Regular visitors to this site will know that we pay keen attention to city centre regeneration projects and that we take a glass-half-full view where we can.  There is certainly a good deal to be positive about.

This view is not shared by everyone, and the reaction when ‘yet another’ student residential scheme is mooted can often range anywhere from lukewarm to outraged. The hysteria that greets these announcements is something we recently covered in some detail – http://coventrytoday.co.uk/coventrys-construction-boom/ – so we won’t go into that again here.  Needless to say, the locals aren’t happy.

There are a number of reasons that might explain the strength of feeling on this issue; not least that many people in the city have a natural predisposition to cynicism. I’ve not read the Wikipedia entry for Marvin The Paranoid Android, but I’m pretty confident that if I did, I’d discover that he was made in Coventry, quite possibly in a factory now being converted into student flats.  I like to think so anyway.

This glass-half-empty attitude explains a lot but is perhaps only half the story.  When locals complain about the city centre and bemoan the developments that are taking place, it can not be explained by cynicism alone.  Many of these people will venture in the city centre to do one thing and one thing only, to shop, and this remains a pretty miserable experience.  You don’t need to be a miserable old cynic to acknowledge that.

The tower cranes currently visible on the city’s skyline may create the impression of a city on the up, but none of the projects are likely to alter the experience of those that journey into the city’s retail core, an area where the sense of decay and neglect is tangible.

I have to confess, despite being invested in the city and a proud citizen of it, I rarely visit the city centre for any other reason that because I need to buy something.  I am not a keen shopper, on the contrary, and I am also very easy to please. Personally, I could not give two hoots about the lack of a flagship department store.  I doubt I’d use it, but I also understand that the lack of one is decidedly odd for a city of Coventry’s size, and the unwillingness of John Lewis et al. to invest in the city is an indictment of a chronic retail offering and a built environment that is simply not befitting.

Nothing I am saying here is news.  Our local political leaders are acutely aware of the problem, and will often reference the city’s lowly retail ranking and will admit that the underperforming city centre continues to punch well below its weight.  They also appear incapable of doing anything about it.

Jerde
Jerde Proposal

At first, there was Jerde, a £1 billion re-imagining of the city centre that was almost Disney-esque, and widely ridiculed.  The Jerde masterplan was unveiled in September 2008.  Eight years on, aside from some public-realm titivation, little or nothing has changed.

Hot on the heels of Jerde we had City Centre South, an attempt at toning down the Jerde plans into something a little less insane and a little more viable.  These proposals emerged in 2011 and received outline planning permission a year later.  Five years on and the public realm titivation continues, and the estimated completion date for City Centre South has now been pushed back to a distant and yet wildly optimistic 2020.

The status of the City Centre South plans is unclear, and the wall of silence from the City Council suggests that the decision to put the project back out to tender has been less than successful.  Queensbury Real Estate (QRE) was granted a year’s exclusivity to develop the £147 million scheme in 2014, but a year later it was decided to allow other developers the opportunity to submit proposals, primarily because the QRE scheme would have required significant financial support from the local authority for land acquisition.  The council were left with little choice but to test the market again, not least from a legal standpoint.

City Centre South Coventy 2
City Centre South

This process began in the autumn of 2015, with a ‘final announcement’ due in the Spring of 2016.  The announcement never came, and while vague references to City Centre South have been made in relation to possible WMCA funding, the project appears to have disappeared from the agenda, at least publicly.

The lack of commercial interest is perhaps understandable in an age of internet shopping and at a time when major names are disappearing from the High Street altogether.  A massive expansion of retail in Coventry is perhaps unrealistic, although, given its chronic underperformance and a rising population, one would have thought there is scope for some expansion or at the very least a significant improvement to what is already there.

So why the lack of interest given that it is universally acknowledged that retail in Coventry falls well short of what you would expect, even in a climate where High Street retail is in decline?  After all, there are many examples of towns and cities that have recently seen new retail developments open or construction begin.

Perhaps then, it is simply that we are taking the wrong approach entirely.  City Centre South may not be Jerde ambitious, but it is ambitious.  Is it sensible that before we do anything, it is necessary that we secure a developer willing to take the entire masterplan forward?  Would a more gradual approach not be more sensible?  This approach need not be piecemeal; it could work to an overall masterplan while at the same time allow the different elements to be broken up and be delivered as distinct and standalone projects.

City Centre South 3
City Centre South

Hertford Street is a perfect example.  Is it not feasible that the same gradual and long-term approach adopted by CDP on Far Gosford Street be applied here?  Remove the canopy, return the street to one level along its full length, remove the Nationwide infill – these are all measures that would rejuvenate Hertford Street, undo the post-war butchering and unlock its potential.

Evidently not, because before anything substantial can take place along Hertford Street, a developer needs to commit to wholesale changes that stretch all the way to Coventry Market and Corporation Street.  It seems that by agonising about how much needs to be done and by trying to implement a grand vision that covers everything, we have somehow engineered a situation where we do nothing.

Would it also not be wise to divert the monies allocated for public realm schemes away from areas with little or no footfall to the retail areas that have heavy footfall?  In all the proposals I have seen, there has never been any suggestion that the Upper Precinct will be demolished.  Why then do we not use the public realm money there?  Replace the horrible block-paving, the old toilet entrances, the West Orchards escalator, perhaps even the ramp to the upper levels; these are changes that could have a positive impact, but we’re too busy chasing the Holy Grail that is City Centre South that we just allow everything to decay further.

I do not profess to be a planning expert or to fully understand the vast complexities involved in delivering large regeneration projects.  What I do understand is this; that eight years after we began to explore how we might address the under-performing retail sector in Coventry, we are no further forward.  We’re not even inching forward; we’re at a standstill.  Perhaps it is time for a complete change of approach because the road we’re going down appears to be a dead-end.  We could try to force our way through the brick wall at the end of it, but that’d probably cause a bit of a mess.  It’s time we turned around and went back to the beginning – it might even get us to our destination quicker.

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