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Saturday, 24 September 2016

Chester: Building Its Future, At The Expense Of Its Past


Before getting into the specifics of this particular piece, it's important to note that no-one is suggesting that all change is bad, or even that historic cities such as Chester shouldn't evolve to keep pace with the increased social and economic needs of our ever changing modern country. Nobody imagines for one second that modern day Cestrians would want to live in a first century Roman military fortress, with its sparse wooden built barrack houses, or its open cesspits; no more than they would want to live in one of the city's former early modern housing "courts", with their shared sanitary facilities, diseases and pests.
 
Change is necessary for any society to evolve and develop, to make things better for the citizens who inhabit that particular society, whether that's in terms of their individual health, housing, employment or just the general surroundings in which they live. Chester is no different in that respect from any other community  that exists in the UK today, other than it just happens to be a city that has a history that most other English cities would envy and who would doubtless take better care of; and make better use of, had they been fortunate enough to be given the opportunity.
 
For anyone who has spent the time studying Chester's extensive past, the one thing that is immediately evident, is that throughout its long history the city has often been ill-served by successive generations of selfish and self-interested civic leaders, who have quite blatantly put their own commercial interests ahead of the city's. Whether it involved the preservation of Chester's once busy medieval port, the routine maintenance of the canalised River Dee, the conservation of the city's historic building fabric, or the protection of Chester's largely hidden Roman architecture, all too often decisions regarding their futures has come down to a simple matter of pounds, shillings and pence; and whether their loss or destruction can be turned into a commercial opportunity.
 
The civic vandalism wrought during the 1960's, when huge swathes of Chester's historic landscape was gouged out of existence for the construction of the Inner Ring Road system, the "Forum" precinct and the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, leading to the loss of innumerable architectural treasures, was just that particular periods instance of civic and commercial opportunism. Go back sixty years, to the beginning of the 20th century and there was a previous round of commercially driven regeneration, in Bridge Street, at the High Cross, in Lower Northgate Street, in St Werburgh Street and in Frodsham Street. The difference being in this instance, there was there was at least some effort to mitigate the damage done to Chester's architectural heritage by the likes of architects Douglas and Lockwood.
 
Looking back to the early 1900's and the regeneration that took place, local residents, planners, architects and commercial developers had exactly the same sort of conversations, as were had in the 1960's and that are still being had today, regarding the effect of such modern developments on the ancient fabric that each of these disparate parties professes to value and say they wish to protect. The difference is of course, one only has to look at what has resulted from the various regeneration schemes over the same period, contrasting the generally sympathetic designs created by the likes of Douglas and Lockwood, with the brutally modern designs put in place during the 1960's and 1970's. Interestingly, in the public discussions surrounding the recent plans for the regeneration of Dee House in Chester, supporters of the scheme made the rather spurious argument that as an 18th century property it should be conserved and regenerated, yet numerous far more historically valuable properties and features were systematically wiped from the earth to make way for the Inner Ring Road, the Grosvenor Shopping Centre and the Forum precinct, with little if anything being mentioned about it.
 
So here we are again, some fifty or so years later having a similar argument about regenerating Chester's Market Square area, which some forty or fifty years after demolishing the hundred-year-old Market Hall and then scraping the underlying Roman architecture into oblivion, the city's civic leadership and business community have decided has become a blight on the city's landscape. No doubt those who opposed the destruction of Chester's beautifully constructed 19th century Market Hall and its replacement with the brutally utilitarian Forum precinct can at least have the satisfaction of saying to the designers and planners who created it "Told you so", although that matters little now that the damage has been done. A grand ornate building that stood for a century and that would doubtless grace any historic English city was torn down to make way for a "box" design that has only lasted half the time of its predecessor; and that most historic cities wouldn't give a thank-you for! Only in Chester!
 
