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Changing face of space
9:24am Wednesday 17th October 2012 in Features
York’s city centre is about to undergo the biggest transformation since pedestrianisation a quarter of a century ago. STEPHEN LEWIS reports on Reinvigorating York.
STAND in King’s Square, Duncombe Place or Exhibition Square and you can’t help feeling that, pretty as they are, they could be so much nicer.
Sure, nothing compares with the majestic, soaring bulk that is the Minster. But it’s surroundings? Dean’s Park, behind the Minster, is beautiful. But instead of a fine public piazza outside the cathedral’s main west entrance, there are Duncombe Place and High Petergate, streets criss-crossed with bollards, and studded with signs and lamps and seats at all angles.
The war memorial, which should be one of York’s great open places, is almost hidden by trees – and seems closed off to the public (though it isn’t, in fact) by the low wall which runs around it.
This is one of northern Europe’s great cathedrals. “And the access to it should be as good as the access to some of Europe’s most famous religious buildings,” said Sir Ron Cooke, the former vice-chancellor of the University of York who, as chair of Reinvigorating York, has become a leading campaigner for the improvement of public spaces in the city.
It’s the same story at Exhibition Square, a wide, open area surrounded by stunning buildings – medieval Bootham Bar and King’s Manor, neoclassical St Leonard’s Place, the Victorian art gallery – which should be another of the city’s great public squares.
Instead, buses use it for stopping and waiting and the square itself is cluttered with signs, bollards, railings and traffic lights. Even the fountain looks a little sad.
It is not what you’d call world class, sniffed Sir Ron, and it should be.
The good news is that things are to begin changing. Earlier this year, under the Reinvigorating York banner, the city council set aside £200,000 for a rolling programme of cosmetic changes – getting rid of unnecessary bollards, signs, railings and lights and replacing old bins and seats with new ones, designed to improve the way the centre of York looks.
Next month a draft ‘‘design manual’’ will be published and put out to consultation, so that the people of York can have their say.
It will set out what style of seats and lights and signs and litterbins are appropriate for York’s city centre whenever they need replacing in future. It should make the centre less cluttered and tired-looking.
A much more substantial programme of work is also about to begin – designed to transform the heart of York.
Last month the city council’s cabinet approved £3.3 million from its economic infrastructure fund, again under the Reinvigorating York banner, to pay for improvements to six key areas of the city centre: Parliament Street, King’s Square, Exhibition Square, Fossgate, Duncombe Place and Micklegate.
They will be decluttered, opened up, repaved and, in the case of Fossgate, pedestrianised. The result should be to make the centre of York an even more pleasant place to stroll about, a city centre for people on foot to enjoy, with plenty of open spaces to sit, relax and enjoy the surroundings.
Announcing the funding allocation, Coun Dave Merrett, the cabinet member for transport, planning and sustainability, described it as the biggest investment in the city centre for more than 20 years.
Not everyone believes that now is the time to be spending money on such public projects. Criticising the ruling Labour group for allocating money to ‘‘grandiose capital projects’’, Conservative councillor Paul Healey said at the time of the announcement:
“On the one hand Labour talks about reinvigorating York by upgrading public spaces, but at the same time it cuts road maintenance, cuts the number of waste bins, cuts street cleaning and ends up with a city that more and more people, residents and visitors alike, are finding dirty and unkempt.”
On a recent walkabout of the city centre to discuss the proposals in more detail, however, Coun Merrett insisted the city could not afford not to push ahead with the improvements.
It is a quarter of a century since pedestrianisation, the last major investment in the city centre, he pointed out. In that time, other cities have spent substantial amounts of money on improving their centres.
York’s centre has become tired and shabby and the city has to raise its game. The money invested will pay dividends, he said, not only in making York a better and more beautiful place to live and visit, but also by signalling to potential investors that it is a great place to do business.
“It is that kind of work, in showing that York is open for business, that has led to the Hiscox investment,” he said, a reference to insurance firm Hiscox’s recent decision to open an office at Hungate, potentially bringing 500 jobs to the city.
