Birmingham Road Development

Corporate Planning Director,
Lichfield District Council,
Frog Lane,
Lichfield.

Dear Sir,

Application No: 06/00555/FULM 06/00554/CON - LAND AT BIRMINGHAM ROAD

The Society generally welcomes the regeneration of under-used and redundant land as a necessary process in the renewal of the City. The Birmingham Road site falls under this description and is perhaps even a greater change to the face of Lichfield than the Bakers Lane development of four decades ago. As such the application deserves the closest scrutiny if the outcome is to be the very best in securing a firm future for Lichfield that respects both its historic character and its social and commercial viability. Those responsible for this project therefore have a very heavy duty to create the best possible outcome that is widely acceptable and of the very highest excellence as the context is of national importance.

A first view of the application tells us that it owes nothing to an interpretation of the past, either in its land use or in the style of its elevations. The Society has a strong belief in exploring contemporary architectural forms in new building especially when novel functions are essential to the scheme and therefore new building types must be employed. However, the plans as submitted have some major areas of doubt that the Society feels must be addressed before the project can be said to be a convincing solution to the many problems that the site presents and even to those that the plan itself creates.

Overall the plan seems to be forcing the site to take on more development than it should. At many points the plan is over scaled; it is often a case of there being one floor too many, one function too large for comfort; this seems to be a very greedy plan.

The results of this forcing of the site to take on more than it should leads on to a variety of infelicitous and over scaled design solutions. A hotel block, flats, recreational facilities, car parking and a bus station all have to take on forms that are anomalous to what they could have been had there been no pressure to force on to them more than their siting could dictate. The leisure and retail block presents a long, high wall of mixed treatments that comprises large areas of brick, reconstituted stone and render that are very over-dominant, and lack any sympathy for the scale of the City Centre. The car parking has to be expanded to cater for the consequent inflation of need by the project overall, this in its turn creates problems of traffic interaction and flow. The bus station has to be squeezed out of the site in order to accommodate the pressures forced on the site by this over development which results in a foolishly wayward and optimistic solution presented by this plan. The developers have a tendency to create problems that could prove to be insoluble.

GENERAL CHARACTER AND IMPACT OF THE APPLICATION

Lichfield Conservation Area possesses a distinct architectural character with a delicacy of scale and variety of building forms that lie happily with each other, even though there are some glaring anomalies to this. The charm of Lichfield centre lies in its scale and intimacy, a weaving together of disparate elements over time that are all subservient to the dominance of the Cathedral. It is mostly very human in its varied textures and detailing which provides a pleasing backdrop to everyday living. It seems to be almost orchestrated in the way that the streetscape hangs together. In contrast, Bakers Lane is a poor example of retail shopping that tries to overlay a sixties design with a later revamp. The proposal attempts a varied but integrated scheme and tries to unify this diversity by a type of modernism that relies heavily on a relentless rectangularity of components, typified by structural elements and panels of varying kinds, tones and materials. This is overly insistent to the point of oppressiveness and is alien to the whole feeling of the historic core. In many ways it ignores much of current thinking that has introduced new flexibility to architectural forms. It is flawed in its basic elements and lacks any response in modern terms to the expectations set by the existing centre.

The hotel, the St. John Street flats and the Birmingham Road frontage are the chief areas that challenge the existing status and homogeneity of this principal entrance to the City. The reduction of much of the step roofline of the hotel is to be welcomed but the patterning of the exposed structure is still far too aggressive and needs to be radically reconsidered.

The proposal makes clear attempts to create diversity of form in response to the variety of uses in the brief. This is particularly evident along the Birmingham Road elevations where uses vary from residential to retail to recreational to residential again. However, these elevations are confused when examined in detail. For instance, the northern set of flats fails to establish a residential character with its sets of double storey windows and quasi-industrial roofs. The crude "half unit" in this section made to accommodate the new lane is in the worst possible practice obviously this section needs a complete rethink, as it verges on the ludicrous. Then there is a long range of recreational/retail units that are very clearly industrial in inspiration with their almost unrelieved brick/metal elevations no less than 14 metres high. This represents large areas of fascia that is heavy and monotonous and very much open to improvement either by lightening its materials or structure. As an instance the five large panels of equal size only serve to accentuate the over-scaled nature of the development in relation to the domestic scale of St. Johns Hospital, forming a visual barrier that is at odds with the general character of the historic core of the City. Any treatment of this section must have a finer grain than is anticipated by this design and be much more in tune in its detailing and materials. At present there is a great lack of imagination and understanding in the Birmingham Road overall that could be addressed only by the use of more sympathetic procedures.