One cannot imagine that a single tear will be shed for the Forum and its associated Market Hall, or indeed for the Gateway Theatre, or nearby Princess Street Bus Station. Similarly, one doesn't imagine that the Crown Plaza Hotel, or the various commercial buildings in and around Hamilton Place will be missed by most of the local population, although no doubt the loss of the car-parks might be noticed by some. Whilst the passing of these largely unimaginative buildings might not be mourned by most Cestrians, one suspects that what replaces them is of far more importance to local people; and it is perhaps that more than anything else, which poses the greatest worry to those of us that have an interest in Chester and its continuing history.
 
One has to say though that the portents thus far are not good for Chester's Market Square! Rather than repeating the mistake of introducing brick and concrete functionality and utilitarianism to the area known as the Northgate Quarter, this time the city planners appear to have chosen steel, wood and glass to build their new vision of Chester, to sit alongside the 1930's Grade II Art Deco Odeon Cinema, the 19th Century Gothic Revival Grade II listed Town Hall, the 19th century Coach House (formerly the Coach and Horses) Inn and the remaining facade of the Westminster Coach & Motor Works dating to 1914.
 
Stretching from Northgate Street and the Market Square westward to St Martin's Way, which is part of the city's highly damaging Inner Ring Road system and from the northern end of Shoemaker's Row to the 1930's Odeon Cinema, this entire section of the city, including the four previously noted landmark buildings, will become the location for what can only be described as the latest in a long line of new Cathedrals of Consumerism in Chester. The Northgate Quarter is set to include a six-screen 715 seat cinema, a major department store, an assortment of shops, cafes and restaurant, a new Market Hall for local traders, an 800 space multi-storey car park and finally, a new 167-bed Crown Plaza Hotel.
 
Now, whilst any new business is clearly welcome in Chester and any replacement for the ugliness of the Forum precinct and its surrounding contemporaries would doubtless have a positive effect on this part of the city, quite whether a collection of highly conceptualised buildings made of glass, steel, plastic and wood, which simply house more-of-the-same-old businesses, would actually sit happily alongside a 1930's Art Deco cinema, a Gothic Revival Town Hall, a 19th Century Coaching Inn, or an early 20th century coachworks facade, remains the question. After all, only fifty years ago, the architects who designed the Forum precinct and the rest of the modern buildings in this area of Chester undoubtedly believed that they too had found the long term design solution to the problems that the city faced at that time.
 
After all, let's remember that Chester has had any numbers of cinemas in the past, including the Odeon itself, which is now to be given a new lease of life as a mixed arts centre, or something similar. If there was such a desperate need, or demand for a multi-screen cinema, then why have all previous venues failed so abysmally? As for the major department store that's been promised as the flagship for the new retail project, just who will that be? As a significant number of the major brands are already present in Chester, wouldn't they just be swapping one location for another; and how would that actually add value to the city's economy? As for the assortment of new stores, cafe and restaurant, doesn't the same thing apply? Swapping a branch in Bridge Street, Eastgate Street or the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, for a new location in the Northgate Quarter would add little or nothing to the overall economic benefit, other than to leave an empty retail unit in one or other part of Chester city centre.
 
It's also worth bearing in mind that at the same time a new restaurant is being offered in the new Northgate Quarter, there are proposals to add a further five new restaurants, to the four existing eateries in the Pepper Street Dining Quarter of the city, which doesn't even take into account those that already exist elsewhere in Chester. Within the past few months at least two restaurants are reported to have closed their doors, while another newcomer has set-up in the belief that they can turn a profit. And of course, none of this takes account of the numerous city centre pubs and hotels that also offer dining facilities to their customers and non-residents, all of them targeting the same customers of which there must be a finite number?
 
Then finally there is the new 167-bed Crown Plaza Hotel, which is essentially replacing itself in the marketplace and is therefore likely to be economically neutral in terms of any actual financial benefit that it will bring to the city. This of course doesn't even begin to take account of other developments that are proposed for other parts of the city, including the newly announced  Thwaites boutique hotel, bar and restaurant that is planned for the Dee House / Amphitheatre site in the coming years. Quite whether Cheshire West and Chester Council are simply adopting a "build them and they will come" attitude to new restaurant and hotel developments in the city is unclear, but it seems to be an extremely risky strategy for any investor in an industry where the failure rate for most restaurants is around 59% within the first three years.
 
