A proposal to replace the NatWest Tower with a taller 35-storey structure is an opportunity to remedy past design mistakes and will not detract from the Colmore Row conservation area, according to a report by Birmingham City Council’s director of regeneration.
Clive Dutton has broadly welcomed British Land’s application to demolish the existing 22-storey tower, built in 1972 and often referred to as one of the city centre’s ugliest buildings, and construct in its place a 441ft-high £160 million landmark office development.
In a written report to the council planning committee, Mr Dutton points out that the Colmore Row conservation area management plan contains specific policy guidance in support of replacing the NatWest Tower with a building of “exceptional architectural quality”.
While the replacement on the site at the corner of Colmore Row and Newhall Street would be more dominant than the existing building, it would be of a higher quality design with better materials and finishes, according to Mr Dutton.
The report is the first indication of official city backing for the British Land scheme, which has been criticised as intrusive and out of keeping with the Grade 1 listed St Philip’s Cathedral and nearby 19th century buildings by some local architects and the Birmingham Victorian Society.
Mr Dutton believes the proposed glass-fronted tower will have a “better relationship” with its immediate surroundings and will improve views of Birmingham from a distance.
In deciding whether to grant British Land planning permission the council must consider the contribution made by the NatWest Tower to the historic and architectural interest of the area.
Although there is a general presumption in favour of retaining buildings which enhance the character of a conservation area, English Heritage turned down a request last year to add the existing tower to the statutory list of protected buildings.
However, the organisation is in the process of reviewing that decision following British Land’s application for demolition and has indicated it may now be more sympathetic to the NatWest Tower.
Mr Dutton’s report says: “The new landmark building will be expected to reinterpret the character of the conservation area by means of a complementary design which should provide both a positive element in the streetscape and a distinctive addition to the city skyline.”
He does not believe the new tower will overshadow the cathedral or block out sunlight along Colmore Row. Any reduction in light to existing buildings would be “negligible” and the impact on sunlight levels to adjoining buildings would be minor.
As far as the design of the new building is concerned, the report notes: “The east-facing Newhall Street elevation has been designed to provide a calm, neutral backdrop to St Philip’s Cathedral.
“The west-facing facade would be faced in white opaque back-painted glass. Continuous vertical clear glass slots would reveal lift movement and provide plant ventilation. The stairs to either side of the facade would also be in clear glass.”
Mr Dutton quotes an appraisal of the existing building commissioned by British Land, which describes the NatWest Tower as an anomaly within the conservation area.
The appraisal adds: “It is a landmark, but not an attractive one which does not provide office space to meet current standards.
“English Heritage, in pre-application discussions, have suggested that the building may make a positive contribution to the conservation area, but this view does not stand up to close scrutiny.
“The building makes no positive contribution other than being a landmark, a role better fulfilled by a replacement building of higher quality design.”