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Thursday, 5 July 2018

My Concerns About The Proposed St Botolphs Quarter Development

We have serious concerns about the proposed St Botolph’s Quarter development and having attended the recent public exhibition at Greyfriars by Alumno Group and Building Partnerships, those concerns have been amplified. The main development proposals are for a 90 bedroom (approx.) hotel next to the new Curzon cinema on Queen Street and for a 330 bedroom (approx.) student accommodation block on the former bus station site adjacent to Firstsite.  Our concerns include the following:
1)      The St Botolphs area is supposed to be a cultural quarter and yet the proposed development offers minimal new cultural facilities; only a possible performance space for Colchester Institute students within the accommodation block. Most of the development is student accommodation with nothing related to heritage and no additional public arts, craft or leisure facilities, which is a huge missed opportunity.
2)      The development is being sold to the public by Alumno as ‘mixed development’ when in fact is essentially a hotel and student accommodation block with retail facilities largely for students and hotel guests. The Alumno rep admitted that the retail spaces would be leased at a market rate (meaning expensive) to student-friendly chains of the Costa coffee and Nandos type (the rep actually mentioned Nandos). Given that Colchester desperately needs a low rent retail area to create a vibrant small business hub such as the Lanes in Brighton, this is another huge missed opportunity. Once again large corporate chains are being given priority over small retailers and local independents.
3)      This development proposal is being led not by the community but by commercial interests and profit maximisation. The local community has been invited to comment on the developers’ proposals but not on the actual use that the site should be put to. This therefore is not a truly democratic process. The public and local residents should be consulted by the Borough Council on whether student accommodation is the best use of this site.
4)      The density of the proposed development raises a number of micro issues. The North Building of the accommodation block obscures the view of Firstsite and Berryfield from the Curzon cinema restaurant space, while the Central Building obscures the view from the proposed new hotel. The height of both the hotel and much of the accommodation block is four storeys, as high as Firstsite. This is a much bigger and much denser set of buildings than the recently demolished building next to the Curzon and would totally block the view of Firstsite from Queen Street.
5)      The student accommodation itself is being pitched at the high end of the market. The Alumno rep flatly refused to indicate what the likely rent levels are to be, indeed she stated that it was against company policy to divulge that information. However she then went on to state that it would be ‘market rate’. This is a euphemism for expensive. This development is a private commercial venture by Alumno and not by the University of Essex. Not only does it contribute to what amounts to the privatisation of higher education and student infrastructure but it also does nothing to address the problem of high student living costs and debt. Furthermore, if as is possible, not all of the 330 bedrooms are let to students, due to the high rents, then it is possible that the accommodation could end up as high-cost flats.
6)      There is no social housing proposed for the site. Given that the Borough Council are constantly (and with reason) pointing out the need for more social housing in Colchester, this is surprising to say the least.
7)      Alumno have stated that none of the students will be allowed to have cars and that there will be no parking for either students or hotel guests on site. We welcome the fact that there is an intention to minimise additional traffic in the area. However this means that hotel guests will be told to use the Priory Street car park, putting additional pressure on that facility. Moreover, it is not clear how Alumno will enforce the no car rule regarding the students. When they were asked what would happen if students park cars ‘under the radar’ on nearby car parks, the Alumno rep stated that it would be up to local residents to report this. This raises the question of how local residents are supposed to identify whether car owners are students or not, how they are supposed to prove it and who would have the authority to approach drivers in a car park and question them.

Therefore we believe that the Borough Council needs to look at this again. The area does need careful and considered development however this should be led by community need as opposed to corporate greed. We believe that creating a vibrant, low rent retail area of specialised independent shops, combined with new heritage facilities and museum space would be a much better use of the site. Also if some badly needed social housing were to be part of a genuinely mixed use development then this would help towards alleviating some of the pressure to build on greenfield sites.

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