As the city council pushes ahead with its plans for Preston city centre, we gave you the chance to ask the experts.
We invited readers to ask questions to two of Preston’s leading architects to get their take on the city centre.
Sebastian Salisbury from the Frank Whittle Partnership and Paul Walton from PWA Planning are the ones answering the questions.
The collapse of the Tithebarn was a blessing. There’s so much rubbish uninspiring architecture in the city centre, to knock down the bus station, a potential focal point for the future would have been disastrous. People go on about the impact of Ringway but the bigger issue is the architecture that sits on it. Greyfriars, Office World, Blockbusters and, worst of all, the appalling St George’s extension complete with Blackpool Pleasure Beach style tacky turret. I’ve thought of many ways of improving Preston and demolition of the aforementioned buildings would be a good start. St George’s Centre, at the heart of the city, is a missed opportunity and needs a rethink. A John Lewis would be better suited here. At this current time there is nothing to keep people in the centre after the offices and shops close at 5.30pm. My idea would be to redevelop the land between the market and the west side of the bus station and turn it into an entertainments complex – cinemas, restaurants, bowling, theatre (Guild Hall revamp). The city centre needs to fight back against the soulless retail parks. If people want to drive and park for free, use the bus station car park. If people want to take the bus, use the east side of the bus station. Only 34 gates required according to Peter Rankin, perfect, pedestrianise the west side. On the subject of the bus station and the imminent (?) refurbishment, I can’t think of a better building to be illuminated creatively. It’s a blank canvas that any half decent lighting designer would jump at the opportunity to work with. Aside from that I expect the bus station to be a source of new inspiration for Prestonians. They need to be inspired by what can be achieved with a ‘piss stinking concrete brutalist eyesore’. I work on the South Bank, the place is rammed. It used to stink of piss down there too. Apologies I am rambling but I feel strongly about my home town/city. There is potential there, I just think the wrong people are running the place. They don’t inspire. What Ben Casey achieved at Preston North End was magnificent and inspired a generation of sports fans. We need the same to happen with the city as a whole. Proud Preston.
Jonathan Richardson, now living in South London but from Penwortham
Paul Walton: Dear Jonathan. I have a lot of sympathy with your views and whilst I had reservations about the impact of the retention of the bus station on the delivery of any meaningful city centre redevelopment, on reflection I agree that if it can be creatively refurbished it has clear potential to be the star attraction of any new development. One of the key issues is how the bus station’s large concrete aprons and its relative separation from the body of the city centre can be reconciled. It is quite peripheral and if it is to succeed then it needs to draw the footfall. The idea of lighting is really interesting; it is actually quite surprising what a quality lighting scheme can do for the fortunes of a building. I do believe that the City Deal that Preston has secured has the potential to support more sensitive and selective city centre development schemes, but like you I have some reservations about who will control this agenda. My vote is firmly with the Ben Caseys of this world.
Sebastian Salisbury: Dear Jonathan, I generally concur with all the points you have raised, especially the subject of looking to redevelop the land between the west of the bus station and the outdoor markets. In my opinion the land currently occupied by the St John’s Shopping Centre would provide an excellent location for an open boulevard flanked on either side with a mixture of retail and entertainment venues. This would provide an impressive vista and key thoroughfare between the two buildings and help initiate the re-connection of the bus station with the main body of the city centre. Your suggestion of the creative illumination of bus station façade would further compliment this and provide impressive framed views for people progressing along this new main arterial route. Staying on the subject of the covered markets, I’ve always felt there is an opportunity to reinvigorate that area of the city by actually bringing the market traders out into the public realm allowing them to display their produce to the masses under the striking canopies. I would point to Borough
Market in London as an example of how we could create a vibrant area within the city with a real draw for both locals and visitors. This concept would also allow a symbiotic relationship to develop with surrounding businesses hopefully allowing new restaurants and cafes to emerge in the area eventually establishing a ‘food and drink’ quarter in the city. There are certainly a lot of creative Prestonians out there who, like Ben Casey, are desperate to see the city progress in Architectural terms.
