Posted by Oliver Stainsby

Posted 11 November, 2019 OBI BLOG

One thing we’ve heard and seen a lot down the years, in masterplans and development launches, is people talk about a “European-style café culture,” usually side by side with “the 24-hour city”.

What does a modern, progressive city in the 21st century look like? For many people with an interest in urban spaces, at this point it might not look like the average UK city centre – too noisy, too car-centric. But more and more, the idea is taking hold that cities are for people, and people should hold sway.

After much talk, January 2019 saw approval by the West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s investment board for the £20m Headrow City Centre Gateway plan. A people-first approach to this critical part of the city centre was the overall aim, and included among the plans were widening footpaths, new open spaces, improved pedestrian crossings and protected cycle lanes. Changes to on-street parking, taxi provision and bus routes were also factored in. Work started in earnest in July.

Along with the Headrow itself, Westgate, Vicar Lane, New Briggate, Cookridge Street, Harrison Street, and Eastgate are also included all of which form the spine of Leeds’ Cultural District with landmark buildings such as Leeds Town Hall, Broad Gate and Leeds Grand Theatre forming the district’s centrepieces. The city hopes to double the number of bus users by 2026, reduce cross-city journey times and improve air quality.

This has to be applauded. UK cities in general perform poorly on air quality tests, and the day can’t be far away when stricter regulation comes in. What has to happen alongside is improvements to the public transport network, helping reduce reliance on cars – and that is definitely happening here, with the project forming part of the £270m Connecting Leeds transport masterplan.

The gateway plan plays into the changing role of the city centre too, as cities look to adapt to the decline in traditional retail – although Leeds, as a regional centre, doesn’t face the same crisis as secondary locations, it’s still a concern. City leaders know there’s an ongoing job to do in animating the city, supporting events and leisure, giving communities and visitors alike reasons to come to the city.

What the project will also do is to give further prominence to a raft of business space that had, in some cases, fallen a little behind the game at a time when the bulk of new development has been in other areas, notably Wellington Place from an office perspective and also Trinity Shopping Centre and Victoria Gate which has driven and re-routed footfall to their impressive retail and leisure offerings in recent years.

Greek Street is one of the areas driving footfall having been reborn and reinvigorated over the past 5 years. An area which saw a steady decline in its offering and desirability from a leisure perspective during the recession has now become the one of the most popular destinations in Leeds city centre, hosting a raft of desirable high-end cocktail bars and eateries in addition to five star hotel, The Dakota. Its success was facilitated by the street’s pedestrianisation in 2016 and now following a new initiative between Leeds city council and local businesses, Greek Street will benefit from £460,000 of further investment. Longer pedestrianised hours, new granite paving, lighting and greenery will see the street cemented and futureproofed as a desirable destination for leisure and businesses with adjoining locations such as South Parade and East Parade benefiting from their proximity to the fantastic amenities.

As these works edge towards completion in 2020, there are more compelling reasons than ever to consider workplaces right in the beating heart of the city – and with several refurbishment projects in the works, there are options on the table. 34 Boar Lane is a new development undertaken by developer Kinrise, delivering vibrant and modern workspace in an excellent location. The Majestic and One City Square are notable schemes which will deliver much needed Grade A office accommodation to Leeds city centre during 2020.

All these will benefit from the second phase of proposed pedestrianisation works throughout Leeds city centre, which will see the renovation and expansion of City Square and Boar Lane, enhancing and enabling key parts of the city centre and driving towards Leeds’ target to be a Carbon Neutral City by 2030. Iconic buildings such as the Corn Exchange, which was once the heartbeat of Leeds’ corn trade and one of significant national importance, will be reinvigorated and the excellent assortment of speciality shops and leisure outlets will be increasingly desirable and accessible for all.

Once the works are done, the outcome of the investment should be a more usable, walkable central district with better air quality, updated transport options to reflect modern needs, and a good variety of office space. Any short term pain will make for long term gain.