As for any new hotel venture in the city, well the success or failure of any new business remains to be seen, although as previously noted the Crown Plaza brand already exists in the Northgate Quarter and will simply shift its position through the construction of a new building, whilst maintaining its name and general proximity to the city centre and the Roodee Racecourse. It's a questionable hypothesis whether or not the actual regeneration of the Northgate Quarter itself will make the Crown Plaza any busier, or anymore popular than it currently is. After all, one suspects that many of its clients use the hotel because of its location, its prices and its close proximity to the Roodee for the various horse-racing events that take place throughout the year. It seems highly unlikely that the presence of a new cinema, restaurant or arts centre is going to be a principle driver behind increased guest numbers at a already existing hotel?
 
Trying to calculate the exact number of hotel, motel and guest-house rooms for rent in Chester at any one time is incredibly difficult when so many providers fail to offer such obvious information on their corporate websites. However, if one takes the following examples, the Crown Plaza (167), the Blossoms Hotel (67), the Grosvenor Hotel (80), Queens Hotel (218), Mill Hotel (132), Eaton Hotel (20) as well as the likes of Travelodge, the Abode, Roomzz, the Stafford and the Belgrave, there must be close on a thousand guestrooms available at any one time in the city. According to the Council's own figures the top sixteen hotels in Chester had an 80% occupancy rate during the peak seasons, between May and August, suggesting that even at its busiest time of year there were still around 200 rooms not being occupied, yet the planners answer seems to build and offer more?
 
A century or so ago, Chester's liquor licensing authorities and the city Police, struggled to contain the number of drinking establishments in the city, not just to reduce the levels of drunkenness and civil disorder, but also to decrease the numbers of bars that were actually being run at a financial loss. Businesses going out of business for want of customers benefits nobody, not the owners, not the city and certainly not those customers or creditors who might lose out financially as and when a business goes bust.
 
Chester's problems are many and varied, but for the most part seem to centre around the obvious inability of its civic leaders, planners and architects to offer a single unifying vision of what the city is and what sort of place local people would like it to be. Is it a Roman fortress, a Norman stronghold, a Medieval folly, an insignificant provincial city, a tourist attraction, site of the oldest racecourse in the country, a quirky retail shopping centre, or a combination of all these things?
 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, with a new generation of civic leaders, planners and architects, comes a new grand plan for the city, this one called Chester's "One City" proposal, which is designed to bring together all of the various parts, or "Quarters", of the city together. Finally recognising the damage done to Chester's historic city landscape by the highly restrictive and damaging Inner Ring Road system during the 1960's, which essentially "chopped" the city into a series of bits, the latest "One City" proposal is at least an attempt to bring these disparate bits back into one single city-scape, although whether that's actually physically possible remains to be seen. At it's heart is an attempt to undo history, which is impossible, as the buildings and the features that were torn out of the ground to make way for the ring-road are long gone, never to be replaced.
 
And anyway, what right has anyone to have confidence that this generation of civic leaders, planners and architects will be any more insightful or successful than their predecessors? Rather than insisting on a new Northgate Quarter design that is sympathetic to the landmark buildings that already exist, the Town Hall, the Coach House, the Library facade, the Art Deco Odeon, or indeed the ancient Cathedral, once again they have chosen to "modernise" the landscape with today's cutting edge designs and materials.
 
One only has to look at the proposed designs put forward a few years ago for the planned office buildings at Gorse Stacks, which was said by most to have resembled a "Glass Slug". Or maybe people should consider the new bus station that's currently being constructed on the site now? An amorphic roof design with grass growing on the top, which is a significant distance from the proposed new Market Hall and that will doubtless cause all sorts of traffic problems for the already congested Inner Ring Road system. And that doesn't even begin to measure the damage that this new construction will cause to the aesthetic quality of the Gorse Stacks skyline, backed as it is by the main tower of the city's Cathedral, the city walls and King Charles' Tower, virtually all of which have now been blocked out.
 
