With the city council in the process of buying the freehold of Stonebow House, there is talk it could be redeveloped. But how likely is that – and, if it is, what should be put in its place? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
MOST people would probably agree that Stonebow House isn’t the best-looking building in York.
When City of York Council announced it was seeking to buy the freehold outright in the hope that ultimately it might make it easier to redevelop the building, there were some predictable shouts of glee.
“Smash it to pieces!” proclaimed one commenter on The Press’s website after we broke the story.
“Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!” said another.
However, the debate wasn’t quite as one-sided as you might have thought.
Several commentators pointed out that the needs of businesses using Stonebow House should be considered before anything was done.
“Mine’s a NO vote unless and until suitable alternative arrangements are made for existing businesses, particularly The Duchess and Fibbers,” said one.
Tim Hornsby, the man who founded Fibbers in the basement of Stonebow House in 1992, naturally enough has his own views on the matter.
He believes demolition of Stonebow House would probably mean the end of Fibbers. He said: “Nobody is going to build you another Fibbers for many reasons, but mainly because the maths don’t stack up.” That would be desperately sad, he believes. Since the iconic music venue opened, he said something like 10,000 bands have performed there.
“Pretty much every festival main-stage band these days has appeared at Fibbers at some point. Bands don’t start at 1,000 capacity venues, they all start in small venues like Fibbers. When small venues go, then that’s a real worry.
“If Stonebow House were to go, what the people of York would get in its place would be at best just another bland new office block.
“York would no longer have one of the country’s longest-established and most iconic small live music venues.
“But you’ll definitely have another place to cash in your Clubcard points. And have a Starbucks.”
Clearly, the debate over the future of Stonebow House isn’t as simple as “it’s ugly, get rid of it”.
So what should be done with a building that even its supporters would probably concede is an eyesore?
First, it is important to stress that nothing is likely to happen any time soon.
The council is still in the process of completing the purchase of the freehold from North Yorkshire County Council, for a fee of £62,250. That would then mean the city owns outright the land on which the building stands, putting it in a better position to negotiate with the leaseholder over the building’s future, but no more than that.
The leasehold – the building itself – is owned by Brightsea UK Ltd. However, Brightsea has gone into receivership, and the debt on the building has been bought up by a company called Loanstar.
According to Tim Cameron-Jones of property services company DTZ, which is acting as receiver for a portfolio of York sites including Stonebow House, Loanstar has a record of “looking at the assets they acquire and adding value to them through active management.”
That could potentially involve negotiating with the city council in the future over ways of improving, if not redeveloping, the building.
Something needs to happen, Mr Cameron-Jones said. “It is a prime piece of real estate, but it is also a horrible building at the moment.”
However, it could be years yet before there is any progress. Mr Cameron-Jones said: “Stonebow House was part of a massive loan portfolio bought by Loanstar and it is unlikely to be the company’s top priority. It is possible that at some time work could start on a business plan for the site, but that could take three, four, five years.”
So, if the chance ever arises, what should be done with this 1960s concrete building?
City of York Council leader Coun James Alexander said that, if an opportunity does arise, all options were open.
So what are those options?
He lists them: “Recladding; demolishing and rebuilding or upgrading, but we would need to work with existing business, the Duchess and Fibbers, and others that are there.”
His ideal solution, he said, would be to see the building “aesthetically improved, and to see it being able to be used, whether by retail or by existing businesses. We would put a lot of priority on employment. I want to see more jobs.”
Civic Trust director Peter Brown said there is a “huge opportunity” to do something with the site.
He suggests it might be possible to keep the tower while demolishing the rest of the building.
Mr Brown said: “The tower could perhaps be reclad, but the quality of the space around the tower block is not acceptable.”
He doesn’t see the presence of businesses such as Fibbers as being an obstacle to redevelopment.
He said: “Fibbers could be anywhere. I don’t think that’s an argument for keeping a poor quality building.”
Helen Graham of York’s Alternative History said there were some advantages to having a less prestigious building in the city centre. She said: “The rents shouldn’t be as high, which means you can get, right in the centre of York, a supermarket like Heron, which is noticeably less expensive.”
James Alexander makes it clear he does not want to miss any opportunity of making something happen at Stonebow.
He said he would like to see Stonebow House improved as part of the wider regeneration of Hungate and the city centre. He’s even spoken to BT to see whether anything could be done about the telephone exchange, which he says is another York eyesore.
BT confirms that a dialogue over the future of the exchange has been opened with the city council with a spokesman saying that it was still early days and no plans were agreed as yet.
Coun Alexander said that if Stonebow House and the telephone exchange could be improved, and with the redevelopment of Hungate looking as though it could be back on track, the whole centre of York could start to look better.
He said: “My biggest criticism of the previous administration was inaction.
“Whatever you think of its record in office, inactivity is not an accusation you can throw at Labour.”
Design was winner in council competition
Stonebow itself is a relatively new street – it was opened on October 14, 1955, as part of the slum clearance programme.
Stonebow House was completed almost a decade later, in 1964.
According to English Heritage, the building was designed by Wells, Hickman and Partners of Charing Cross, London as a mixed retail and office development.
Designed for Renown Investments (Holdings) Ltd, the scheme had been the winning design in an open tender competition initiated by the then York City Council.
Despite some rumours to the contrary, the building is not listed, says Alison Sinclair, former chair of the York Conservation Area Advisory Panel. She should know – in the 1990s, she was employed by English Heritage to revise and rewrite the Statutory List of Buildings of Architectural and Historical Interest for York.
Alison said: “It does have some merits as a building, but perhaps not enough to merit keeping it.
Stonebow House is a typical example of the architecture of its time and has added significance as symbolic of the creation of a modern street in the medieval city.
“But it has to be said that it is far too dominating in its location and certainly doesn’t fit in with surrounding historic streets.
“Since it seems to have become difficult to find tenants for its empty offices it might well be better to redevelop the site, though it would depend on what it is proposed to put in its place.”
One thing she regards as vital, however, is that if the building is ever to be demolished and redeveloped, the city council should first ask the people of York what they would like to see there instead.
Reaction on The Press website when we first broke news the council would like to see the building improved or redeveloped .
Zetkin: “Mine’s a NO vote unless and until suitable alternative arrangements are made for existing businesses, particularly The Duchess and Fibbers. The culture of York is more than chocolate-box vistas and the Theatre Royal panto.”
Ignatius Lumpopo: “NOOOOO! If they knock down Stonebow House we’ll all have to start looking at the Telephone Exchange – and that really IS an eyesore.”
Grey Lady : “If the Stonebow building was badly built in the first place and will not stand the test of time (bearing in mind that it’s already 50 years old) then it should be demolished and replaced with something better. If demolition is to go ahead then maybe existing businesses could be given a deal whereby they are given temporary accommodation elsewhere with the option to return to Stonebow into purpose-built units (for Fibbers and The Duchess).”
BL2: “Kill it kill it kill it!”
Garrowby Turnoff: “Now it might be demolished I’m worried we might miss it. Not.”
Anotherslownewsday: “The only two decent venues in York demolished in one fell swoop. And replaced with high-end shops and a hotel no doubt. It may be ugly but it at least serves a purpose.”