In March, the city council will unveil its second round of Area Investment Prospectuses, highlighting development opportunities in Birmingham. Ian Halstead studies the progress of two schemes from the first round of AIPs.
The regeneration potential of East Birmingham’s Highgate Road area is evident, not least for its location on the city’s arterial network, and the presence of the Balti Triangle.
However, the gulf between perception and reality has only been bridged by a serious amount of hard cash... and the desire of a local entrepreneur to make a discernible difference to his community.
Yaqub Ali has been a restaurateur of note in Birmingham for some 20 years, but the chunky development sites along Highgate Road represented very different challenges.
Land would need to be acquired, concepts and detailed designs had to be created, and specialist skills were also required to move through the maze of the planning process, and then bring schemes forward.
Yaqub brought in the Balsall Common-based architectural practice of FBDA, and its managing director, Naveed Ahmed, has subsequently led the project, as he explains.
“Mr Ali is a very hands-on individual, who has worked in East Birmingham for many years, and lived there for much of that time. He has owned a number of businesses, primarily in the food industry, and also chaired a local business group.
“One thing had always niggled him though, that the area was called the Balti Triangle, when its ’base’ was missing, which would link Ladypool Road to Stratford Road.”
The council’s launch of an Area Investment Prospectus for East Birmingham, which highlighted Highgate Road’s development potential, was the catalyst for Yaqub to take a serious look at a three-acre site previously occupied by Euro Packaging.
“Mr Ali thought that it could be used to really put Highgate on the map, not simply with a new restaurant, but with a more ambitious mixed-use scheme, including retail space, start-up units for small firms, and a multi-storey car park,” says Naveed.
A lifelong devotee of Indian classical music, Mr Ali also dreamed of creating a venue which could attract touring musicians from the sub-continent.
The idea of developing a training academy for chefs wishing to specialise in Asian cuisine appealed equally, given the difficulty and expense of bringing in such skilled individuals from overseas.
The result was an ambitious Balti Village scheme, which would create 22,000 sq ft of space for a range of uses, based around a three-storey former tram depot.
“We discussed our ideas with the council’s planning and regeneration team for East Birmingham, and in particular the regeneration director Clive Dutton, and finally agreed proposals which would bring forward a sustainable and impressive scheme,” recalls Naveed. “However, just buying the land would cost more than £3 million, and Mr Ali naturally spent some time thinking over the plans, before deciding to take the biggest plunge of his life, and to acquire the site.”
Much of the space will be new-build, although the depot’s 1920s façade will be retained and enhanced.
The only snag has been the worsening economic climate, which has made development capital much more difficult to acquire than a year or two ago. Mr Ali isn’t deterred though, and the first phase will still proceed in the first half of 2009.
“He is currently in Dubai, talking to possible private investors, but even if that doesn’t bear fruit, he will begin with the business start-up space in the old depot,” says Naveed. “There is also a possibility of public sector funding, which would allow the scheme to go forward in one hit, but either way, Mr Ali will definitely go ahead this year.”
Two other FBDA clients have also identified opportunities from the East Birmingham AIP, and acquired sizeable sites in the Highgate area.
“They’ve both bought around 1.5 acres, one for a quality hotel, and the other for an ethnic arts and crafts bazaar, along the lines of a traditional souk,” says Naveed.
“These schemes would complement Mr Ali’s development very nicely, and as the Balti Village will probably take around 18 months to complete, we should be through the downturn and on the way up by then.”