Com­ment Why it pays to help busi­ness thrive un­der­neath the arches

Birmingham Post - - NEWS -

The land­lord for oc­cu­pants of viaduct arches is Net­work Rail. Net­work Rail is plan­ning to sell its prop­erty arm, in­clud­ing around 5,500 rail­way arches, which is said to be worth about £1.2 bil­lion. In prepa­ra­tion for this sale, it is cur­rently im­pos­ing rent rises on ten­ants of up to 500 per cent. This will in­evitably force many small busi­nesses in arches, op­er­at­ing on low over­heads, to close.

A na­tional um­brella group of traders, Guardians of the Arches, is cam­paign­ing against the rent rises and the pro­jected sale, and is ask­ing Trans­port Sec­re­tary Chris Grayling in­ter­vene and stop it.

Jane Jacobs wrote that “What cities man­u­fac­ture is di­ver­sity”, mean­ing di­ver­sity of eco­nomic ac­tiv­ity. One of her four con­di­tions for cre­at­ing ur­ban di­ver­sity is a plen­ti­ful sup­ply of old build­ings, where small busi­nesses, whether old or new, can pros­per.

This fun­da­men­tal and vi­tal fact is of­ten not un­der­stood by politi­cians, town plan­ners and large landlords like Net­work Rail.

A dis­pro­por­tion­ate amount of at­ten­tion and im­por­tance is in­stead paid by them to big busi­nesses oc­cu­py­ing big units of new ac­com­mo­da­tion, which in­ci­den­tally of­ten re­sult in the demolition of us­able old build­ings.

Look for ex­am­ple at the public­ity given to the im­mi­nent ar­rival of HSBC at its large new build­ing in Broad Street. This is good news for the hun­dreds of peo­ple who will have jobs there, but it will do next to noth­ing to in­crease the func­tional and eco­nomic di­ver­sity of the city, or to im­prove the daily qual­ity of life of those who live here.

The rail­way viaduct arch is an il­lus­tra­tion of the direct re­la­tion­ship which can ex­ist be­tween ar­chi­tec­ture and the ur­ban econ­omy.

They, and other amor­tised old build­ings, sim­ply en­able small busi­nesses to ex­ist. Some of those small busi­nesses grow big. I am writing this on a Hewlett Packard lap­top. Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard’s busi­ness started in a car garage, be­cause they could not af­ford to rent com­mer­cial space.

Dig­beth, spanned by three sep­a­rate rail­way viaducts, is a neigh­bour­hood with a rel­a­tively high pro­por­tion of busi­nesses in rail­way arches. They con­trib­ute to the small-scale di­ver­sity which is the char­ac­ter­is­tic qual­ity of Dig­beth – the of­ten-sur­pris­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion of uses and ac­tiv­i­ties.

On Shaw’s Pas­sage, un­der­neath Moor Street Sta­tion and a stone’s throw from where High Speed Two trains from Lon­don will slow to a halt, can be found Mo­tormech Lim­ited, a car re­pair workshop oc­cu­py­ing two arches. In the next arch is Kilder, a cool black bar and café. Next door are the cel­e­brated burgers of the Orig­i­nal Patty Men. They are reg­u­lars at Dig­beth Din­ing Club, housed in an­other arch fur­ther down the line. Next is a “global gam­ing arena”, in an arch which not long ago ac­com­mo­dated a church.

This kind of di­ver­sity is what cities are for, and should be cher­ished and val­ued. Here it has grown nat­u­rally through in­cre­men­tal en­ter­prise. But if Net­work Rail’s plans to raise rents and sell to a big com­mer­cial op­er­a­tor go through, the at­trac­tive di­ver­sity of Dig­beth and sim­i­lar dis­tricts will be un­der threat.

Of course, Net­work Rail’s plans are along­side a big­ger threat to Dig­beth’s di­ver­sity, which is the ar­rival of the HS2 ter­mi­nal at Cur­zon Street. Land and build­ing val­ues are go­ing up in an­tic­i­pa­tion, and the dan­ger is that Dig­beth will be­come part of an in­creas­ingly ho­mo­ge­neous city cen­tre, both in its build­ing scale and in its land uses.

It is a con­ser­va­tion area, whose old build­ings can­not be de­mol­ished with­out plan­ning ap­proval, and its man­age­ment plan is cur­rently be­ing rewrit­ten in the city coun­cil. There is a dif­fi­cult but vi­tal job to be done here: to en­sure that in­vest­ment in the neigh­bour­hood is made, but in such a way that its scale and di­ver­sity is main­tained, and not oblit­er­ated. Joe Holyoak is a Birm­ing­ham­based ar­chi­tect and ur­ban


> Shaw’s Pas­sage, be­neath Moor Street Sta­tion, in Dig­beth > Burger supre­mos The Orig­i­nal Patty Men

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