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Paradise lost

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No paradise: generic office buildingsWith the construction of Birmingham’s Inner Ring Road (Queensway) in the 1960s and 1970s, the area around Baskerville House in the city centre was altered beyond recognition. At some point in the early 1970s, the original plans to redevelop the Paradise Circus area were abandoned, and after the completion of John Madin’s Central Library, building work stopped.

Within a few years, the city council was deprecating its own masterplan, and describing the Inner Ring Road as a “concrete collar“. When Centenary Square was chosen as the site for a new central library — Francine Houben’s Library of Birmingham — it was claimed that the Madin library at Paradise Circus was structurally unsound. By demolishing it, the city centre could be transformed, with the creation of new vistas from Centenary Square to the council house and town hall.

I never bought the spin that the Madin library was structurally unsound, or that its demolition was intended to improve the urban environment or accessibility of the city centre. It always seemed much more likely that the site of the library complex was earmarked for whatever redevelopment would generate the most rent and rate income, i.e. lowest common denominator office/hotel/retail development.

In July 2011, the Birmingham Post reported that the city’s debts had doubled as a result of projects such as the Houben library and Birmingham Gateway. No other major English city has higher per capita borrowing.

Birmingham council and Argent (the developer of Brindleyplace) own large parts of Paradise Circus, and signed a two year exclusivity agreement in February 2009 “to prepare the way for the potential redevelopment” of the site. So, last week, it was not too surprising to find what the council had in mind: a collection of closely spaced generic office buildings, to maximise rental and rates income.

One of the major costs for the project will be the massive infrastructure investment and it is hoped that this will be funded through tax increment financing or TIFs. This effectively allows the project – which is being supported by the city council as a major landowner on the site – to borrow against the future business rates that would be raised by the scheme.

At the moment the site raises £1.5 million every year in business rates but the completed project would see this rise to around £20 million a year. The scheme will also be enhanced by falling within a proposed enterprise zone which offers various relief from tax and regulation.
[…]
The project is being led by Gary Taylor, a former managing director of Argent who recently launched his own development company called Altitude, as well as Argent project director Rob Groves, both of whom are quite clear about the challenges the site offers, both technically and reputationally.

Surely, if reputation were a key issue, Argent would not have put forward such a cynical proposal. Judging by plans put forward by other developers to create 21st century slums at Icknield Port, the crevice between aspiration and reality is turning into a chasm.

At the time of writing, the Paradise Circus development website states that the ‘recently extended’ February 2009 exclusivity agreement “binds the City Council and Argent to agree to negotiate solely with each other and not involve other parties”. Which is curious, because Altitude Real Estate LLP, established in 2011, appears to be a new party in the situation. According to Altitude’s website, its (ex-Argent) directors Gary Taylor and Stephen Tillman

will take forward Argent’s existing schemes at Paradise Circus in Birmingham and Ffos-y-Fran in Merthyr Tydfil, South Wales, fully supported by Argent which will retain a part ownership in both schemes. They have secured options to fully acquire Argent’s interest in Paradise Circus and also on assets in Argent’s residential land business which was set up by Tillman and colleague Robert Bolton.

Written by beleben

February 27, 2012 at 4:31 pm