What would they do with the wretched bus station now?
SS: Dear Steve, The bus station does indeed cut a very forlorn figure in its current state due to decades of neglect and under investment. That being said, I think if you were to strip the building back to its bare bones you would be left with a wonderful double height space at ground floor with the
impressive and highly sculptural concrete balconies above it. Whether or not the building is destined to remain as a bus station is another argument, but its recent listed status has virtually ensured its existence and we now need a plausible solution for its future use. Given the fact that the bus station is pretty much an internationally renowned building I would imagine there would be a great deal of interest in launching a design competition. Personally I could see a Tate Modern-esque style transformation of the building working well with a reduced size bus interchange operating at the rear.
PW: Dear Steve. Wretched it may be at the present, but who knows what the future could bring. Almost certainly it will need to be retained, but it could be a real gem in the future. Try to remove the images (and smells) of the old building from your mind and think how it could be utilised. A design competition could be a good starter, and may secure some good ideas.
I would like to know why half the buildings are empty. To me there seems such a simple solution !. They are empty, I presume, because retailers can’t afford the rents that Preston City Council are asking for them and people no longer like to shop in those areas. So, why not half the rent, get some shops open again and have some income rather then non at all ? Surely then, the council would at least have some revenue to help towards the refurbishment of the other areas that need it ! Shouldn’t it all be about bringing businesses in to the city ? If the city looked better, that could happen, but who would want a business down Church Street? Not many I suspect ! .. Surely there must be someone with a little ‘common sense’ on the planning that doesn’t think it needs thousands of tax payers money, which we don’t apparently have anyway, being spent on extremely expensive architects and designers !! Come on people .. get your sensible heads on !!
PW: Dear Leeza. Regrettably the vacant properties are mostly privately owned and the rentals are set by the landlords. The vicious circle that you describe (poor quality buildings in run-down areas, don’t attract new business, which leads to lack of use and further decay) cannot be easily broken, but window dressing tends not to be successful – look at Friargate for example. It takes a real inertia, driven by footfall and it is this lack of pedestrian movement that has decimated Church Street. It is possible that any new development of the former Booths distribution centre and other land in this area may involve a large enough retailer to begin to generate the necessary footfall, which in turn brings in other businesses who look to refurbish existing property.
Preston, from an outsider’s vantage point, is a city whose natural beauty and elegance is suppressed. It’s a hard-nosed sort of urbanscape, but that doesn’t mean it needs to lack pride. There a plenty grand and municipal building, which flank the Fishergate area, and some fine early Victorian villas, not to mention the Georgian plots dotted about the place. Yet these attributes, which many a conurbation a wee farther south would cherish, are somehow shouted down by unthinking planners, who want to retail, retail and retail some more. There appear to be large offerings of public space, (and the most sublime park in Avenham) yet Preston is bereft of a centre, a forum, a place to gather, a defining core. The current pedestrianisation of Fishergate is fine, but will the foot fall drift and sway away, only pausing to window shop or drop in for a coffee at one of the too many chain and soulless outlets? I think there should be an ‘every day’ event in the square, poss by Miller’s Arcade or roundabouts. A place to gather to meet a destiny and a venue that is chosen by people. Cities are not just about ‘names’ they are about mood and thought, poetry and art ( a concept Preston seems rather coy over). The built environment is crucial in defining the state of it populace, if a local government is only interested in promoting commerce, then they will only have city focused on money and the associated problems of envy and resentment for those who ‘have-not.’ If, however, it decided to explore other more creative, spontaneous avenues, then surely a more creative, challenge ready, adaptable city would follow.
