Boxing clever: Temporary vision of York's future

In a city whose centrepiece is its magnificent Gothic Minister and whose foundations were laid by the Vikings, the transient nature of its two latest additions might seem jarring.

Tom McKenzie (left) and Sam Leach, at Spark:York
Tom McKenzie (left) and Sam Leach, at Spark:York

One is at least a replica of a period masterpiece – a “pop-up” version of Shakspeare’s Globe Theatre, fashioned out of scaffolding and canvas and about to be erected for the summer next to Clifford’s Tower.

The architecture of the other is altogether more brutalist.

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The Spark:York development, in perhaps the city centre’s most neglected area, is a business, retail and eating “hub” that has been built entirely from shipping containers – the corrugated steel rectangles normally used for carrying goods from one part of the world to another.

But let’s not get hung up on the construction material, urges Tom McKenzie, one of the two recent graduates behind the project. “We’re focusing on what we’re putting inside them,” he insists.

Indeed. But the fact that in one of Europe’s most beautiful cities, a small shopping mall is being built out of ugly steel boxes intended to be seen only by dock workers wearing gloves and carrying grappling hooks, is difficult to let pass.

Mr McKenzie and his business partner, Sam Leach, 25 and 24 respectively, persuaded York Council to lease them a patch of underdeveloped land on Piccadilly until the summer of 2020, on a profit-share.

After the spending of around £40,000 on infrastructure – a sum McKenzie and Leach must repay the council – they brought in cranes to start lifting in the containers. Holes had been cut in the sides for doors and windows, but there was no mistaking their provenance.

They had got the idea after seeing a similar development on a former car park behind Brixton Market in London – a site on which shipping containers might have been considered an aesthetic improvement,

Sheffield’s Krynkle development, a permanent structure of container-like units, which houses a Michelin Bib Gourmand and triple AA-starred restaurant called Jöro, was also an inspiration.

In York’s case, the aspiration was to create a small community of locally-based, “kitchen-table entrepreneurs” who might not otherwise be able to afford the rent in one of the region’s most expensive cities.

They pay £80 a week for the smallest unit, £250 a week for the biggest.

It was an offer that local start-ups could evidently not refuse. The 23 available units generated 400 applications – proof, says Mr McKenzie, of the need for such a development – and after he and his partner had chosen the businesses they wanted, a long waiting list remained.

“Our criteria was that was that the businesses had to be independent, local to York, and had to add some value to the to whatever they were doing, whether through the type of staff they were hiring, or through their sustainability or environmental policies,” Mr McKenzie says.

The company he and Mr Leach set up to administer the project is a social enterprise whose profits and assets are reinvested for the public good.

“We’ve not been paid anything really for the last two years – it’s not going to make us a great deal of money,” he says.

“That’s fine. We set the terms and we signed up to them. But it does give us a different mindset, and that’s to bring some good to the city

“We are a community project at heart and we want all the businesses to reflect that ethic and that value as well. So we’ve got street food, a couple of restaurants, a hairdresser’s and vintage interiors shop, a cafe that uses surplus food from supermarkets, and we’ve got vintage clothing and vinyls.”

There is also an events space and what is possibly the world’s smallest microbrewery, its apparatus contained entirely within a 20ft steel box.

Street food, a casual dining experience of the sort enjoyed in countries with more of a pavement culture, is a central part of the experience. Its popularity here, in venues like the indoor Trinity Kitchen in Leeds, has, says Mr McKenzie, risen to the point where it’s become almost an entertainment in itself.

“It’s a very social way of eating,” he says.

Clare Palmer, a local designer whose portfolio includes the Wallace and Gromit ride at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, fashioned the hub’s distinctive appearance.

“We’re very much going for a look that’s quite urban,” she says. “The individual freight containers are quite open to the imagination. It’s a great way of showcasing your work in an affordable way.”

The look is a long way from the roadside container shacks that have sprung up in Jamaica to dispense street food to the locals. Even so, Piccadilly was “probably the only street we could have got away with doing something like this in York”, Mr McKenzie acknowledges.

The area is well within the city walls, yet unloved and unlovely. Across the road is an NCP car park and a parade of shops to let. There’s also the distinctive Banana Warehouse, for 20 years a bric-a-brac emporium and now the site of a proposed development of apartments.

It has seen proposals come and go in the last decade, and is now part of what the council calls its Castle Gateway development project, which will eventually see permanent versions of the small business hubs McKenzie and Leach are pioneering.

There is already an audience of the right demographic: the site is just around the corner from Fossgate and Walmage, both of which have seen a resurgence of independent local businesses.

Mr Leach says: “We’re taking that as a precedent, to create something quite extraordinary – something that York and the North of England haven’t seen before”.

He and his partner are unlikely evangelists, given their age and lack of experience. “We haven’t done much, to be honest,” Mr McKenzie says. “This is Sam’s first proper job after university – he was at Wetherspoon’s before that. He used to walk past the site on Piccadilly every day on his way there.”

But their passion for their home city is not in question.

“It’s all about driving businesses and therefore people and vibrancy into this part of the city.

“York is beautiful but that comes at a price – for people living here and for businesses to exist. That’s why areas like Coney Street are shadows of their former selves. That’s linked to high rent and rates.

“What we can offer is at the other end of the spectrum to the Minster in appearance but also at the other end of the scale compared to most of the retail and commercial space in the city.

“We’re looking at 100 jobs created on the back of the site. They’re all early-stage businesses and some of them could be highly successful. Hopefully all of them will be.”

The construction of the container hub is a five-minute walk, over the River Foss, from the site of the Rose Theatre, where a cycle of Shakespearean plays is being put on over the summer.

Mr McKenzie says both projects are “the “kind of forward-thinking initiatives” needed to take York forward.

“They’re both only temporary but they do show the people of York what is possible,” he says.

A company in Stourton, Leeds, was brought in to reinforce the containers before they were hoisted on to the site, stacked two-high – but he says few people could bring any practical experience to bear.

“There’s no handbook for this kind of thing,” he says. “It was a case of having to blaze a trail.”