Going back to the Northgate Quarter itself, on the western flank of the proposed development area, fronting the section of the Inner Ring Road system known as St Martin's Way, it appears that almost the entire length of the roadway, from Watergate Street to King Street, will become a sheer cliff-face of glass, steel, wood, plastics and concrete, replicating and extending what is currently there in the shape of today's Crown Plaza Hotel. Already criticised for the adverse effect this new development will likely have on Chester's increasingly threatened historic skyline, it can only surely be a matter of time before more serious modern encroachment occurs and once that happens, what price Chester's history and heritage then?
 
It used to be the case that the uniqueness of Chester was its elevated galleries, or Rows, populated by a multitude of novelty shops, art galleries, antique dealers, local tradesmen and little specialist outlets. At street level there was the likes of individual newsagents, map sellers, toyshops, booksellers, fishmongers, jewellers, cobblers, shoe-shops, bars, cafes, restaurants and numerous other retailers, some of which were simply a branch of a large high street chain, but also many of whom were entirely Chester-based, owned and run. Not any more! Increasingly, the vast majority of Chester's retail units are owned and run by high street multiples whose presence in the city is a "given", as it would be in any other modern British shopping centre. Be it a McDonalds, a Tesco, a KFC, a Miss Selfridges, a Primark, or any other common high street shopping name, they'll be somewhere in the city, with the result that despite its history, its architecture, its elevated galleries, or even its out-of-place shopping centres, Chester is now no different in terms of shopping content than any other city in the British Isles. In fact it has become so similar to every other shopping centre in the country that it even has mainstream charity shops occupying units in the historic rows and the absolute absurdity of having supermarkets chains occupying a row level shop unit, as well as one of the oldest former pub buildings in the city.
 
Even accepting that a great many people find the whole retail experience exciting or therapeutic, one might still ask the most obvious question, why would you go to Chester, when the likes of Liverpool, Manchester, Warrington, or even Cheshire Oaks are likely to be bigger and better? After all, not only have they spent considerably more on reinventing themselves as regional retail shopping centres, but also have the infrastructure to deal with large numbers of visitors and shoppers, unlike Chester, which was never designed to cope with the levels of traffic that it is forced to handle today, even more-so since its ability to grow was restricted by the 1960's Inner Ring Road system.
 
Rather bafflingly, one of the main planners of Chester's "One City" proposal seems to blame the city's Roman grid-like layout for the fracturing of its various "Quarters", when in fact there didn't appear to be such a major problem, prior to the Inner Ring Road being laid down, which seems to have  encouraged even more road traffic into the city. There's a suggestion that the ring-road has acted as a restriction to Chester's growth, preventing its retail centre from spreading outward, as would normally happen, had the likes of Northgate Street, Foregate Street and Brook Street, not been severed and choked off by the new road system. Any number of pre-existing houses and business premises were simply bulldozed out of existence to make way for the ring-road, properties that may well have provided the growing space for many of Chester's new and emerging businesses.
 
But therein lies Chester's greatest difficulty, a problem that has existed for years and that will continue to exist until these same civic leaders, planners and architects choose to deal with it.....the city's traffic. It's arguable whether or not the two new projects in Chester, the Northgate Quarter and the Gorse Stacks Bus Station will actually solve any of the congestion problems that currently affect the city, or will they in fact make them worse? It seems unlikely that the levels of traffic servicing the Northgate Quarter will be lessened, simply because of the presence of the various stores, market traders, hotel guests and city visitors who will use the new parking facilities being provided in that area. Moving the Princess Street bus services to Gorse Stacks, where it is bounded by the ring-road and the George Street access road to the Frodsham Street car parks seems equally problematic, so how exactly does either scheme represent any sort of improvement to the level of traffic chaos Chester regularly experiences?
 