PW: Dear Billie. I was very interested by your insight into the problems that Preston faces. I fundamentally agree that one of the primary issues that Preston faces is the lack of a ‘core’ area which people make their own and can feel safe to meet or spend time, without feeling compelled to dodge cars, sweep away piles of litter or even to shop. Some of the efforts the Council are making to improve the central civic areas are laudable, but they don’t really address the fundamental issue. I do however feel that your faith in society and its ability to work things out if given the opportunity, without interference from right minded authorities, may be the key; let people make their own mistakes and don’t try to micro-manage and over-design everything. A laissez–faire approach to urban planning and architecture worked well in the past and served Preston well, less so the more recent examples of interventionist planning.
SS: Dear Bille, It’s very refreshing to see the viewpoint of a visitor to Preston as there is always a danger that we are analysing things a little too introspectively! I think there are many ways of defining the core or centre of a city and this will vary greatly depending on personal opinion but I would imagine that most Prestonians would see the centre of the city as the traditional civic core on the flag market outside the Harris Museum. I know there have recently been some very successful temporary exhibitions on this space such as the Harris Flights which shows that there is still a voice for the creative community in Preston. Preston cannot match the scale and economic pull of neighbouring Manchester and Liverpool but I think we need to look at what makes the city individual and play on these strengths. You mentioned the enviable range of parks that are in such close proximity to the city and perhaps these spaces can be defined as ‘seasonal cores’ which can be further explored in terms of impromtu artistic exhibitions and events. One of the key issues you have raised is adaptability and I think it is important that we don’t try and designate and restrict uses to certain areas of the city; rather let them develop spontaneously and naturally. That surely, is one of the most exciting elements when you visit a city.
I would be interested to hear your thoughts as to whether some of the difficulties which Preston city centre is suffering from (such as decreasing footfall and a high number of empty shops) can actually be rectified? Such issues aren’t limited to Preston and are surely a result of the public’s (irreversible) declining interest in the high street and the on-going national austerity programme, which has certainly had a great impact upon the North West. Reducing shop rents and providing more affordable (or free) car parking are often cited as initiatives which would go a very long way to solving these issues but neither are likely to be adopted by the council, private landowners or landlords. Car parks are probably seen as never-ending cash cows and are there even businesses ready and willing to fill the empty shops if rates were drastically reduced? Despite being a proud inhabitant of 25 years I don’t consider Preston to be a particularly alluring place, there’s very little purpose to visiting the city centre. A better shopping experience can be achieved by popping in the car and travelling 45 minutes away from PR1, or even sitting in front of one’s computer! Furthermore, the city centre isn’t blessed with many other attractions, the number of bars which I would consider visiting can be counted on one hand. This isn’t borne out of my lack of ‘culture’ either; I’ll visit comedy nights, live music, student productions and local events such as ‘Penwortham Live’, but they’re just so few and far between. It’s a cliché but Preston needs innovative thinkers and people willing to do something a little different. Councils will never fulfil this role and therefore it’s left to Preston’s inhabitants and those few business owners who can actually survive the crippling rates. Take last year’s ‘Tundra Bar’ as an example. Located on Harris Street (just off the Flag market) it provided a cosy, heated marquee which sold hot mulled wines and cider plus a selection of winter ales etc. For perhaps the first time since working in Preston (2009) I ventured into the town centre after work. For the other 350 evenings that year (and every evening in 2013!) there just wasn’t that attraction. I guess my concluding question is a rather depressing one. Can Preston city centre become a dynamic and interesting place to be or should we get used to the status quo and embrace the clogged roads, payday lenders and crumbling buildings? I really do want to love the city but currently it just has no redeeming features and I fear a bleak future.
