Deserted high streets. Shutters pulled firmly down. 2020 was a year of significant challenge for city centres the length and breadth of the UK, and Sunderland was no exception.
But an ambitious bid by Sunderland City Council, that saw leaders submit an application for £25m from the FHSF - the highest amount places could apply to receive – was successful, and is set to pave the way for a number of projects that will aid the city’s economic recovery in 2021.
“Sunderland – along with Swindon – received the highest allocation of FHSF because we were ambitious in our bid, and we are demonstrating our ability to leverage a wide range of investment in the city to deliver the maximum social and economic advantage,” explains Cllr Graeme Miller, leader of Sunderland City Council.
“We have a plan for the city centre, and the FHSF grant will accelerate a number of the projects included in it. We’re making every penny count, ensuring that this funding is used to supercharge developments that will stimulate footfall, and prepare the ground for more investment, with infrastructure projects that will make it easier for us to take sites to market and continue to attract the private sector in.”
The £25m, which will be paid in annual installments, will deliver five main projects, to help drive the city centre’s economic recovery. Sunderland City Council’s Cabinet is expected to give the green light to a competitive procurement process for the appointment of the contractors and consultants who will drive the projects, with the council having been carrying out work since the award was announced on 26 December to finalise the programme.
- Culture House
Scheduled to open by 2024 the Culture House, located on the southern perimeter of Keel Square, will provide a new state of the art city library and cultural hub. Described as a community living room, with all the benefits of high-end digital connectivity, Culture House will become a key focal point for a range of groups – whether it’s writers’ collectives or book-reading clubs – with a range of accessible and inspiring spaces that can be booked by the public.
The Culture House will feature a public library, as well as learning resources, to support residents of all ages. Fours storeys high, a stunning design - featuring a zig-zag roof - will add interest to Keel Square, the public space that the development will overlook.
Speaking when plans for the building – expected to attract 600,000 visitors a year - were announced, last October, Cllr Miller said: “The Culture House will be a library – but unlike any we have seen in the city.
“It will be an engaging, interactive, playful environment, where people of all ages will feel inspired and enthused and can learn in fun new ways. Community resources like this provide the glue that brings people together, they fuel imaginations and stimulate a thirst for knowledge.”
Traditional and digital resources will be available alongside flexible community and meeting spaces, a coffee shop and roof terraces overlooking Keel Square. The main space in the building ‘The Forum’ will be a hive of activity where families will play and learn together.
Currently occupied by the Local Studies Centre the property will be restored and converted to residential units on the upper floors and ground floor commercial space, building on the success of other projects in the Heritage Action Zone.
The first phase will see the exterior of the building restored, including replacing the modern shopfront with a traditional style shop front, and repairs to the exterior stonework and distinctive terracotta used on the facia of the building. The second phase, which will take place once the Local Studies Centre is relocated to the new Culture House, will see the upper floors converted to residential units and the ground floor to commercial units, breathing new life into this increasingly vibrant part of the city centre, opposite the stunningly restored Mackies’ Corner, which is attracting more and more occupiers bringing exciting independents to the city’s high street.
Cllr Miller explains: “Riverside Sunderland is the epicentre of our transforming city centre, but we’re determined to ensure that the ripples are felt throughout the heart of the city.
“The Elephant Tea Rooms is a stunning building, and through this work, we’ll make it an even more attractive place, that will be returned to the high street focal point it once was.”
Some of the £25m will go towards readying the former leisure centre site for investment. The funding will be used to acquire a number of properties in the area and demolish the remainder of the Crowtree Leisure Centre, which will create a new shovel-ready plot for leisure led development. This new development will provide an additional offer in the City Centre that will both complement and diversify the retail offer provided by the Bridges Shopping Centre, and wider city centre.
- Keel Square Hotel
Already under construction, and due to open in Winter 2021/22, the FHSF funding will enable the fit out of two of the ground floor commercial units, which will provide attractive new retail space that will connect High Street West and The Bridges to the new urban quarter that is taking shape on the former Vaux Brewery site at Riverside Sunderland.
- St Mary’s Boulevard
Improvements will be made to pedestrian crossing points on St Mary’s Boulevard, including to the crossing between Keel Square and the Vaux site, to help strengthen the link between Riverside Sunderland and the wider city centre.
The plans will ensure that – when City Hall opens in September – it is as easy as possible for the 2,000 people who work there to make their way into the heart of the city, bringing with them a spending power that can help fuel the city economy by day and by night.
“Linking Riverside Sunderland to the existing city centre footprint is a critical part of our plan,” explains Cllr Miller.
“With up to 10,000 people expected to work on Riverside Sunderland, and 2,500 people likely to live there when all four new residential communities are built, the positive impact on existing businesses in Sunderland will be significant. We want to make it as easy as possible for people to move around the site by foot, ensuring that the investment brings maximum advantage to all parts of our city centre.”