Sunday, 15 December 2013

Tesco turns its back on North Street

In November 2013 Tesco submitted a planning application (Z/2013/1308/F) to reconfigure part of the Sinclair House building at Royal Avenue and North Street for use as a c3,400ft2 Tesco Express store. Tesco acquired a lease for the unit until 2033 at a rent of c£56,000 per annum.

Sinclair House is a unique art-deco faience-clad building fronting onto both Royal Avenue and North Street. The building was built in two stages between 1926 - 1936 by James Scott for Sinclair's Department Store and now sits between the Cathedral Conservation Area (1990) and the Belfast City Centre Conservation Area (1998).

Existing North Street frontage. 15 December 2013.

North Street can be traced back more than 200 years as a key route leading from the historic Four Corners. The street has faced a turbulent history in recent history, demolition resulting from the 1941 Blitz, being located outside the city centre security barriers during the 'Troubles', redevelopment led by the Laganside Corporation, devastating fire at North Street Arcade and continued uncertainty over the future of the proposed multi-million pound Royal Exchange project. Despite these adverse conditions a number of local businesses have continued to operate from North Street.

'Dead frontage'
As part of Tesco's planning application over 90% of their frontage at North Street will consist of:
  • Grey 'steel skinned and framed security door'
  • Grey fibre cement clad wall
  • Grey ventilation louvers
  • Grey '3-fan refrigeration unit condenser in louvered enclosure'

Proposed North Street elevation (Z/2013/1308/F).

Proposed floor plan (Z/2013/1308/F).

The photograph below demonstrates the potential connection to St Anne's Cathedral, Writers Square, University of Ulster and the Cathedral Quarter from the North Street frontage of Sinclair House. The current planning application submitted by Tesco removes any potential connection and turns its back on the historic North Street, the listed St Anne's Cathedral, vibrant Cathedral Quarter and the University of Ulster redevelopment.

Connection from St Anne's Square, Writers Square, Cathedral Quarter
and University of Ulster along Church Street. 15 December 2013.

Closer view of the proposed North Street frontage (Z/2013/1308/F).

What the policy says

The latest design guidance from DoE Planning, Living Places: An Urban Stewardship & Design Guide for NI (draft) emphasises the need for 'vibrant and diverse' urban places with 'active frontages'.
Buildings contribute greatly to ... our streets and spaces. It is important, therefore, that they are planned and designed in manner which maximises the activation of ground floor frontages. This is achieved by locating activity generating uses on the ground floor of buildings... 
Long ground floor stretches of blank wall, frosted window or car park openings must be avoided so to ensure that our urban centres remain active, safe and attractive.

This is not the first time the DoE have recognised the significance of active frontages. More than twenty years ago the Cathedral Conservation Area Guidance explained that:
Active shop fronts and building facades are themselves an important advertisement for an area and enhance its overall character.

Sinclair House sits between the Cathedral Conservation Area and the City Centre Conservation Area so we thought it only fair to turn to the latter also. What did we find? A prominent full page sketch of Sinclair House on page 23.

Sinclair House featured prominently across a full page of
DoE's 1998 Belfast City Centre Conservation Area Guidance.

What do DSD say? The North East Quarter Masterplan regeneration objectives state that development in this area (which includes North Street) must:
...respect the built fabric, character and historic street form of the Cathedral Quarter Conservation Area character and policy with particular attention to bringing the listed buildings back into productive use...

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency's Historic Buildings Unit were consulted on the planning application submitted by Tesco. In their response dated 9th December 2013 they state that:
NIEA: HBU considers that the proposal is contrary to Policy BH8 of the Department's Planning Policy Statement 6: Planning, Archaeology and the Built Heritage in that the building is listed under Article 42 of the Planning (NI) Order 1991 and the alterations would, if permitted, impair the essential character of the building, make use of unsympathetic building materials which are not in keeping with those found on the building, and incorporate architectural details which are not in keeping with those found on the building.
While new commercial activity would be both positive and welcome, alterations to achieve this should not further degrade the integrity of this historic building...

NIEA:HBU recommend that:
The plan should be revised to ensure that plant and utilitarian service functions do not dominate the shopfront on North Street. 
[Reason] The proposal shows an existing shop front on North Street replaced with air conditioning units, a staff room (with one small window), an emergency exit door and a 3-fan refrigeration condenser unit. 

Should this design incorporating 'dead frontage' along North Street have been submitted as a planning application by AMCA Architects and Tesco? Planning Policy Statement 1: General Principles (DoE, 1998) states:
Good design should be the aim of all those involved in the development process and will be encouraged everywhere ... [and] … applicants for planning permission will have to be able to demonstrate how they have taken account of the need for good design in their development proposals

Where is the evidence to support 'active frontages'? As recently as August 2013 Urban Design International published research which suggested that:
… the quality of an active frontage can significantly affect people’s perceptions of a public space in terms of its safety, comfort, sociability and liveliness. Good-quality active frontages can contribute to creating successful public spaces, which can help deliver far-reaching benefits for towns and cities.
(Urban Design International, 28 August 2013) 

Demolition with no Listed Building Consent

As part of the planning application submitted by Tesco an internal wall is identified for demolition to create a larger retail unit. Just one month after submitting a planning application and with no planning permission or Listed Building Consent Tesco demolished an internal wall within the listed Sinclair House. 

Internal wall of listed Sinclair House demolished with no Listed
Building Consent. Photographed Sunday 15 December 2013. 

Are Tesco pre-empting the planning process by demolishing this wall before acquiring Listed Building Consent from DoE Planning?

Is this national retailer proposing to turn its back on the historic North Street, the listed St Anne's Cathedral, vibrant Cathedral Quarter and the University of Ulster redevelopment?

Situated between the Cathedral Conservation Area and the City Centre Conservation Area, within a listed building, is this the design that Belfast deserves from Tesco and AMCA Architects?

Closer view of the proposed North Street frontage (Z/2013/1308/F).

The planning application submitted by Tesco and AMCA Architects has yet to be determined by DoE Planning and therefore potential still exists to alter the proposal submitted. 

To comment on the planning application you can email: (quoting reference Z/2013/1308/F) or write to Belfast Area Planning Office, Local Planning Division, Department of the Environment, Bedford House, 16-22 Bedford Street, Belfast, BT2 7FD (quoting reference Z/2013/1308/F).

No comments:

Post a Comment