As was said right at the beginning of this post, change is often a necessary thing, especially when it relates to people's health and well-being, but change simply for the sake of change is often unwise and proves to be more costly in the long run. In terms of what's been done to Chester's historic buildings in the past, clearly it's impossible to undo the damage that's been done, as after all, those buildings cannot be rebuilt or those lost treasures replaced.
 
And as was also said earlier, it's unlikely that anyone would grieve over the impending loss of the 1960's utilitarian monstrosities that currently inhabit the Chester Northgate Quarter, but then no-one should believe that it's perfectly acceptable to replace them with a modern day version of the same thing. It surely must be a mark of almost immediate failure if the designers and architects of the new Northgate Quarter only see their creations in place for the next forty, fifty or sixty years, assuming of course that they even last that long? The "baby" of the four landmark Chester buildings that currently inhabit this part of the city, the Art Deco design Odeon, has lasted and been preserved because it's special, as are the Library facade, the old Coach House, the Town Hall and obviously the city Cathedral, but can anyone say the same for any of the new buildings that will sit alongside them?
 
It clearly seems to be the case that some of those who are charged with running the city, its civic leadership, are only too happy to put personal legacy, financial consideration and perhaps even individual vanity before the need to protect the city for its future generations of Cestrians. Building a better future for the people of Chester is a perfectly acceptable approach to take, provided it's not done at the expense of its past, otherwise what's going to make our home city any different from anywhere else in the UK? Chester is indeed fortunate enough to have a small number of worthwhile; and in some cases world famous attractions that draw large numbers of people to the city, including its Zoo, its Racecourse and its almost unique collection of disparate buildings, be they churches, elevated shopping galleries, Georgian townhouses, or even its city walls and half-recovered amphitheatre. Contrast that to the numbers of retail customers who might make a special journey into Chester to purchase goods or services from a store or a provider that they couldn't find elsewhere in the northwest of England, assuming of course that you can think of one. The point is; from a purely retail perspective there is nothing new or unique about Chester at all, but from a tourism point of view, there is much to commend it and by spoiling or neglecting that particular brand, you damage the city's economy.
 
Those paid to promote Chester to the wider world would have us believe that Chester is currently attracting tens of millions of visitors each and every year, yet when pressed on any firm figure will admit that they don't actually know, as there's no real way to count people coming to the city, or indeed for how long. However, rather than anything like the 31m people bandied about by some, the true figure is likely somewhere well below 10m, but not less than a couple of million. Taking into account that Chester's biggest and most notable tourist attraction is Chester Zoo, with 1.6m visitors a year, then adding 230,000 for the Cathedral, 295,000 for Chester Races and a further 100,000 for the Chester Museum, you could quite easily see that the city (assuming that you include the Zoo) probably attracts 3-4m visitors every year, about 1/10th of what's claimed for it by some.
 
An equally extraordinary argument put forward by one of those responsible for promoting Chester to a global audience, was that the city having a rich and varied heritage wasn't enough to attract visitors; and that the city needed to have the sorts of retailers and restaurants that are generally and widely available elsewhere in the UK. Which sort of begs an obvious question, are visitors coming to Chester for the sort of shopping and dining they can get in virtually every other city in the country, or are they coming to Chester for its history, heritage and ambience?
 
Once again it seems the basic argument comes back to what sort of city Chester sees itself as. Is it fundamentally a tourist destination that tries when it can to incorporate modernism, but without risking or damaging its core historic fabric? Or does Chester see itself as a leading retail shopping centre, competing with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester; at the same time being prepared to sacrifice whatever architectural and archaeological treasures the city possesses in pursuit of the customers money? It seems beyond doubt than Chester cannot be both, despite the best efforts of its civic leaders to try and prove otherwise. Given the outcomes thus far and the loss of innumerable and irreplaceable buildings to date, one cannot imagine that there's much to feel optimistic about for the future either.     

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