THE Eye of York isn’t exactly looking its best on a foggy January morning. But then, even on a glorious summer’s day without a cloud in the sky, it rarely looks its best.
The circle of green grass with a single, solitary tree plonked in the middle is pleasant enough. But it’s hardly inspiring: and the ring of tarmac surrounding it acts as a barrier, making it seem off limits. You rarely see families enjoying a picnic here, or sunbathers stretched out on a tartan rug. “In fact, the only people who use it are those,” says Tracey Carter, indicating a trio of Canada geese cropping the grass.
Making this into a space that people actually want to use is just one small part of the city council’s overall vision for a huge area of the city centre that takes in the Eye of York, Clifford’s Tower, Piccadilly, Tower Gardens, St George’s Field and the Foss basin.
The council has dubbed this quarter the ‘Castle Gateway’. And it has big plans.
As revealed in The Press last week, these include getting rid of the Castle car park in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower to create a public square next to a new development of restaurants or shops with flats above them; creating a new riverside footpath together with a pedestrian and cycle bridge over the Foss; and seeing large chunks of Piccadilly itself regenerated.
But the proposals, which are outlined in a report to the city council’s executive which meets this evening go further than that.
They take in the regeneration of Tower Gardens, the possible development of the St George’s Field car park, and the regeneration of the Foss basin. The report to executive talks of setting aside £100,000 from the 2017/18 budget to work up a full masterplan for an area that stretches from the Blue Bridge (where the Foss joins the Ouse) in the south to Pavement and Coppergate in the north.
But what might the masterplan propose? The Press joined Mrs Carter, the council’s assistant director for regeneration, and Andy Kerr, the authority’s commercial project manager, on a walking tour of the area to find out...
Eye of York
Eye of York: pleasant enough, but it could be so much better, says council
There are layers of history here, says Andy Kerr - and many stories that are not being told. In Viking times, this would have been a centre of commerce. When the castle was built following the Norman conquest, this grassy area would have been inside the castle bailey, and there would have been halls, kitchens, a chapel, barracks, stores, stables, forges and workshops here. Then there’s the whole history of the site from 1705 onwards. The county prison (later the debtor’s prison and now the Castle Museum) was built in 1705; the courthouse in 1777, the female prison in 1780.
In short, there are many things that could be done to make people actually want to come here and use this area, Mrs Carter says. It will be the job of the masterplan to come up with some ideas.
The Castle car park
Andy Kerr and Tracey Carter stand on the line which would mark the limit of development
The ugly Castle car park in the shadow of Clifford’s Tower in many ways holds the key to the regeneration of the entire Castle Gateway quarter. It is owned by the council - and the car park brings in about £1.2million a year in revenue.
The council can’t afford to lose that income - and equally city centre traders would be furious if the 360 parking spaces here were lost.
But the authority is desperate to get rid of the car park. It has come up with two possible solutions: putting the car park underground, or knocking down the council’s crumbling Castle Mills car park in Piccadilly (which can take only 84 cars and is anyway due to close at the end of this month) and building a new multi-story car park there.
Both options would be expensive. The council estimates putting the car park underground would cost £18million, while even a new car park at Castle mills would cost £7.5 million. That’s money the authority doesn’t have.
So it needs to exploit the commercial potential of the car park site. That’s why it is suggesting that while the part of the car park nearest Clifford’s Tower would be kept as some sort of open space, the part nearest the Foss could be released for a mixed use commercial development - possibly restaurants and bars on the ground floor, with flats above.
Mrs Carter insists the authority has learned the lesson from the fiasco of the Coppergate II proposals.
In 2003, council-backed plans for a £60million shopping development on the car park were rejected by Government planning inspector John Bingham following an expensive public inquiry on the grounds they were “totally unacceptable in the context of the historic setting”.
That decision set a benchline, Mrs Carter says. “It established Coppergate II as over-development. That’s helpful for us.”
Any new commercial development on this site, therefore, would be confined to a line stretching from Castlegate to the edge of the former female prison - and would not be allowed to encroach beyond it. And what about height limits?
“There wouldn’t be anything that was going to compete in height terms with Clifford’s Tower.”
As to the feasibility of putting a car park underground - that would be perfectly possible, Mrs Carter says. It is common across Europe to put city centre car parks underground: there’s no reason York couldn’t. The car park would be tanked, so it was protected from flooding - but the car park doesn’t flood anyway, she says.
New bridge over the Foss
View of the Foss from Coppergate. A new footbridge could cross beside Ryedale House
A new cycle and pedestrian bridge would cross from the edge of the female prison to the edge of the Ryedale building on the opposite bank. It could hopefully help to bring both banks of the Foss here into use, Mrs Carter says - the way the Millennium Bridge did for the Ouse 17 years ago.
“Nobody used those riverbanks before. Now you have lots of people using them, and sitting on the bridge. This gives a similar opportunity.”
Footpaths along the Foss
New footpaths could run along both banks of the Foss south towards the Foss basin. They could cross under the inner ring road, either by means of a tunnel through the bridge, or by means of a towpath-style path underneath the bridge’s span, and lead directly into the Foss basin and all the way down to the Blue Bridge.
The Foss basin
Andy Kerr and Tracey Carter at Castle Mills lock
This is a massively underused, neglected area. It could become the centre of a thriving commercial boating community, with houseboat moorings, café boats and more. “Water in a city centre is a major asset,” Mrs Carter says. “We need to be using it more.”
St George’s Field car park
This is very poorly used as a car park, and could be developed. Yes, the land is flood plain, Mrs Carter says: but that doesn’t rule out its use. “There could be stilted residential development, or commercial development.”
The expensive apartments on the other bank of the Ouse all have basements designed to be flood resilient, she points out. It is perfectly possible to do.
At the moment, these are cut off from the Eye of York by the four lanes of Tower Street. But there’s no reason why Tower Street needs to be as wide as it is, Mrs Carter says. It could easily be narrowed, so as to make Tower Gardens feel more closely connected to Clifford’s Tower.
Ripe for development: the NCP car park on Piccadilly
Things are beginning to happen here. Steamrock Capital, which now holds the lease on the Coppergate shops, also owns the Banana Warehouse and the Ryedale building, and is keen to redevelop both. Northminster, which redeveloped Piccadilly Lofts, also owns the NCP car park. The council, meanwhile, owns the Castle Mills car park and, on the opposite side of the road, the site of the former Reynard’s Garage.
All can be commercially developed. The council’s masterplan could not dictate to Steamrock or Northminster exactly what they should do with their sites, but would at least provide a framework and set some parameters. One of these could be that any development on Piccadilly should not turn its back on the River Foss, Mr Kerr says.
The council is exploring the possibility of a commercial partnership with Steamrock to develop council-owned sites.
Meanwhile Spark:York, a temporary community combining street food vendors, cafés, music and “entrepreneurship” based in shipping containers on the Reynard’s Garage site, looks likely to open in June or July. It will be there for three years only.