By Lynne Blundell
FAVOURITES: 29 April 2010 –Tom Bloxham’s keynote presentation at the Australian Institute of Architects National Conference 2010 at Darling Harbour in Sydney last week was in keeping with his reputation for overcoming the odds. The eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano may have thwarted his plans for a first-time visit to Australia, but there he was on the big screen talking to a packed-out session, coolly moving through his impressive audiovisuals with a flick of his hand – microwave link apparently….whatever that is.
He’s a man accustomed to doing things differently. As founder and chief executive officer of property development company Urban Splash, Bloxham is something of an urban regeneration pioneer. Since its beginnings in 1993 Urban Splash has won almost 300 awards for design, architecture and urban renewal and in 1999 Bloxham was awarded an MBE. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
It was his entrepreneurial spirit that got Bloxham into property development. When he moved to Manchester at 19 to study politics and modern history he began printing and selling posters to students. But when he began subletting portions of his first retail space at Afflecks Palace, and discovered this was much more lucrative than selling posters, his career in property began.
Bloxham sees himself as more of a regenerator than a developer, taking old, unused buildings and industrial sites and creating vibrant mix-used spaces, to revitalise both them and the communities where they are located.
“We buy these buildings that the property industry says are useless and turn ordinary places into extraordinary ones,” says Bloxham.
Not only is it more environmentally sustainable to use structures that are already there but it is socially responsible to bring life back into urban areas that have fallen by the wayside, says Bloxham.
The company aims to use less energy by regenerating rather than demolishing and to use sustainable features such as green roofs, open spaces, locally generated power, on-site bore water and the creation of local employment.
In a recent essay published by The Smith Institute Bloxham describes his philosophy to regeneration:
“ I started in the property industry – not even knowing what a covenant was – by leasing or buying those old, unloved buildings and exposing the great Victorian features that lay hidden inside them.
“We leased them to young, entrepreneurial, creative companies; first as retail space at Afflecks Palace in Manchester and The Palace on Slater Street in Liverpool, later as workspace in buildings such as Ducie House in Manchester and finally as residential loft apartments, such as Concert Square in Liverpool and Smithfield Building and Sally’s Yard in Manchester. This brought in a new generation of people, who wanted to live, work, eat, drink and have fun in city centres that had, until then, been empty beyond 6 pm.”
At Concert Square in Liverpool an old derelict tea factory was converted into a mixed use development with public squares, residential in the upper floors, offices in the middle and retail on the lower level.
In the old match factory in Liverpool, the last in the UK, Urban Splash kept the concrete columns that were used throughout the building and constructed pods and kitchens at the back of the building to create a large commercial space.
In Bradford, which was once the centre of UK’s textile trade, the old mill buildings created by English investor and industrialist, Samuel Lister in the 1800s,as part of his huge empire had been left to rot. Following the decline of the industry unemployment escalated and riots became common. Urban Splash brought the Victorian mills back to life and, says Bloxham, helped “the community to be proud of itself.”
“A mass of developers entered the race to refurbish every underused building and construct exciting new mixed-use developments on the former bomb-site car parks. The new residents who inhabited them brought great spending power into city centres. They paid council tax, and were often educated, articulate, active citizens. This encouraged councils to improve city-centre services and retailers to take advantage of a new breed of customer, who wanted all that the cities had to offer,” says Bloxham.
One project, New Islington in Manchester, involved partnerships between government, community organisations and private developers. These included Urban Splash, regeneration agencies English Partnerships and New East Manchester together with Manchester Methodist Housing Association.
The result was the conversion of an old low density council housing estate where people were unemployed and disenfranchised into a mixed use higher density development. It now houses people from varying socio economic backgrounds in 1400 rather than the previous 100 homes and contains large areas of public space, including canals and wetlands.
“We asked ourselves how do we turn the worst estate in Manchester into one of the best?” says Bloxham.
“We created an interesting streetscape and there was also a big emphasis on sustainability in this project. We’ve retained materials wherever we can, used features such as green roofs and created a massive area of wetlands.”
Nest boxes in the wetlands are designed to attract a range of birds including kingfishers, and low-level lighting minimises the impact on the wildlife.
The project was shortlisted in the Sustainable Housing Awards, organised by Inside Housing magazine – the first to focus on the best green social housing projects in the UK.
Regeneration after the GFC
With the arrival of the global financial crisis, development in the UK, like everywhere else around the globe, ground to a halt. Bloxham says regeneration is at a crossroads.
“If we are not careful, our towns and cities will be allowed to go into decline. We will lose the momentum gained over the past 20 years. Skilled practitioners will lose their jobs and regeneration will be left only to the private sector – but the private sector will not have access to the finance or debt to develop, at least not in the locations where the renaissance is most needed.”
The effective use of public-private partnerships has never been more necessary, says Bloxham, and the demand for quality housing is as great as it has ever been. But if regeneration is not to slide backwards, the public sector must take the lead and forge stronger partnerships with the private sector.
This would allow the regeneration sector to “take the benefit of low land values and of spare capacity in the regeneration, development and construction industries in order to work now in true partnership to continue the urban renaissance and create wonderful new places in our towns and cities.”
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