Tom Scotney looks at how a new high speed rail terminal could be the kick-start Eastside has been crying out for.
Although just a stone’s throw from the Bullring, Eastside has missed out on the redevelopment work that has transformed other areas of the city.
Districts like the Jewellery Quarter and Gas Street Basin have risen from a post-industrial malaise while Eastside has never quite lived up to all its promise.
And the under-developed and industrial nature of the area has led to a vicious circle of decline as it has struggled to bring in new businesses.
One of the few establishments in the area that deals with a regular flow of visiting customers is the Birmingham Central Backpackers hostel on Coventry Street.
Managing director Jennifer Randall said she hoped the investment into the area that could come with the opening of the new station would make Digbeth and Eastside less intimidating for visitors.
She said: “I think it would have a tremendously good impact on the area because obviously the more people you bring into the area the better for businesses. It would bring more money into the area and could really bring it to life.
“They have spent a lot of money on the Jewellery Quarter but that’s a lot further out from the city centre, where we are just a few steps away from the Bullring.
“Being located in Digbeth we have always struggled with the appearance of the outside area – and perhaps this could mean the appearance could be cleaned up.
“At our location we have sometimes struggled because it’s not a very well lit area, it’s mostly industrial.
“For us the appearance of the area has been an issue continually. The one thing we have always fought against and we can’t control is what the area looks like.
“For someone who’s come off the coach at Digbeth Coach Station it’s a very dark and intimidating environment.
“As an American that came into the city for the first time through the coach station, it was very intimidating. As for other people travelling through – I don’t think they would be very impressed.”
The north side of Digbeth has seen some regeneration in recent years, with the likes of Fazeley Studios and The Bond opening their doors. But the environment is still largely industrial, despite the near-city centre location.
Teamworks Karting is based in a warehouse on the north side of Fazeley Street. Director Simone Schehtman said any move that brought more people and more investment into the area would be good for local businesses.
And she added she hoped the high-speed rail link would not just mean quicker journeys to other parts of London, but a joined-up service across the Channel and beyond.
She said: “Of course it’s fantastic it will bring footfall through the area and exposure to what’s the heartland of the country, and will mean brilliant links through to London. Long term these things have a fabulous effect, and hopefully mean more local amenities.
“In the short term obviously it will create lots of obstacles to overcome as with any construction project. But major development transport infrastructure is needed to develop the professional sector to link Birmingham with Europe.
“There needs to be more focus on inward investment in the UK and the West Midlands – anything that can try to attract FTSE companies into this area has got to be good.”
While the part of Eastside south of the railway lines is still populated by industrial buildings and companies, the north side – where Curzon Street Station once hosted the city’s first rail terminus – has been almost completely cleared.
The area is now earmarked for a number of projects, including a park, the new campus for Birmingham City University, and a mixed-use development on the former Parcelforce site behind the listed station building.
These will all join Millennium Point, currently one of the only new buildings in Eastside.
Nick Winterbotham, the chief executive of Millennium Point, said that while it would be good to have the potential of a link to the rest of the country and further afield, it might clash with the development plans currently in place.
But he said it would create more publicity and marketing opportunities for businesses and organisations in the area. He said: “If there was an extension of the mainline stations in Eastside it would make the proposition even stronger for further development for Millennium Point. Inevitably, what we have discovered is that while Millennium Point is standing there on its own people notice us in a way they wouldn’t have before. There have to be opportunities like that if there were people coming through a station nearby. It brings in a new series of possibilities.”
And he said that it might come as a surprise to developments like the BCU that already have plans to turn the area into a ‘leisure and learning’ district.
He said: “That’s a reality check, I’m not sure what their reaction would be. They are clearly planning to make a big splash, and if Eastside became a major transport hub it might not be appropriate for them.
“On the other hand they might take a completely different view. It’s difficult to judge.”
But he added that the main hurdle would ultimately be funding rather than location.
“In some sense it would be good to have faster trains to London,” he said. “But is it worth the money?
“I think it could be very good for Birmingham, as long as it doesn’t have to foot the bill.
“I think my own point of view is we have to have a reality check on this – just what would it cost and would it distort the rather nice plans currently in place?”