steps leading down to the Docks. The suggestion was to transform the triangle into a new hotel, opening up the current busy thoroughfare into a welcoming space to help the flow of people between the city centre and the Quays.

For the car park between the Docks and Southgate Street the proposal was for a 'box park', a row of converted containers providing low-cost start-up space to attract in exciting new businesses. Similar ideas had worked in Bristol, said Mr White.

He had earlier delivered some statistics hinting at the potential for Gloucester, when compared to its much bigger near neaighbour. Apparently there are 50 people per square hectare in Bristol - but half that in Gloucester.

And for the pièce de résistance he turned his attentions to the city's retail kingpin - Debenhams. Here to stay the business may well be, and an assett at that, but perhaps it did not need all the space the landmark building offers? Which leaves open the possibility of converting the upper floors to accommodation, apartments or resturants.

"Okay, many of these ideas need developers with big pockets. But, summing up, we need to populate the city centre," said Mr White, underlining a theme covered by the previous speakers.

"What we do know if we need to work with our key stakeholders here in Gloucester to create mixed-use living and a new experience for the city which wil create a better city for everyone."

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