What does a derelict site above London’s Southwark tube station have in common with a small retail unit in North Kent?
Until very recently, the answer to this question would have been: not a lot. But at two unloved sites, 'meanwhile uses' are showing local people how meaningful (and long-awaited) change is finally coming, as new community projects are given space to flourish.
In Southwark, "Platform" has taken over a three-floor building that had been derelict, and was until recently squatted. While U+I and joint venture partner Transport for London work up plans for a full-scale redevelopment, new tenants, including the Young Vic and arts company Illuminate Productions, are bringing life to the site for the first time in many years.
No. 34 in Sittingbourne, North Kent, is a retail unit bought in March 2015 by Swale Borough Council in a joint venture with U+I. The 1,500 sq. ft. unit on Sittingbourne High Street is not part of the wider development scheme there, but it has been let to Ideas Test, a North Kent community arts charity, on a low rent. The idea is to add colour and drive footfall at the worst-hit end of the high street.
“It’s about putting your money where your mouth is,” says Penny Humphrey, U+I’s Head of Marketing. “We want to show people that we are serious about transforming perceptions and engaging with local people.”
There’s no meaningful return on investment for either project, but that’s not the point. It’s about building trust, creating relationships and becoming local, which informs a better scheme. And physically, it provides a platform for consultation: at both locations, U+I is using the space to display its development plans.
“We’ve spent £200,000 on Platform. It pays off because it helps to de-risk planning, but it’s also proving to people that this place, which has been tired and derelict for a long time, does not have to be so: it can be a place of culture and fun.”
Exactly the same applies to Sittingbourne’s No. 34, where they run art classes and have a cinema space, opening their doors to the whole of Sittingbourne’s local community.
“In both cases it’s also a statement to our partners, showing them how we wish to operate. And it’s a statement to the local community saying ‘something is finally happening at this site’ and we’re doing it properly.”
Ultimately, the scheme in Sittingbourne is involved in bringing trade to the town centre and improving dwell times, so the establishment of No. 34 enables the team to experiment and test the local market for different kinds of uses.
“It gives people another reason to come to the high street, beyond creating just a conventional retail use. Engaging with the creative industries and local people in Swale is undoubtedly a good thing when it comes to the wider impact of our scheme."
“But it’s also a bit of an experiment, allowing us to play around with formats. And ultimately, it makes sense for us financially, because our wider scheme will lift property values throughout Sittingbourne, so our investment in this retail unit will eventually benefit from that uplift.”