Comments on the new Friarsgate Plans

Councillor Mike Wilcox
Lichfield District Council
Frog Lane
WS13 6YZ

Dear Councillor Wilcox

The Civic Society is most grateful for the opportunity to meet with you, Councillor Pritchard, officers and the team responsible for the development of the revised proposals for Friarsgate.

Overall our view is that the current proposals represent a significant improvement over the previous scheme. The changes and reductions in overall scale of commercial development content reflects the situation in the market and will hopefully enable a commercially viable project to be implemented. The mix of uses, subject to securing tenants for the retail units and leisure facilities, appears to be a good balance for the City centre.

The presentation and responses by the architect, Mr Simon Baker, were helpful and demonstrated that a number of the points raised in the public consultation and our comments have been reviewed and some amendments made to the proposals. There are however certain matters where we feel that further revisions are required and there are some points of detail we did not fully explore at the meeting. These are as follows:

1. The residential property on the corner of St John Street and Birmingham Road is the most sensitive location in the City Conservation Area affecting this development. Located opposite to St John's Hospital, a Grade I listed building, and abutting the District Council House Grade II listed building the site requires a scheme of a design and size that does not to adversely affect those buildings or their setting. We understand that the review by the MADE group has suggested that the design on the corner be modified to be less dominant and that opinion is welcomed. In addition, the current three-storey building is too high and is excessively dominant in relation to St John's Hospital. Production of a scaled elevation of St John's Hospital alongside an elevation of this new development would demonstrate this issue. Although the original scheme had buildings of a similar height approved it is still open to the Council as land owners to secure this improvement to significantly improve its acceptability in conservation terms. In the documentation prepared for the MADE presentation on the 'Design Proposal' page it states "Building fronting St John Street to be lower to respect Grade 1 listed property". It is evident that this objective has not yet been fully achieved. A reduction by one storey and exploring a redesign incorporating a mansard roof with tiled aspects to St John Street is essential.

The gable ends to the fronts of the St. John Street apartments are unwelcome because they derive from an essentially timber frame form that is based on structural necessity and so cannot be successfully replicated- this is why it looks inappropriate, especially at that scale and context. Overall the St John Street frontage is very bland, unrelieved by any detailing and punctuated by a regimented series of identical windows. Consideration should be given to some detailing to the elevation, whether in stone or brick.

Setting back of the front facade to St John Street by a "couple of metres" is a positive move although it does not preserve views of all the Cathedral spires from St John Street. The loss of views of St Mary's Church and the Cathedral from Birmingham Road and the absence of a walkway through the site as envisaged by John Chatwin's design concept are omissions that underline the need for the St John Street housing to be smaller in scale and set back to preserve views of the Cathedral from the St John Street approach.

2. The general shopping street needs much greater stylistic coherence perhaps by using variable modular forms that allows for differing types of trades and tenants without the weak and doubtful reflection of past forms.

3. The graded access from Birmingham Road through the scheme is a significant improvement. The MADE group suggestion of widening the stairs from the upper level to the open area is sensible. For the disabled, wheel chair users and those with push chairs or prams it seems the access to the lifts is not well located. Could an additional access be provided directly from the 'balcony' area to the lifts?

4. On traffic management the Council's proposal for live information on car parking utilisation and spare capacity is welcome. We noted that discussions about the highway implications are in progress. Our view is that the introduction of a 'SCOOT' traffic control system to minimise congestion and improve traffic flows should be a requirement that this project secures or contributes towards. The scheme initially should include the Tesco T junction and Greenhill junction through to the St John Street/Birmingham Road junction.

It is important to have a safe pedestrian crossing point from the St John's Hospital corner to the Birmingham Road corner currently the Friarsgate Ford garage. This crossing point requires restoration of a pedestrian refuge in the middle of the road and/or a phase in the traffic light controls when pedestrians can cross safely. Pedestrians going north towards Greenhill along Birmingham Road might well find it challenging to cross where vehicles are entering the car park where there are four lanes to cross. If a pedestrian crossing was included, it would be at the cost of increased congestion on a critical stretch of one of the busiest roads in the City.

Completing continuity of cycle ways along Birmingham Road to the scheme needs resolving. The solution may impact upon the design of this project.

We noted the comment that the service yards' layouts have been revised. We are obviously concerned about the viability of manoeuvring large delivery vehicles in and out of and within the development and trust this aspect will be carefully scrutinised to ensure adequate provision is being made.

5. We noted that investigations are progressing on the best layout for the new bus station. We understand the desire to minimise the space utilised; it is however, essential that the layout facilitates easy and safe use by passengers and that the capacity provided ensures that continued growth in bus station movements, including daily calls by National Express coaches, can be accommodated.

The space allocated for the bus station may give rise to unacceptable and hazardous air pollution in this location it being in close proximity to shops and residential development. Noise from vehicles and late night revellers may also be a nuisance for occupiers. It would be helpful if it could be explained how these problems can be mitigated in the design.

A location for coach parking needs to resolved before this scheme commences.

6. The design, materials and finishes are, as we mentioned at the meeting, critical aspects of this project in terms of its role of complementing and enhancing the City Conservation Area. We consider the Council as the land owner should insist upon this aspect being a very high priority which does not fall victim to or becomes comprised by cost pressures.

On the issue of street furniture consideration should be given of the style and design of seating, litter bins, street lighting to be provided and the desirability of compatibility with provision elsewhere in the City centre. Similarly, careful selection of the floorscape materials will be an important factor in securing an attractive high quality environment within the scheme.

The Society supports the need for redevelopment on the site and consider the proposals have the potential to secure a better outcome than the previously agreed scheme. We sincerely hope that it can be successfully delivered and has a good take up of the opportunities it presents. Our comments and suggestions are based upon a desire to see a high quality scheme that is distinctive whilst appropriate for the City Conservation Area and the nearby listed buildings. Some feedback on the issues we have raised would be appreciated.

Kind regards,

John Thompson,
Lichfield Civic Society.
2nd October, 2015