Leeds a changing city
PUBLISHED: 22:07 14 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:22 20 February 2013
The economic downturn is bad news for big cities. So is Leeds well- placed to weather the financial storms ahead, asks Tony Greenway. PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRAHAM LINDLEY
They were going to be iconic buildings - and when everyone saw them they would immediately think of Leeds. Or, at least, that was the idea. The twin 'Kissing Towers', on a council-owned site off Sovereign Street, was planned as an architectural marvel and a distinguishing trademark for Leeds just what the city had been crying out for. The taller tower would have stood at an impressive 520ft (two feet higher than the Blackpool Tower) while its smaller twin would have risen 27 storeys.
But in July, it was reported that the 115million scheme, known as the Criterion Place Development, had been axed. The original plan for flats and a hotel was considered to be unviable in the current market, so the developers had wanted to revise it; but the city council decided to terminate the contract instead. The cleared space will now be used for car parking while the council considers its options. This news would have been bad enough on its own. But two weeks before the demise of the Kissing Towers, it was widely reported that building work on Leeds' 155million Lumiere project - set to become Europe's tallest residential tower block - had been halted.
Lumiere, developed by KW Linfoot, was to have featured two glass towers rising 54 and 32 storeys above the city's skyline. Linfoot, however, insists that work will resume on the scheme when financial conditions improve.
'We have already invested a considerable amount of time and money to deliver this iconic structure for Leeds,' said Richard Dean, KW Linfoot's joint managing director, 'and remain committed to progress plans when the market stabilises. Hopefully this will be sooner rather than later.'
Perhaps everyone should have been expecting this. The writing was on the wall in May, when the 24-storey Spiracle Tower (the centrepiece of a 160m regeneration of the former Leeds International Pool site) was also scrapped. The credit crunch, of course, has been blamed for this mess. So can Leeds expect widespread doom and gloom from now on? Or is this just a blip? Dr Kevin Grady is director of Leeds Civic Trust - the non-political body which serves as watchdog of the city's planning and architecture - and he thinks it's likely that other developments will also be shelved or delayed.
'But the really high profile ones have gone now,' he says, referring to Lumiere and the Kissing Towers. 'The point is that these were residential developments and speculative to some degree, so it's inevitable in a downturn of this sort that we are going to lose projects of this kind. 'The Kissing Towers in particular would have been a striking, stunningly designed and unusual building.
And Leeds needs a building - other than the town hall - that people see and instantly recognise as Leeds.
The city would benefit from having a modern symbol to represent its dynamism and individuality, and the towers would have done that so, personally, I think it's very disappointing that the scheme won't happen at all. Lumiere may still go ahead, but for that to happen we'll need to see an upturn in the economy, and a solution to the turmoil of the financial institutions.'
The problem is three-fold. Developers need to borrow money to be able to build schemes - and, while this has never been a problem before, banks are currently not in a position to lend. Secondly, building costs have increased dramatically. And, thirdly, the thrusting young execs who would have been able to buy city apartments a year ago seem to have gone AWOL. That's the bad news.
The good news is that Leeds has reinvented itself over the last 20 years and is now a modern, confident city able to withstand economic shocks of this kind. 'It has been hugely successful,' says Dr Grady. 'In effect, it has out-competed virtually every other provincial city in the country.
Something like 100,000 additional jobs have been created in the last two decades and an ailing manufacturing centre has been transformed into a highly successful financial and business base. There is also a very strong health sector and a huge expansion in the universities.With regards to retail, restaurants, hotels and leisure, it has also done tremendously well.
'There have been huge physical improvements to Leeds, too, with a lot of investment in the city. The waterfront has been transformed. There are some fantastic cultural institutions: Opera North,West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Northern Ballet Theatre. The art gallery is being refurbished, Leeds Museum is opening in September and a new arena is in prospect. Someone coming to Leeds for the first time in 20 years would be absolutely astonished to see how things have changed.'
The Trinity Quarter, currently in development, is expected to be a huge boost to Leeds' retail fortunes. The Eastgate Quarters, meanwhile - located between the civic quarter and the existing retail quarter - will bring the much trumpeted 260,000 sq ft John Lewis store and a flagship Marks and Spencer to the city. Analysts say this scheme will make Leeds one of the country's premier shopping destinations. That music arena Dr Grady mentioned is an important - and some might say downright essential - part of the plan to put Leeds on the map as a major regional centre.
Currently, big rock and pop tours and their audiences flock to Sheffield or Manchester and bypass Leeds altogether. So it's exciting to learn that the operator has already been appointed, and the developer will be named later this year. There is a caveat to all of this, admits Dr Grady. Leeds still has some of the most deprived districts and communities in the country: in some respects it's still a two-speed city. Yet where some cities have been losing population, Leeds has been gaining it.
Over 100,000 people work in its centre every day. 'Leeds has almost been recession proof over the last 30 years,' says Dr Grady. 'There could be two or three years of slow-down in Leeds; but there's no reason to think that, once the credit crunch is over, the city won't start growing fast again.We shouldn't underplay things, mind you, because we're all worried about increased outgoings. But, nevertheless, Leeds is a vibrant centre and it's likely to consolidate in the coming years.'