PW: Dear TP. As referred to elsewhere in the blog https://blogpreston.co.uk/2013/11/preston-
rated-as-a-city-of-good-growth-by-latest-economic-survey/) Preston was identified as one of the top performing regional cities in a recent survey. I firmly believe that Preston is extremely well placed to move out of the recession on the front foot. Vacant city centre properties are a common theme nationwide as you say, but I believe Preston suffers less than some other towns locally. I do agree that the allure of the city centre is low for many groups of people. Quite honestly this is the key aspect of any new development plans. Offering a broader based and varied night-time economy, which can arrest the tendency for ghost town during the week and drunken chaos at the weekends is key to the future. I don’t think this is something that can be addressed in one fell swoop, nor in a short timescale. It does need a concerted effort from a forward thinking planning and licensing authority, as well as continued efforts from local entrepreneurs and business people, as well as the support of the majority of the population, who need to believe that Preston can offer a good place to visit, both by day and then into the evening. Apathy is the real danger and positivity is infectious. In answer to your question, I firmly believe that Preston can and will become a place that more people want to visit and feel comfortable and proud to visit. Here’s to another dose of the Tundra or its ilk this festive season and please don’t give up on Preston.
The bus and train stations need to be next door to each for the city transport infrastructure to work correctly. Moving bus services into the Christian Road post office building would solve this problem (no idea what it would cost or how the post office would cope without it). Does the listing of the bus station mean that it has to remain as a bus station or can it be used for anything else?
Nick Taylor, Ashton
PW: Dear Nick. The option to relocate the bus station (in whole or part) to land adjacent to the railway station (I believe off Corporation Street) has been considered and was the source of some friction within the various authorities. Of course I agree that in an ideal world, having a public transport hub would be eminently sensible. It is not clear whether the listing of the bus station makes its continued use for bus services more or less likely, though in answer to your question, the listing does not require any particular use of the building and it could be refurbished for retail or commercial use, particularly if this helps to preserve the building.
How can any plans ensure that developments: 1) Maximise job creation for local people? 2) Maximise access to jobs and services for those people living in the most deprived parts of Preston as characterised by the indices of deprivation (https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/english-indices-of-deprivation). 3) Reduce pollution levels in and around the town centre? and, finally, 4) Could the bus station be partially knocked down eg the 20 metres of the northern section, with the circular ramp and a new sympathetic development attached to it? For example the St Augustine’s church in Avenham, which was a grade II*, listed was knocked down except for the fascade – the rear section was totally redesigned and built from scratch. Wouldn’t such an option better realise the economic potential of the underused site for Preston? Thoughts most welcome.
Taalib, City centre
PW: Dear Taalib. Maximising job creation and access to services to those in the most deprived areas appear to be platitudes rolled out in support of many planning and development schemes. The key is trying to pay more than lip service to these matters – he says paying lip service to the issues! I see little positive sign that the planning system is capable of sufficient forward thinking to ensure that these matters are to the fore. It does of course require the development industry to embrace these concepts, and there is a balance to be struck between the “development at all cost” and the “only the right type of development” mantra. Generally speaking new development breeds confidence and new jobs.
Could a bus interchange be installed down the side of the railway station? – what could be done with Ringway, especially near the Greyfriar pub, to reconnect Friargate? Tunnel? Could traffic be diverted? – could the old Odeon be turned into a modern multiplex – could the interior of The Guild hall be remodelled for modern requirements? (We’re told it’s too small)
Katie, Lostock Hall
PW: Dear Katie. Integrating the bus and rail stations seems like an obvious solution, but the devil is in the detail and finding a site is not straightforward, nor is getting a greater number of buses from east to west along Fishergate. Using other roads outside of the city core area will mean that access for those with lesser mobility becomes more difficult. There is no easy solution. I like the free shuttle buses in Manchester city centre which link the main railway stations and maybe a similar (albeit much smaller) service could be provided within the city centre, linking the bus and rail stations and offering free travel. The Friargate issue has been around almost since the road opened and severed the thoroughfare. Recent efforts to make crossing the road more straightforward have helped, but it remains a significant barrier to improved trade on upper Friargate. Removing the traffic is nigh on impossible due to the lack of any real alternative. It might be possible to fully pedestrianise upper Friargate so as to make it a more friendly area to be and to build upon the ‘student effect’ in this area, but such pedestrian schemes tend to meet with a lot of opposition from those requiring access to these areas.
Image credit to Paul Melling