The City Council has given the go ahead to the construction of Two Friargate, the second building in the Council’s ambitious business quarter development, adjoining the railway station.
Two Friargate will deliver 134,000 sq .ft. of lettable Grade A office space on 12 floors as well as a high quality café or restaurant offer on the ground floor. Two Friargate is due to start on site during Autumn 2020 and be completed by Summer 2022. The Council makes no claim about the number of new jobs to be created, but the development will create 700 new jobs during the construction phase. If fully occupied, the building will generate £1.4 million per year in rate income to the Council.
In what must be regarded as a high risk development, the council is investing £68 million of public funding for the development – £51.2m of grant funding from the West Midlands Combined Authority and £17 million of Council funding raised through borrowing. The Council is also contributing an undisclosed amount into the Joint Venture Company that is carrying out the development. The delivery of the Friargate business district is regarded as a key corporate priority for the Council.
Other current elements of the Friargate masterplan include Council HQ “One Friargate”, the expansion of the railway station, a bus station, car parking, a boutique hotel and the completed pedestrian link to the City Centre.
The Friargate business quarter development, adjacent to the railway station, was foreseen as the creation of a major city-centre employment site with superb local and national access. Developers foresaw the building of 14 Grade A office blocks, 2 hotels, 2 car parks and at least 10 residential blocks. However, the global economic crisis of 2008 and economic conditions for the last dozen years have conspired against a rapid build-out and the developments to date (now including Friargate 2) have all required public subsidy. Indeed, One Friargate was originally intended for private occupation, but when tenants could not be found it was part-occupied by the Council allowing the release of the civic centre sites to Coventry University.
The Council is making the assumption that things will return to normal after the Coronavirus epidemic. The Council report states “As the city moves to post-COVID economic recovery, investment in the Two Friargate scheme provides a fantastic opportunity to secure significant jobs growth and be a visible symbol of confidence in Friargate and the city.”
We would wish the Council’s optimism to be correct. Yet the current Coronavirus crisis – and its implications for office-based employment – poses many risks for 2 Friargate and the whole future development of the other Friargate office sites. Working from home is now a cheaper option for firms rather than leasing offices, while Zoom conferencing undermines the benefits of being located near a transport hub. And the hopes for Civil service decentralisation from London to Coventry look as far away as ever. The office elements of the original Friargate development now look unachievable.
The Coventry Society earlier this year in a paper ‘Creating a different vision for Coventry’ raised the need for a debate about what Coventry should become, post-lockdown, and how we might build back better.
The problems besetting the City Centre led the Coventry Society to take the view that we need a city centre of greater diversity, meeting the needs of residents through shops of modest rental suitable for smaller, diverse independent retailers, with a food and drink offer to appeal to residents and visitors, and with significant new social housing. The Council’s latest Strategic Housing Market Assessment shows the need for an additional 12,000 affordable houses by 2031. New health and leisure facilities could be located near the city centre, in a reversal of recent trends. In such a vision modest further office employment would still have a place as part of a wider mixed-use development of the Friargate sites. The opportunity to ‘build back better’ would provide not only for private housing for sale and rent but also for Coventry’s identified housing needs – for social housing and retirement living.
As we struggle to emerge from the Coronavirus epidemic and try to assess its implications, surely it is time for this city to reflect on what it is to become, and reshape its vision and reality with the economic and social changes now upon us?