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A few weeks ago, amble was invited to attend a feedback session on the Northgate Development, held at shop unit 7 in The Forum Shopping Centre. The update was led by Rob Monaghan (Market Development).

As Phase One and months of consultation (on the look and feel) draw to a close, and the team have just submitted a planning application for the main carpark (788 spaces), they wanted to outline some of the changes they’ve made as a result of community feedback.

It was an opportunity for us to get the latest info, have a refresh on dates and raise any questions and concerns.

Firstly, let’s clarify the new car park planning app – it’s needed because the previous approval was for a hotel (no longer part of the scheme), which is obviously a completely different build and purpose. The original approach was to knock down the existing Crowne Plaza, replace it with House of Fraser and rebuild the hotel. When HoF pulled out, it was back to the drawing board. A decision was made that, due to the high demand for good quality, safe car parking spaces in the city, the plot should be instead used for a multi-storey carpark.

They’re hoping to get consent on this application by September, start enabling dev works in Dec and kick off the full project officially in Jan 2020.

What’s changed as a result of community feedback?

The carpark building will now feature rounded edges and a diverse set of panels to the exterior – green, living walls. The cycle hub, originally proposed to be on the ground floor on St Martin’s Way, will no longer be located here as a result of feedback from cyclists – instead cycle parking will be available at various spots around the main site. It also means the use of previous cycle hub site is up for negotiation – art gallery? Space for hire? Discussions are ongoing.

They’ve acknowledged the concern from residents looking for reassurance that independent businesses aren’t priced out of the development. Three, large retail spaces have been claimed by Tapas Revolution, Cosy Club (old library) and Zizzis. But there will be a significant amount of space across the rest of the site – the Arcade could be split into multiple units for smaller businesses and part of the Hunters Walk Building (old library) will be available. They’re also looking at a possible co-working space for freelancers.

The team envision a combination of chains and independents – as the community have an appetite for both. I get the sense that a considerable amount of space is also intended to be for flexible use, ever-changing in what it hosts and delivers.

Access was raised as a concern. Two lift cores will run through the main carpark, each with capacity for 21 people. The lifts will both stop at Market level, for direct access to the Market. Eventually, they want to deliver large, bi-folding doors opening onto Princess Street, which can only be achieved once The Forum is demolished – this will be the primary access into the Market. They’ve had issues with the gradient of the land on Hunter’s Street and the access point into the building – and they’re considering a ramp arrangement to address and providing several rest points along the length of the street.

A rough idea of the Square (previously referred to as Market Square – the final name is up for debate) has just been marked out in white over the old bus station site. A smaller square could be a temporary stage. The new square will be a flexible space for a variety of uses.

They’re determined to maintain the buzz and vibrancy of the current Market, as it moves to its new home and a lot of thought and planning is going into this journey. The interior will be looked at more in June and July and they’d be delighted to receive ideas from the public.

As you come through the Square and enter the Market,  you’ll hit a food-based street which opens up into the main seating area. Goods and service businesses will make up the periphery. The idea is to create two completely different atmospheres as the Market transitions from day to night – exciting ideas around this are ongoing.

The upper, Mezzanine level will offer significant, flexible space – it could be used for corporate events, co-working, pop-ups, eating, and even a gallery. This area might be extended over some of the Market stalls – a seating/dining area which looks out over the rest of the Market – similar to Rotterdam Market. A small, separate lift will run from the Market level to the Mezzanine.

There’s going to be room for bus stops in front of the carpark on St Martin’s Way and adjacent to the Hunter’s Street entrance, but it’s going to be up to bus operators whether they make use of these opportunities. The current, free, ShopHopper service which takes people from the new bus station to the Market runs until August when it will be reviewed.

Sing it from the Rooftop

A heated area of discussion during the meeting was the roof of the multi-storey car park. With one of the best views in Chester, out across North Wales, available from the top, attendees were keen to hear how we could maximise this and create something for general public use. This wonderful vision (think wildflower, sculpture garden, or g&t pop-up and deck chairs – a few suggestions from the crowd) struggles against actual take up and commerciality.

Several businesses have been approached about making something of the roof and cited it’s just too far removed from the central hub of the development. And whilst, I agree, that the idea of the space as a home to several, seasonal exciting events and temporary marvels is highly-worth pursuing, the development team shared that each car park space is worth £30,000 per year. If they can’t recoup at least some of the costs then money is lost, including of course, the car park spaces themselves which occupy the roof space.

It’s a tricky one to manage, for a scheme that’s costing 60 million, and only valued at 50 million. Making money has to be a focal factor, balanced of course by delivering something exciting and enticing for Chester locals and tourists alike. It’s understandable that the group rested on this subject for some time, keen to see if there was a way of delivering profit and a beautiful attraction.

The team pointed out that they’re building in flexibility to the carpark – the steel framework, so that if 20-30 years down the line it’s not fit for purpose (less cars about etc.), it can be adapted.

What Next?

Phase Two was previously going to be all about retail, which, with the loss of House of Fraser’s anchor store, has fallen through. The team are going to take a step back and decide what the new Phase Two needs to look like.

There’s a call from the crowd about making room for makers. An audience member says, ‘Retail theatre is doing well and that’s what we need to encourage.’ I agree, people are seeking and expecting an experience as part of shopping these days. Cynthia from Chester Visual Arts says, ‘We should be a leader in these wonderful design spaces where you can see their online products and their process too. It’s how we lock in value for the city economically.’

Again we’re back to that delicate balance between making money and encouraging start-ups, small businesses, experimental ideas and taking risks. The Northgate team were very receptive to all this feedback and made it clear that trial and error will be an ongoing expectation – they want to see what works and adapt to what people want and will make use of. There are still so many details that we can contribute thoughts on and it all feels very collaborative.

I’ll finish on this passionate appeal from Alan Wight (Cascade Productions), the Event Manager on the project: ‘Once the building work is done we’ll have two fantastic gathering spaces – the Square and the Market – in summer people dwell and gather. I’m really interested in what people want from these spaces and how they connect with the wider city. We want to stimulate the conversation and ask people and groups to claim the spaces – who wants them? What do you want to do? What do you want to see performed and available? We’re also getting inspired by what’s already fantastic in Chester and seeing how we can bring that in. This is the time to be playful. This project needs imagination and the ability to be hugely flexible so it can adapt to what the city needs in the future.’

Several ad-hoc, unscheduled events will take place across the site during summer to build excitement, so it’s worth strolling by every now and again to check in. Artists and writers have already added their vibrant work to a mysterious box within the square space.