City Centre ‘Lost Opportunity Site’?

The Abbey, the Gatehouse, the Clock Tower, the Museum + Gallery, Samuel Ryder’s Seed Hall, the Fighting Cocks, Verulamium Museum – St Albans is not short of impressive and attractive buildings that raise one’s spirits. You will have your favourites. Most areas of the city have varied, attractive building stock. But there’s the area between the old police station on Victoria Street and the Alban Arena. Seven depressed and depressing acres are up for redevelopment and the Council brands it ‘Civic Centre Opportunity Site South’ (CCOSS).

An opportunity indeed! To replace that collection of soulless monuments to the decades of architectural bankruptcy with a landmark development that will revitalise the area and make a positive contribution to our streetscape.  There are concerns, however, that it might result in the ‘City Centre Lost Opportunity Site’.

The Council, having bought the bulk of the site, has initially adopted an existing planning consent granted to a private developer. That might well limit the scope to produce something of real quality. Instead we might get tinkering at the edges. To be fair the Council has acknowledged that its plans need improvement. It is a pity that, rather than coming forward with a new vision, what it proposes at present are essentially cosmetic changes to make the scheme ‘more St Albans’.

This was apparent at the Council-organised ‘Community Design Review’. The 27 volunteer participants (out of a community of 145,000!) were asked how elements of the current scheme could be ‘improved’. There was virtual unanimity about the ‘monolithic’ nature of the proposed blocks, so all that was up for discussion was design detail.

Certainly there were worthwhile contributions which, if adopted, would improve elements of the scheme. Ideally, the Civic Society would have liked a competition for the design concept, and far wider public involvement and debate, including re-engagement with local interest groups. A market stall would have been better than the poorly advertised and attended Civic Centre exhibition.

The Civic Society’s Design Advisory Group have met several times with the developer in order to improve the quality of the design. It hopes to continue this dialogue with the Council. It agrees with Councillor Daly that this is an exciting project. The latest planning drafts show signs that people are listening to concerns and suggestions, particularly over elevations.

On the 7th March 2019 a ‘Design Review Panel’, made up of experienced architects, examined the development plans and voiced some of the same criticisms that have been made by the Civic Society. Their report will be published shortly.

We do not want history to repeat itself with a new generation having to put up with a second-rate and anonymous development. That would just be more of the same. The Society will continue to work with the Council in an attempt to deliver a development that St Albans can be proud of!

The Society was pleased to have been engaged in the process of developing the CCOSS scheme and, although there have been concerns about the concept of the project, based upon the Angle permitted plan, the Design Advisory Group recognise the considerable amount of work that has gone into the development of the project. Click here to read our CCOSS comments.

Planning Application

Following the submission of a planning application, the Civic Society meeting on CCOSS on 23 September 2019 was attended by just over 40 people (in fact not bad for a wet and windy evening). Cllr Robert Donald, and Council Officers Tony Marmo and Jenny Stenzel gave a presentation. However, it is now VERY important that everyone gives their view on this massive development which will last for many, many years and is being built at taxpayers’ expense.  You have until 29 October to do this and over 50 responses have been submitted already. This is now the last chance to approve, modify or oppose these plans.  

Our Committee unanimously supported a decision to submitted an objection. You can read our letter here In summary it says that “although supportive in principle to the mixed development of this site our objection is to the appearance of the current proposal ….. we do not see in this application the “listed buildings of the future” sought in the CCOS Development Brief / Supplementary Planning Document July 2012. Indeed what we do see is a lost opportunity to create “a landmark building as a key gateway feature” at the Victoria Street / Bricket Road corner envisaged in the CCOS Development Brief….”  Our reasons for objection to this application and the efforts we have made prior to the planning application being submitted are set out here.

The planning application 5/2019/2001 (has been withdrawn. It is now important that any new plans :

  • enhance St Albans through excellent quality of design and detail – a ‘wow’ factor;
  • have high levels of sustainability and greening;
  • avoid being entirely driven by cost;
  • not be designed by committee;
  • and reflect the character and uniqueness of St Albans (respecting the Conservation Area).

CCOSS and CCOSN should create a legacy that every citizen of St Albans can be proud about!

The Three Designs Option

Three new designs for this major development were put forward by different architectural firms and the Council asked residents being to help select the best scheme.   The public meeting on 25th March 2020, when the three architectural practices would present their designs for Civic Centre Opportunity South, was cancelled with the presentations made available on the web and the public invited to ask questions.  The Consultation Question Responses are available here. The Civic Society’s Design Advisory Group (DAG)  discussed all three options and had circumstances been different, this would have been presented at meeting open to members and the general public. However, because that could not happen DAG produced a brief summary here of their views as a way of informing membership of their thinking.   The Council announced their decision on 21st April choosing design number 2 from the three options proposed, you can read their press release here.  For more information on the results of the public vote and the assessment process click here where you can also find details of the three schemes.

The Decision and what happened next

The public voted for Option 2 in the Council organised vote. This scheme is, designed by Space and Place, who were already contracted to the Council with regard to CCOSN(orth). It received a winning 57% of the vote out of 429 (it has to be admitted that the number of participants, voting on such an important project for the city, is disappointing but this may well have been another consequence of the Covid-19 crisis). The public vote counted towards 50% of the decision-making, the remainder was linked to various indicators from sustainability to design costs. The Council opposition had several concerns about Option 2 and the selection process: the level of consultation; the appropriateness of the design; the budget, both in terms of cost and financial return; and the integrity of the voting procedure. They ‘called in’ the project and it was debated at the Planning, Resources, Housing and Commercial Scrutiny Committee on 11th June 2020.

The Society was invited to virtually attend and did make a non-party political representation, giving its support to the option method of selecting a design. The point was made that the Society would have preferred a competition from scratch which would have allowed the architects a completely free hand in preparing their designs. However, as some works had already been carried out and there were clear financial constraints, the Society recognised the need for compromise and so were prepared to endorse the administration’s proposal to offer their options to the public. It was considered preferable over the previous planning application where no choice of design was offered to the public.

It is an unfortunate that the political practices of such committees are adversarial (you can either speak ‘for’ or ‘against’ a decision of the committee) and the Society was accused by one councillor of being in ‘cahoots’ with the present administration and even responsible for the Council’s decision to adopt the Space and Place design. It had to be pointed out that the Society’s Design Advisory Group is just that, ‘advisory’, and it only offers advice and all decisions over CCOSS were correctly made by the elected Council. The Society was also asked if it endorsed the choice of Option 2 but you will remember members were invited to make the vote of their choice without any recommendation from the executive committee. Although there were weaknesses in the selection process, in particular the voting system, where there were worries about its security, the Society not only supported the commissioning of three options of choice of designs but also respects the democratic choice of the citizens of St Albans. At the end of the CCOSS item the chair of the committee made some recommendations relating to openness, consultation and voting procedure. It was agreed that the project should proceed but, as it will exceed the original budget, it will have to go to the full council to gain financial approval for extra funding. The Portfolio Holder for Commercial, Development and Wellbeing hoped that a planning application will be lodged this coming autumn. 

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Do you know of a project that might deserve recognition in the Society’s Awards? These can be for new developments, large or small, but could be for a small extension, restored windows on a period property, or a rebuilt wall. Its not just about buildings either. Remember the Society’s Awards cover things that enhance the quality of St Albans environment or amenities and the Trevelyan Award is presented for a conservation project.

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