Architect Simon Baker tells Sarah Freeman why he has grand designs on the waste ground left by countless stalled developments.
Across Yorkshire’s towns and cities patches of redundant waste ground stand as a very visible symbol of the economic downturn. Countless acres of which should have now been home to impressive new buildings and state-of-of the art development have shown little sign of life since the property market went into free fall back in 2007.
In Leeds, where new apartment blocks and office spaces promised to transform the city, the hole left by mothballed developments has been felt particularly keenly. With the owners of redundant land looking to make at least some return on their investment, many have been turned into temporary car parks.
It was a natural solution to a potential costly situation, but the estimated extra 20,000 car parking spaces threatened to bring its own problems. Step forward Simon Baker, director of Chetwood Architects in Leeds, who reckons he might just have a plan to breathe at least a little new life into the various vacant plots.
“There’s a knock-on effect to having so many extra car parks, and not all of them were licensed,” says Simon, who has been working with Leeds City Council on alternative uses for many of the sites. “There’s a real chance it could overwhelm the city’s transport network and I honestly do think there is another way which could see these spaces bring a real economic benefit to the city.”
Simon’s first project has been to work with the owners of Marshall’s Mill in Holbeck Urban Village. A degree of landscaping has already been completed and in May the land will be turned over into a temporary outdoor cinema as part of the city’s Green Film Festival.
“The aim is basically to turn a negative sterile environment into something that looks attractive,” says Simon, who is also chair of the Architecture Centre for Leeds City Region. “At Marshall’s Mill we’ve improved the approach to the land, introduced some landscaping elements and effectively created a public space.
“It hasn’t cost huge amounts of money, but just those small changes mean we will be able to use the space for a pop-up cinema and turn a forgotten area of the city into somewhere that people will associate with enjoyment.”
Simon’s aims are not entirely altruistic and he insists evidence shows that such projects directly benefit landowners and protect their investment.
“By making these sites more secure it discourages squatters and vandalism,” he says. “At the moment many of them stand as symbols of stalled aspiration. That’s not good for the people who live and work nearby and ultimately it’s not good for future development.”
The kind of projects Simon believes would work in Leeds and across the rest of Yorkshire have already been successful elsewhere in the country. In London a temporary cafe has been set up at the Olympic Park to provide refreshments to visitors who come to see how the plans for London 2012 are shaping up and in the north of the capital an abandoned petrol station has been turned into a temporary cinema by 16 artists.
Meanwhile in New York, for the last few summers rubbish skips have become home to temporary swimming pools on the streets of Manhattan.
“All it takes is just a little lateral thinking and a bit of imagination,” says Simon. “At the Round Foundry in Holbeck we are currently exploring an idea with the landowner to put up temporary timber huts which could be used as cheap office space. The great thing is that you can rent these to people who are starting their own business and who perhaps can’t afford the normal cost of office space. In the long term, once they have become established, the hope is that they will move into permanent office space in the same area.
“I honestly believe these projects can help kick-start the local economy. Just look at something like the York Wheel, which directly attracts visitors to land that was previously redundant.”
It costs landowners just £21 to apply for a one-off event licence and while longer-term projects do require planning permission, Simon believes the long-term benefits will more than outweigh any costs.
“Ultimately, it’s about protecting the value of these sites,” he says. “If you allow areas to become depressed and spiral into decline now, when the economy does pick it up landowners will find it very difficult to attract interest in their developments. We have an opportunity here to do something really inventive and it’s one we shouldn’t miss.”