Clare Huber is senior construction manager for Cheshire West and the officer leading the Northgate development project. Following last year’s announcement that Picturehouse would be opening a 6 screen cinema as part of the scheme and the recent reveal of House of Fraser signing up to be the anchor department store, the council held a drop in to update the public on the plans. Clare was kind enough to answer some questions on the long delayed £300 million scheme and answer some frequent criticisms.
Why do we need more shops when there are already so many empty ones ?
I think a lot of it is about what is required in the modern day and age. You’ve got a lot of retailers who look at the shops around the city, and its compromised space. They want the bigger footfall and the modern facilities that some of Chester doesn’t have to offer. What schemes like Northgate will do , as those large shops come in, it then encourages the smaller retailers that would like those smaller shops, or indeed independents to have the confidence to invest.
Do you feel it will lead to other areas of the city being left behind ?
No. The area of Foregate street where Marks and Spencer is, and Primark, that will stay down that end of the city, and that’s quite a popular part of the city. We see that as a protected end of the city. I wouldn’t have thought these retailers would move, the interest is very different in the Northgate scheme. As a council we can be selective about who goes where , we have lots of things to consider with regeneration and protecting the town centre. We have a strategy in place about backfilling shops if any retailers want to come in.
What we’re looking at is flexible space. The units are futureproofed, the walls can move and it can be one unit or it can be 25. A lot of the number are made up of small boutique units that are dotted around. Its not 70 massive units.
Is Northgate designed to compete with Cheshire Oaks? Their extension application has recently been approved leading to some doubts about the viability of the scheme
No. The development team act as a developer and any developer with a scheme on its doorstep will put a comment in. What we need to do is understand the differences, this is about city centre redevelopment, its not a retail led scheme. There is high end retail and a lot of the people interested in coming to the scheme aren’t here already, a lot is boutique stuff from outside the north west. We are setting this offer aside from Cheshire Oaks, they haven’t got a fancy market where you can listen to live music, they don’t have a theatre, they don’t have a Picture house, or a hotel with a sky bar. The image and the place making for Chester has always been about improving the visitor offer. We are still looking at the visitor attraction element in the scheme. You wouldn’t go to Cheshire Oaks for the same things you go to Chester for and I think we need to focus on that .
Car parking is an eternal battle in Chester when compared to the 100s of free spaces at Cheshire oaks. The issue is also hugely political given the current consultation
Name me a major city like Chester where you don’t have to pay for parking…You have to pay for quality parking. There is park and ride which is obviously more economically viable and we are looking at the operating hours long term. Also how do we connect the car parks to the scheme. The parking has to be of a certain quality . There will be 800 spaces.
Critics also say the new bus station is too far away..
With the bus station we needed to move it to free up this space. We looked for the best location in the city. There are a lot of people who go to Frodsham street who are quiet happy with the new location because it was a hike to get from here to the other end of town. What we are also going to do is trial a shopper hopper bus, with a wider set up connecting the car parks and the routes around town. In the short term we will trial it from the bus station to this end of town to make sure the market people don’t lose out. The long term goal is interconnectivity between the bus station and the routes. When this happens we need to rejig everything around the city, to make it easy for people to come here, dwell, and then get out easily.
The design, particularly the department store has been attacked
What you see is just imaging. The design will be changing going forward
What is the timeline for the next steps in the project ?
From March to November we go through stage 3 design. Stage 3 design fixes the design ready for the building contractor and we will be doing open design groups, market design, interior landscape design, consultation groups… Everything on here has to be nailed down in the next 9 months.
In the library September. We will hoard it off straight away and start doing some deconstruction work. We will also hoard the bus station as soon as its closed. We may want to do some archaeological work or roadwork’s or some cabling work. Start of 2018 to end of 2021
The financial strategy /funding still concerns many people When can we expect news ?
Not yet. Strutt and Parker are still our funding advisors and we will carry on with them. Normally people ask who the anchor is , and we have that.. towards the end of the year we will have a clearer idea. This is all wrapped up with the investor funding strategy. People get negative if they don’t hear things but as you’re a commercial operator you can’t reveal things . The time has to be right
There is a huge amount of cynicism and people believe it wont happen, people have waited 20 years. Is it a big responsibility for you ?
Yes, but I have worked on Liverpool one and bigger schemes so it doesn’t worry me. I know we have the right teams in place and we are well planned. We wouldn’t be progressing with the stage 3 design if we weren’t going to continue with the project.