The next element in this elevation is the car park entrance where we are confronted by a very large ribbed area of metal cladding approximately 14.5 m by 12m (174 sq m) that adds to the further mix of architectural features. This is followed by another series of geometric forms of cladding, mostly of brick, before coming to the main entrance staircase. This is a prime example of the results of forcing too much development onto the site as the car park of two floors necessitates a gratuitous heightening of the main ground level, presumably to save the cost of too deep excavation. Pedestrians are therefore made to climb to another level when all along the site is on a fairly moderate slope to begin with, which is hardly a policy to be recommended. Though the car park excavations have been deepened the Society's opinions remain unchanged regarding the elevation of the concourse above the general topography of the site. Every attempt should be made to safeguard the lie of the land, even at the expense of digging even deeper to secure this factor. Any other approach seems to be a penny- pinching measure at the inconvenience of the users in the future. One bonus would be that the general bulk of the development would be reduced to everyone's advantage, visually and physically. The developers have again created a problem that has forced a dubious solution that should never have been needed.

The Society welcomes the reduction of the height of the flats on St. John Street but has reservations regarding bringing the frontages forward to a building line parallel with St. Johns Hospital, removing the staggering in the initial design. There is no known history for such a reinstatement of such a line within possibly 300 years, as it was occupied by Yeomanry House which was (?) a Queen Anne House that was well set back further than the present car showroom and thus the precedent is weak. The staggered plan certainly has some virtues in that it revealed brick walls on the returns that presented a kindred textural aspect that had a relationship with the Hospital when coming from Upper St. John Street and also acted as a less abrupt introduction to the historic context: it will act as a "funnel" into the City. However, the general feeling of the design of the flats is still harsh and unsympathetic, having little organic relation with its surroundings as the flats will still be completely at odds with the whole character, scale and tone of the Hospital with its typical brickwork and above all its iconic functional chimneystacks. There is repetition in the elevations of the flats opposite but it will be that of monotony and a hard angular rectangularity so much seen in the rest of the development. The simple and straightforward character of the Hospital will be challenged by the hardness of the forms and materials so evident in their closest neighbours.

The over development of the site results in unsustainable traffic policies that bear little relationship to reality. It represents almost a perverse rejection of what seems obvious; namely that traffic interchanges are going to be overloaded to the point of deadlock due to the misplacing of the most important access points on the site. The capacity of the car park will be increased as will its use throughout the day and night and it is obvious that the already heavily overloaded Birmingham Road and St. John Street will also have to soak up expected national increases in road use. The development will therefore have to deal with an already difficult traffic situation; any additional loading will have to be very carefully considered if a very difficult situation is not to be worsened. A number of factors introduced by the project could easily cause the breakdown of the road system, particularly at the junction of Birmingham Road and St. John Street with implications for the Greenhill junction as well.

The main problem is caused by the clustering of conflicting access to the Birmingham Road at the car park entrance, the pedestrian crossing and the progress of buses to and from the bus station. Taken all in all there are no less than seven or eight streams of vehicles and pedestrians crossing in opposing directions within 50m. of each other, where at the moment these are spread out over a far greater distance. Even with the co-ordination of the two sets of traffic lights it is easy to see that this conflict of streams will be a potent agent for extreme hold-ups at most times, taking into account the human failure factor. This aspect of the plan must be rigorously changed if a workable traffic system is to be sustained at all. It simply won't do.

