Outline plans for what could replace the Central Library have finally been released for public consumption. Alun Thorne spoke to the team behind the project about their vision for the site and the challenges ahead.
There are few buildings that polarise opinion quite like Birmingham Central Library.
For many it is a blot on the landscape, an eyesore that harks back to a dark age of architecture that besmirched Birmingham and continues to offend to this day.
For others, it is a classic example of the Brutalist design movement in which Birmingham led the field and as important a monument to the city’s history as the Council House, the back-to-backs or the Jewellery Quarter.
But what is almost certain is that its days are now numbered.
As soon as Birmingham City Council embarked on its new library for Birmingham in Centenary Square and the Government announced that it was not minded to list the John Madin-designed inverted ziggurat, the writing was on the wall.
Underpinning the council’s decision to commission a new library has been a long-standing view that Paradise Circus, the eight-acre site on which the Central Library stands, is an unmitigated disaster of urban design and stands as a cork between the traditional city centre and the successful redevelopment of the western end of the city around the ICC and Brindleyplace.
While the new library for Birmingham was still a twinkle in Mike Whitby’s eye, Argent – the developer behind Brindleyplace – expressed an interest in the site if the council was ever so minded to get rid of the Central Library and for the past five years or so the company has been working alongside the council with preferred developer status as the possibilities for the site have been examined.
The latest stage of the process has been the launch this week of phase two of a public consultation for Paradise Circus with a view to submitting an outline planning application for a scheme that would involve the eventual razing to the ground of the entire site.
That includes the Central Library, The Conservatoire and the Copthorne Hotel and replacing them with up to 1.7 million sq ft of retail, commercial, civic, leisure and hotel space across 12 buildings as well as improving pedestrian access and the public realm with new squares and transforming the highways around Paradise Circus.
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.
“This is probably one of the most complicated pieces of real estate in the country in terms of the work that was started in the 1960s and 1970s and then the rubbish that was built in the ‘80s and ‘90s.” said Mr Taylor.
“What we have been trying to do is unpick everything with the roads underneath and round the outside – it really is as complicated as it gets.”
There are a number of engineering issues that seriously constrain the site, including the fact that the A38 Queensway tunnel runs directly underneath, the A457 that runs to the west of the site, the Birmingham City Council basement car park that also runs underneath, and an existing combined heat and power system and fire escape tunnels from the A38 – all of which have to be overcome before the scheme above ground can even be considered.
The main changes being proposed will effectively mean Paradise Circus is no longer a traffic island with no left turn at the top of Great Charles Street and also new signals at the top of Broad Street instead of all motorists having to go left.
Mr Groves said: “It is more logical with this proposal. At the moment when you enter Paradise Circus there is no perception you are entering a roundabout as it is more like you are entering a one-way system.
"It’s illogical because you are effectively turning away from the way you want to go.”
But while the engineering challenges have been a huge part of the work that has already gone into preparing an outline planning application – Argent has already spent in the region of £2 million in fees alone – the proof of the pudding for the scheme is the bit that will be seen by the man in the street, the bit that needs to assuage the doubters who believe that the Central Library should stay, fit for purpose or not.
And Mr Taylor is clear that while there is an established vision, this is a true consultation that has already got the grey matter working overtime.
“We know broadly speaking what we can’t do and what we can but this isn’t a closed process,” he said. “We have already had briefings with our neighbours and they have had some really good ideas that have challenged our thinking.
"However, the principle spirit of what we are trying to do hasn’t changed from the beginning. If we make the assumption that we can move the uses at Paradise Circus so that we can do something transformational – which we believe the site is deserving of - then it is about improving the connectivity of the city from east to west from the traditional city core to the convention centre.
“We want to create a boulevard through the middle to connect Paradise Circus to the city centre while creating pedestrian streets and squares and a range of buildings that sit in the public realm and compliment the historic buildings already there.”
Birmingham has emerged from the post-industrial malaise that has blighted so many UK cities better than most.