The improvements planned under Reinvigorating York over the next two and a half years are just part of a much wider programme of improvements to the centre of York – some involving the city council, some not. They include:
• Improvements to Minster Yard to create a piazza before the Minster’s south entrance – work that has just begun as part of the York Minster Revealed project (funded with the help of a Heritage Lottery Fund grant)
• A major £8 million restoration of York Art Gallery scheduled to begin in January and a £2.4 million refurbishment of the York Castle Museum, also next year, both to be paid for by funds – including Lottery funds – applied for by the York Museums Trust
• A proposed £4 million revamp of the Theatre Royal, for which Arts Council funding is being sought which, all being well, could go ahead in 2014. Sir Ron said these and other projects added up to a massive investment in York’s city centre by a whole range of organisations. It was an investment that was desperately needed.
Tourists alone pump an estimated £443 million a year into the city’s economy, he said. Then there was the potential of attracting further investors such as Hiscox – if York could show it was ready for it.
“The quality of the public realm is an absolutely vital and unique ingredient in York’s success, he said. “It is essential we look after it.”
Areas earmarked for improvement
Keep your eyes open over the next couple of years and you will begin to see the impact of Reinvigorating York. You’ll be able to have your say, too – each major element of the programme will go out to public consultation before plans are finalised.
The council, in a report to cabinet in September, set out a proposed schedule for the six major projects.
No final costings have been set out, but the aim would be to bring in all six projects listed below here plus other schemes such as a programme to improve ‘‘wayfinding’’ in the city centre and a review of disabled badge car access to the centre – within an overall £3.3 million budget.
The parking bay beside the square used by motorists with disabled badges will be removed, so that Colliergate can be narrowed and King’s Square extended further into the street.
Disabled motorists will still be able to park further down Fossgate, stressed Coun Merrett. The enlarged layout of the square will then be looked at, possibly to accommodate both street entertainers and street café tables.
Timescale: Public consultation by January 2013. Work to be completed by end of 2013
No firm plans yet, but the key problems to be tackled are the way the bus turning bay takes up so much of the square and the number of signs, railings, bollards etc. “There is great potential to better integrate the civic buildings and the environment within,” said the council’s report to cabinet.
Timescale: Public consultation by end of June next year. Work to be completed by March 2014
Duncombe Place/ Blake Street
Duncombe Place was deliberately created in 1859 to provide a spectacular view of the Minster.
But at the moment you don’t get a sense that it is one of York’s finest public spaces. Initial work is likely to focus on the Blake Street/ St Leonard’s Place junction, to make clear the inner ring road does not come down Duncomble Place.
Ultimately, further work may be possible – possibly even turning it into a pedestrian boulevard, with space for activities and performances
Timescale: Public consultation by September 2013. Initial work completed by June 2014.
No clear plans yet, but the street has been identified as the next to be pedestrianised.
“Local traders have been very supportive,” said the report to cabinet. If the street is to be properly integrated into the rest of York’s pedestrianised city centre, work will need to be done on the traffic lights at Pavement/ Stonebow, so that Fossgate feels less cut off by traffic.
Timescale: Public consultation by the end of 2013, work to be completed by September 2014.
Coppergate/ Pavement junction at bottom of Parliament Street
The ‘‘splash palace’’ was demolished earlier this year and that area of Parliament Street paved over.
But much remains to be done. A key priority will be reducing the number of cars which use the junction illegally, said Coun Merrett. “If we can get the traffic out, there will be more time and space for pedestrians.”
Automatic number plate recognition cameras could be used to enforce the traffic restrictions and then the junction could be repaved to give it a more pedestrian feel – though buses, taxis and certain other vehicles would still be allowed to use it.
Timescale: Consultation on plans by March 2014. Work completed by March 2015.
No clear plans yet – but the aim will be to turn this into one of York’s great streets, said Coun Merrett.
It is one of York’s finest Georgian streets – but has become detached from the rest of the city centre.
“Our approach is twofold,” said the cabinet report. “To change the character of Micklegate to make it more of a destination and to celebrate it as an important entrance to the city.”
Timescale: Public consultation by September 2014. Work completed by June 2015.