Coventry 2010. A city just starting to emerge from the financial crisis and the recession that followed. A city not quite sure where it was going. It knew it had a future, knew that the foundations were in place for a successful and sustained period of recovery, but it was also one still scratching its head about what to do with its much-maligned and ailing city centre.

There were plans, there are always plans, and much fanfare accompanied the glossy renders released by Jerde – the ‘visionary’ American company charged with re-imaging the city centre. There are many words to describe what they came up with – visionary is one, bonkers being another.

Coventry needed something, but it probably wasn’t something so conceptual, with roof-top gardens and giant eggs. Daring is fine – but even Willy Wonka knew when to reign it in.

It came to nothing, and while Coventry is still waiting for concrete (but preferably not concrete) plans to address its chronic retail offering, things have moved on in recent years in a way that seen unimaginable at the beginning of the decade.

Things Are Changing

Coventry is building, and building in a way not seen for a generation or more. The skyline is one of tower cranes, views across the city littered with pockets of activity on sites that have festered for years, home to nothing but pipedreams and tumbleweed. It is a reassuring sight, and one that doesn’t begin to tell the story of about what is about to happen as some of the biggest and most ambitious projects wait in the wings.

Is the city’s obvious potential about to be realised? Are the locals happy about it? The answer to the first question is maybe, the second question, not particularly.

Can it really be the case that the local population are objecting as the city centre they have spent a lifetime defending or avoiding (sometimes both) changes from a disjointed concrete hotchpotch into something resembling a err..well, a city centre?

It is difficult to say, because those who vent their spleen most vocally are perhaps just a determined minority, a group so accustomed to being angry that they’re simply incapable of being anything but. Angry that nothing happens, angry when something happens. Just angry.

Perhaps they are the minority, perhaps the silent majority look on with cautious optimism; or maybe they’re just indifferent to it all. Indifference is something of a local delicacy in Coventry – a dish, they say, best served with a ‘kebab batch’.

The objection, or at least the principle one, is that these projects are aimed at students. The student, that otherworldly being, a creature of the night, riddled with self-confidence, a sense of ambition and STDs. Other people, not us, but them – when are the city council going to do something for us they cry. When will they build something for the people (although I’m still not sure what exactly qualifies a person to fall within this definition of worthiness – a loyalty card at Sports Direct perhaps, a heightened sense of entitlement – who knows).

The city council are not building anything of course. These projects are funded by private developers and banks – driven by market demand on the back of the astonishing rise of Coventry University (and the continued success of Warwick University). A local success story, and one to be celebrated? Well, you would have thought so.

This success, the fact that Coventry University is now the destination of choice for many students who see a four year stint in Coventry as desirable rather than necessary, is not without its complications.

There is not enough student specific accommodation, and this creates pressure points in the local rental market as students spill out into residential areas on a scale not seen before and landlords fill their pockets in the process.

Solving A Real Problem

Purpose-built student accommodation helps resolve a practical and very real problem – the added benefit being that city centre sites – often vacant and derelict pieces of land that have been marketed to developers for years with no interest – are brought back into use. The council have encouraged this, and why wouldn’t they? Also, given the amount of available sites it is hardly as though these new developments are at the expense of others that are deemed more ‘worthy’, and surely the possibility and feasibility of future leisure and retail led developments increases the more people there are living in the city centre. This has to be the hope. Is there evidence of that? Some, but given that many of the larger schemes are either under construction or yet to start, judgement on this must surely be reserved.

The accusation leveled at Coventry City Council in the past is that they have been so desperate for something to happen, that they have allowed developers to throw up pretty much anything – and this is a valid criticism. Ikea is probably the most recent example of this (a loathsome building with the same aesthetic qualities as the ‘Lack’ coffee table I recently hurled into a skip), and further back you can point to Cathedral Lanes and West Orchards.

There is evidence of that too with some of the student developments in recent years. The council’s involvement and support of the conversion of the former Axa building was misguided, and the end result less than successful; fuel for the fire of the naysayers.

More recently however we have seen a spate of proposals where design, massing and use of materials have been key considerations. Gosford Gate, Godiva Place, Millennium View, Bishopgate – it’s hard to find fault with any of them. They all bring into use vacant sites that seem to be unsuitable for any other use (often close to or immediately adjacent to the ring road). They all incorporate other uses – usually ground level retail units, and they all attempt to be sensitive to the locale and use materials that are appropriate.

On closer inspection you might be able to pick holes in each of them, and of course design is entirely subjective. Despite this, there is surely no denying the positive impact these developments will have on both on the skyline and perceptions of the city. The city centre economy will benefit both day and night, and pressure will ease on the housing rental market, bringing down the inflated pricing and helping many families find a suitable home at a price they can afford. It’s win-win-win-win, isn’t it? Well, not for some it would seem. They need something to moan about and nothing I can say will make any difference. I guess that makes me one of ‘them‘. So be it.

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