The conundrum of what to build on the flattened site of Greyfriars Bus Station in the centre of Northampton continues despite an investigation by Mayfair planning consultants Montagu Evans.
The firm lists among its clients The British Museum, The O2 Arena and Crossrail – advising on extensions and design schemes that have shaped some iconic developments – but the void at the centre of Northampton seems to have them flummoxed.
They have been pretty clear about what mustn’t happen. It can’t be wrong.
However details of the Montagu Evans feasibility study released by Northampton Borough Council show there is no obvious answer to what should be built on a site which will by virtue of geography at least will be something of a centrepiece for the town.
One thing that does seem likely to happen is the pedestrianisation of Greyfriars – in the mid-term. In the short term the council needs to find a use for the site and in the long term it also needs to find a use for the site.
Northampton Borough Council statement on Greyfriars development:
Chartered surveyor and property consultant Montagu Evans was commissioned to look into potential uses, establish preferred options and conducted viability assessments in order to recommend next steps.
The company considered a mix of uses as well as looking at the viability for four single-use office and residential options, none of which in the current economic climate would offer a likelihood of breaking even. The option most likely to succeed was residential accommodation with an estimated development deficit of £3 million
When considering the possibility of mixed-use development, including residential and leisure, there were predicted losses of between £12 million and £44 million.
Montagu Evans found that the key is to identify a mix of uses that balances viability and what is right for the town, which might require public sector intervention to be successful.
Its report stated that it is critical to get the regeneration of the Greyfriars site right and not to rush it to market without a plan for how it will integrate it into the wider town. If this was to happen it would be a missed opportunity that has the potential to damage the town in the long term.
Cllr Jonathan Nunn, Council leader and Northampton Forward Chairman, said: “It will likely cost upwards of ten million pounds in public funding to make development on this site possible.
“The Greyfriars site needs to be easily accessible and form an integral part of the town centre, and of good quality. Previous ideas have not addressed these important needs, and it’s clear that although local people want something to happen on Greyfriars, they want it to be of a high calibre.
“Greyfriars is far too strategically important to the town centre for us to leave its fate to the open market, and in the recent consultation people told us how important it is to them. They deserve any development to be the best it can possibly be.”
To improve viability and integrate it into the wider town centre, it would be necessary to recreate north-south links and pedestrianise a significant section of Greyfriars road to integrate the site into the town centre. This has been recognised and now forms a major part of our wider master plan for the town.
Cllr Tim Hadland, Council Cabinet member for regeneration and enterprise, said: “The process to change the designation of roads is notoriously lengthy and involved but would be necessary if we are to realise the full scope of our plans for that part of town.
“We now appreciate the need to reopen those connections between Greyfriars with the wider town centre, which will take several years to achieve.
“This is now factored into our wider master-planning for the town, enabling us to move forward with preparations for future development on the site.
“In the meantime, we are considering potential short-term uses to ensure Greyfriars doesn’t remain empty, and we’ll be progressing with improvements to the priority areas highlighted within the masterplan.
“These include Market Square, Abington Street and the route in from Northampton Railway Station which will help make the town more attractive to investors.”
Meanwhile, a few hundred yards away in one of the great examples of a cobbled English market square, Northampton Borough Council is mulling the idea of a glass food hall to entice high end food shopping opportunities into the town centre.
They must be kicking themselves for demolishing the old Fishmarket Arts Centre with its sumptuous Gothic Victorian tiling six years ago, especially now that the town centre management playbook is all about non-retail offers to increase footfall.
Perhaps the Market Square should be left as it is. Perhaps a bigger whole should be seen where the trendy new glass thing goes on the Greyfriars site: delis, cafes, galleries, some extra bus bays round the outside, a rooftop park obviously…