The Birmingham Road redevelopment: An urban design framework

By now, many members of the Society will know that the District Council is consulting residents over the redevelopment of this site, which comprises the former Kennings Garage, the bus station, the multi-storey car park and the police station. The Council believes that this is a major opportunity to improve Lichfield shopping and leisure facilities and in view of the sensitivity of the site, located as it is, adjacent to the city's historic core, a major consultation exercise is under way. To that end, John Colburn, the Director of Development Services, came to discuss the proposal at the Society's meeting on 19th July. Such is the importance of this scheme that attendance at the meeting was substantial and, predictably, a lengthy and intensive debate on the concept took place.

John made it clear that the first stage of the redevelopment was essentially to have a debate about an urban design framework which should respect the sensitivities of this area and the wider city centre core. A consultant urban designer, John Chatwin, has been engaged as consultant to advise on this framework which, when adopted, will become the basis for future detailed proposals. John Colburn stressed that at this stage no detailed designs had emerged; what we needed to get right was the location and relationship of spaces and potential built areas. He began by explaining to us that the Birmingham Road area of course contains one of the key arrival points in the city - the City Station and that John Chatwin's scheme recognised the need to create spaces linked from the City Station through to Frog Lane, Castle Dyke and Wade Street. Here was an opportunity to ensure that public transport facilities linked more satisfactorily to the city centre. Currently, persons arriving at the City Station have no obvious route through to the city centre and it was important that this desire line was reflected in the urban design framework - a route which used the distant spires of the cathedral as a pointer to your destination. It was therefore important that the route retained or opened up new vistas of the cathedral as it passed through a series of linked squares and open spaces towards the Civic Hall and eventually Bakers Lane.

It is also important for any new development in this part of the city core area to be fully integrated with existing city centre development. It should relate seamlessly to the rest of the area.

Although specific uses have not been allocated across the potential development site, the consultation document has identified two alternatives for comment. In one, the former Kennings Garage is proposed for a multi-storey car park with residential accommodation 'wrapping around' its Birmingham Road and St John Street frontages. A repositioned bus station could be located adjacent to it, accessed from Birmingham Road with the majority of buses then proceeding northwards into Frog Lane, to turn into St John Street. The existing bus station site, together with that of the police station, is seen as one where shopping frontages would predominate, although residential development could be promoted above. An extension to T.J. Hughes's store along Birmingham Road, partly on the site of the former multi-storey car park, would complete the picture. Pedestrianisation of Castle Dyke is also proposed in this option.

John quite rightly pointed out the need to have regard to the economics of retailing in Lichfield when considering the options for this site. The site's identification in the Lichfield District Plan for development is a reflection of the pressures for retailing expansion. Generally, in Lichfield the volume of empty floor space is low and the shopping yield high. Hence, pressures continue to be placed on the District Council to provide for some additional retailing space in the city centre, recognising that major out-of-centre retailing is unlikely to find favour. The issue therefore for the Civic Society is to try and ensure that whilst the shopping needs of Lichfield residents are recognised, any development respects the historic character of the city centre.

Predictably, the ideas in the consultation document promoted extensive debate. A main focus for the debate was that of traffic generation and car parking. Traffic movement along Birmingham Road was already heavy and the linking of the City Station to this new retailing area and the wider shopping area for pedestrians would need some careful consideration, especially since it was in close proximity to the Birmingham Road / St John Street traffic lights. In responding to this part of the debate, John Colburn indicated that by extending the existing railway subway southwards, into the adjacent city wharf site, it might be possible to utilise the city wharf for car parking associated with both shopping and business activities in the city centre, thus ensuring that some traffic was diverted away from closer city centre locations. Remaining on the car parking theme, members of the Society voiced their concerns over the proposed location of a multi-storey car park, albeit 'cloaked' with retailing or residential uses, in such close proximity to St John's Hospital, arguably one of the most important historic buildings in the city. A debate took place over the relationship of any built development on this corner site to the Hospital. Should it be close to the Hospital, thus reflecting the traditional narrowing at this former entry into the city, or should the area be much more open - even open space - so that this building could be better enjoyed?

Whilst the intent behind the proposals was generally welcomed, and particularly the concept of linked open spaces confined by various built uses, the membership remained concerned over the practicalities of implementation. Would market forces, for instance, dictate a different form from the idealised one which the District Council might initially adopt? Was the positioning of a multi-storey car park in close relation to St John's Hospital appropriate? Did this scheme benefit, if at all, St John Street which was regarded by the audience as one of the more unexciting entrances to the city? And why did the building blocks identified by John Chatwin uncannily resemble the 'on the ground' footprints of the existing multi-storey car park, bus station, police station and garage? Had the consultant been given a blank sheet of paper for this area or one which reflected the existing disposition of land uses?

Although the deadline for formal comments has passed, John Colburn kindly indicated that any late submissions could still be taken into account by the Council in what was likely to be a lengthy deliberative process. In thanking John for his presentation, David Duffy stressed that the Civic Society would indeed be commenting to the District Council on this very important issue and he encouraged all members of the Society, whether present at the meeting or not, to do the same.

Roger Hockney
July 2001