Connaught Square – Comments

By now, hopefully everyone is aware of the plans for Connaught Square (the land bounded by Digbeth High Street, Rea Street, Bradford Street and Stone Yard).

After consultation with Digbeth residents and other parties with an interest in the area, Digbeth Residents Association has formally responded to the plans with the following statement:

“Firstly, it must be noted that Seven Capital’s intention to redevelop this site should be commended. The Connaught Square plot has sat fallow for ten years, arguably stifling any regeneration in Digbeth. The site is incredibly central and visible, both to Birmingham natives in its proximity to arterial transport routes, and to visitors to the city, given the neighbouring coach station. We strongly feel that this project will act as a catalyst for further development in Digbeth.

We are pleased with a number of aspects in the application, including the ratio of one bedroom to larger apartments, the number of bicycle spaces, and the availability of commercial space to support the creation of social infrastructure. We particularly like the residents gym, subsidised by the service charge, which we are assured will remain below £2 per square foot, and within the realms of affordability. The physical appearance and choice of materials in-keeping with Digbeth’s surroundings should also be praised.

With such a large development, the creation of a community could be hindered by a rabbit warren of dwellings, leaving few opportunities to meet neighbours. We are therefore happy to see a number of outdoor spaces, including green roofs and the internal winter gardens that punctuate long residential corridors. One point to note is that we would like to see more children’s play areas in the gardens and courtyards. These will offer residents with children a safe place to play that removes the need for them to leave the safety of the development and cross busy roads/tram routes.

The ambition is for Digbeth (and indeed Smithfield) to become more family-friendly, and one way of encouraging this is to offer play areas. London achieves a sense of community despite the sprawling city through green squares surrounded by residential buildings – this could be echoed in Birmingham with green courtyards within larger developments.

Seven Capital have assured us verbally that to prevent Connaught Square being bought up by private landlords, units within the development will first be offered to existing Digbeth residents via DRA. The exact details are to be defined, but we agreed on a three-working day window of opportunity for Digbeth residents to offer on the units before they go on general sale. We hope that this may encourage a more permanent community to develop within the area, rather than all the new housing stock to be swallowed by the private rental sector, which only results in a transient population within Digbeth.

However, one factor of the development that we cannot justify is the height of the development. Connaught Square will be 18 storeys at its peak, ten everywhere else, which positively dwarfs all the surrounding buildings. Digbeth is not within the city core, so according to the Big City Plan, should not have buildings 18 storeys tall. The height also is not in-keeping with the local vernacular of Digbeth’s ex-industrial buildings, which are at most seven storeys high. As the development goes uphill, the height of Connaught Square will make the difference between it and surrounding buildings even more pronounced. We are also concerned that the height of the development will discourage use of the newly-opened River Rea, with the area merely resembling a corridor between two tall buildings with little access to natural light.

As a conservation area, Digbeth has a number of historical buildings that cannot be changed, so it cannot be argued that Connaught Square will catalyse the demolition of these buildings to be replaced with new taller ones. We have serious concerns that due to its height, Connaught Square will stick out for all the wrong reasons. We are positive that the development will still be just as high-quality and economically viable at a lower height, to maintain a better relationship with bordering buildings. We strongly ask the committee to recommend that this development is therefore no taller than seven storeys.

We understand that with Smithfield, the plan is to pedestrianise all the way up to Bradford Street. We would recommend that in light of this development, the planned pedestrianisation of Smithfield be extended to just beyond the Bradford Street junction with Rea Street, to open up the River Rea at Connaught Square to maximise the potential of this new route. We are happy to be contacted about these comments, or to present our point of view at a Planning Committee Meeting.”

If you would like the opportunity to have your thoughts on planning applications heard as part of the voice of Digbeth, make sure to attend one of our regular monthly meetings.

Pamela Pinski

Digbeth and Proud

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