The siting of the bus station is the prime illustration of the results of the over-development previously noted in this comment. The only explanation for its move to the south side of Birmingham Road is to release land for more profitable uses on the north, onto public space land that is otherwise commercially unprofitable. In doing so it creates fresh problems that not only have an impact on road use mentioned above but also introduces new problems associated with drop-off times, stacking and the vagaries of human behaviour, and needs of both the drivers and passengers. To adopt a `just in time' policy as the major crux of traffic management seems totally unrealistic, as any fault in the process could easily throw the whole system out of kilter with a negative consequence on traffic flow. With so little stacking space, driver illness, bus breakdown and passenger incidents will scupper such arrangements as proposed.

It is obvious that dedicated stacking for far more buses is needed either within the scheme or elsewhere if the system if to work. Drivers will need a break. The carving out of the public open space and the destruction of the mature trees is highly objectionable in itself but it also creates difficulties in managing traffic coming down Station Road, which has to turn abruptly down a steep incline and then exit at the traffic pressure point on the Birmingham Road. The bus station scheme is extraordinarily flawed in its style, which, it must be said, verges on the bizarre in its conception.

The plan scarcely caters for the needs of heavy goods vehicles, either their greatly increased numbers or the increase of tri-axle articulated varieties that will create obstruction when turning into, or out of the complex, particularly into St. John Street when two vehicles could be entering or exiting at the same time. Again, the general set-up of the development promotes situations that would otherwise be unacceptable.

The Frog Lane residential elevations repeat the above noted features on Birmingham Road but this time they are even more evident a mis-match with their neighbours across the road that are vernacular in character and made of homely brick. They are overpowered both by its insistent forms, scale and rendering. The graphic illustration at the presentation makes the Society's point very effectively.

CONCLUSION

The application in no way responds to its context within Lichfield Conservation Area or its immediate environs. It is deeply alien in feeling, very over-developed and creates problems that it cannot solve. The Society is much concerned at the effect that this development will have on the rest of the city centre. It will set quite the wrong tone for a major entrance to the historic core, which is the only marketable commodity that the city possesses as a visitor attraction and will be the source of negative comment and damage to the city's reputation. They will think it a truly awful addition to a highly individual and attractive settlement. The development could also have a potentially damaging effect on the retail and commercial heart of the city and further draw customers away from essential purchasing there. The Society feels that the proposal is of such national importance that it should come under the scrutiny of the Secretary of State for Community and Development, Ruth Kelly.

Overall, everything rests on matters of scale; the proposal is simply overblown, physically and in expectations for its use. The design of elevations lacks any kind of unity and plays games with its disparate elements. This can only by redressed by a redesign of the elevations and by a vigorous rethink of the materials used, in conjunction with the previously mentioned downscaling.

SUMMARY

The following is a brief summary of the opinion of the Society in relation to the current application.

  • The proposal presents no appropriate relationship with the context of the historic core of the City in scale or in its design. The designs are very harsh in appearance.
  • The proposal is greatly over scaled; it is a very greedy plan, and too much is being forced into the site.
  • The Birmingham Road elevations have an alien feeling to them and seem to relate more to an industrial development than a welcoming presentation of the character of the City with a contemporary design context,
  • The raised platform of the plan is uncalled for as it introduces unwelcome factors into what is inherently gently rising slope that is an impediment to pedestrians that include the disabled.
  • The reduction in height of the hotel is welcomed but the grid structure elevations are harsh and need to be revised.
  • The proposal creates traffic problems that could be a major generator of congestion on the most important gateways to the City. There are clusters of conflicting interests particularly on the Birmingham Rd.
  • The Bus Station seems to present more difficulties at a sensitive point and seems to have no provision for human error in its traffic management.
  • The initial staggered plan of the St. John Street flats is to be preferred now that they are reduced in height.
  • The flats in Frog Lane are stylistically incompatible with the housing opposite and need to be reconsidered.
  • The development should be called in be the Secretary of State as it presents an unsuitable and over-developed scheme for a Cathedral City of the size and sensitivity of Lichfield.

Yours faithfully,

Alan Thompson,
Hon Secretary,
Planning Applications Advisory Group,
Lichfield Civic Society.
15th October, 2006