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Spiracle ridicule

Helen Clifton finds fudge and confusion surrounding a planning debacle

Published on June 5th 2008.

Spiracle ridicule

DEVELOPERS and pressure groups claim the demise of plans for the flagship Spiracle Tower has revealed some serious flaws in the way Leeds City Council is handling the development of the city centre.

In their view, the axing of the futuristic 25-storey residential tower – which was to be built on the International Swimming Pool site - is not just down to the credit crunch, but the unrealistic expectations of the council.

The future of the entire project now looks shaky.

Original residential partners Barratt Homes withdrew in early 2007, and Fraser's Property Development, formerly known as Fairbriar, took over - but they also pulled out in December last year.

"The problem is that the quality of what is being built is pretty poor. The concern is that in ten years' time when these building are no longer looking smart and new they will start to look very shabby, and people will start to dislike them intensely."

HBG, the current commercial developers, would not confirm details of their involvement beyond saying they are, "in discussions" with the council - although the authority say they are confident contracts will be signed by the end of the year.

"The credit crunch is part of it. It is not the whole reason," explains Andrew Stacey, Development Executive with Fraser's Leeds office.

"We stepped in but we were having our hands tied because we couldn't go into discussions with Leeds City Council and were struggling to make the numbers work. It was a very inefficient design and a very expensive building.

"Trying to cut up a round cylindrical building into apartments is very difficult, and there is a lot of wasted space.

"We were looking to offset the costs against the affordable housing requirements – but that didn't happen.

"We got to the point where we decided there were better things that we could spend our money on.

"I think it is often said that the city has thrived despite the council, rather than as a result of them."

London-based Make Architects, the people behind the Gherkin Tower, designed Spiracle way back in 2005 as an 'urban icon'. Much like the 60s brutalist swimming pool it was mooted to replace, its striking design and expense divided opinion while providing a focus for regeneration.

Andrew says the Council's ambition outstripped available resources, and more support is needed to stop developers cutting corners to make profit. He puts neighbouring Manchester's success down to their council being a "more willing partner" for developers.

"I think John Thorp, the civic architect, was keen to appoint a big architect," he says. "I don't think there is anything wrong with that, there has just got to be some concessions.

"There isn't a recognition of the costs and the risks of higher end products," he says. "Owner occupied developments carry a much higher risk. Everything is stacked against you.

"There should be more recognition of schemes that genuinely add to the city centre. The Council needs to look at things in a slightly different way."

Leeds City Council reiterated their commitment to the development, and said that Spiracle only accounted for 20 per cent of the original scheme. The revised plans will now offer three office blocks, a hotel, public car park along with public realm works, including a new pedestrian footbridge across the inner ring road.

A spokesperson said: "The downturn in the global economy has obviously had an impact on such schemes, but we are confident that Leeds' strong and diverse economy will once again prove resilient and, although the Spiracle tower no longer features in our plans for the site, this will still be a major and prestigious development for the city."

Demolition will begin in September, and take 12 months to complete. In the meantime, the council have applied for permission to use the site as a temporary car park.

Kevin Grady, Director of Leeds Civic Trust, campaigned for the swimming pool to remain open, even making an unsuccessful application for it to be listed – but had no problem with Spiracle.

"The design was very interesting. But it should not have been on this site," he says.

"We were against the loss of amenity. In this age of sustainability, we need amenities that people can get too."

He also echoes Andrew's concerns about the cheaper developments currently flooding the city.

"We suspected all along that the scheme (Spiracle) would not go ahead. We were not sure there was sufficient demand, particularly in the currentclimate," he adds.

"From our point of view city centre living is a good thing, but it is very important to build flats which are good quality, and which will encourage people to stay in the city centre.

"The problem is that the quality of what is being built is pretty poor. The concern is that in ten years' time when these building are no longer looking smart and new they will start to look very shabby, and people will start to dislike them intensely."

The John Poulson-designed pool hosted a major art installation in February, which led to great national acclaim and calls for the building to be used as anexhibition space as with the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London.

Kevin agrees this could be one solution.

"A lot of sixties buildings in Leeds have been lost. The council needs to look at the building as an opportunity, not a liability, and be a bit entrepreneurial about it.

"The council could have sold the car park for redevelopment and put the money back into the pool. But they don't accept that the building has any value."

Kevin's suggestion would result in two iconic and controversial buildings of different generations existing side by side, a visual statement that wouldcertainly put Leeds on the map.

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