Any recent visitor to the city who had not made the trip for a decade or two could not fail to notice the huge strides – many of them undoubtedly positive – it has made.
If it gets the go-ahead, there is no doubting that the new Paradise Circus scheme would make as fundamental a change to Birmingham’s cityscape as anything that has gone before - perhaps excluding the savage dismantling of the city centre under the watchful eye of Herbert Manzoni for the inner ring road in the late 1940s, a fact not lost on Mr Taylor although he believes it is a vision worth pursuing.
“People probably think I hate the Central Library and I want it pulled down but I have come to the conclusion that a complete redevelopment of the site is the right thing to do,” he said.
“I like the shape and the scale but the quality of the materials has let it down and it really hasn’t stood the test of time. That said, if that building was elsewhere then you could have a real think about how it could be kept but in Paradise Circus it makes the redevelopment extremely difficult.”
How the plans will be paid for
Argent may have already invested £2 million in fees and thousands of man hours in working up the current scheme but the final bill for the completed project is set to run into the hundreds of millions of pounds.
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 timescale for the development is around 15 years with the project completed in around 2027 and the first three buildings would be a central office block containing the new Adrian Boult Hall, a replacement for the Copthorne Hotel, and another block.
The cost of these first three buildings would be in the region of £130 million and for the entire scheme to stack up commercially, the project will have had to secure pre-lets on at least 40-50 per cent of the space before construction work can begin.
?Next page: Adrian Boult Hall and Conservatoire also facing the bulldozer
Adrian Boult Hall and Conservatoire also facing the bulldozer
Sitting right at the heart of the proposals will be a replacement for the Conservatoire and Adrian Boult Hall, the home of Birmingham City University’s School of Music, which is set to be reduced to rubble to make way for the redevelopment.
While the proposals are still outlined and no deal has been done, Dan Howard, dean of faculty of performance, media and English which has responsibility for the Conservatoire, said the plans to move the school and create a new concert hall had huge potential.
“The proposal is to relocate the bulk of the School of Music to Louisa Ryland House and to have a new big concert hall embedded in an office block along Centenary Way,” he said.
“At the moment it is a proposal and is not the only show in town but it is certainly an option that we are most excited about.”
While the Conservatoire has served the School of Music well, the proposals would be a huge step forward, not just for the university but the wider city.
He said: “The proposal to replace the Adrian Boult hall with a new facility has a number of things going for it. Firstly the new hall would offer better acoustic quality than the hall we already have. The new facility would also give us considerably better visibility.
"The Adrian Boult Hall, bless it, we love it but it is out of the way. What we are talking about is a concert hall with a front door to a walk way that has a footfall of 13 million people every year.
"This allows us to widen the programme of music we offer and to work much more closely with Symphony Hall and the Town Hall to improve the overall musical diet.
"So while it will predominantly be for the students, it means we will be able to do more. Symphony Hall has a 3,000 capacity and the Town Hall has 1,000 and the new concert hall will be around 500 so it gives us a range of different venues for a range of different music, making a very attractive offer to a wider audience.
“These are real benefits for the students and for the city. There is currently lots of talk of elevating Birmingham from a C grade city to a B grade city and we know that to be a B grade city you have to have an extremely strong cultural offer.
"Culture is not the icing on the cake for a world class city, it is the cake. If these proposals come to fruition then we will have Symphony Hall, the Rep, the New Library for Birmingham and the new concert hall and that means we will have all the components to match anything in Helsinki or Paris or on a smaller scale New York.”
Mr Howard is also clear that while there is some fondness for the current building, the building’s heritage is unlikely to be a stumbling block for the project.
“I think we all look at the Conservatoire with some affection but it has already changed a number of times in its 125 year history and this proposal is something that could last for another 125 years and we should take the opportunity in the squares and so on to celebrate the people behind the heritage,” he said.
As for how the project would be funded, all that Mr Howard could say was that it would be worth every penny.
He said: “However the investment is framed, what will emerge will be something great for the university and great for the city.”