… but one is a world away from what Birmingham should look like by now. Vikki Miller investigates why this city's transformation never got off the ground.
In 2002, Birmingham's rise seemed irrepressible. The decaying canals of the city centre had been revived and their banks transformed into an entertainment district, the NEC was bigger and more successful than ever and the new Bullring shopping centre and Selfridges department store were on their way. This confidence was reflected at Birmingham City Football Club, the much-derided "second team" of the city, which clinched promotion to the top flight for the first time in more than two decades.
Four years on, however, the mood has changed. Birmingham City have just been relegated from the Premiership, but the worst headlines have been reserved for a host of high-profile projects that have stalled, giving rise to mutterings that Birmingham has lost its way. During a visit to the city last September, former communities minister David Miliband remarked that Birmingham was "not in the premier league of European cities". Not even the local newspapers objected to his comments. What once looked so promising is now threatening to go off the rails.
A loss of confidence
Birmingham's transformation began before the revivals of northern cities such as Manchester and Newcastle. During the golden years of 1985 to 1998, there was the successful redevelopment of the International Convention Centre, the construction of Symphony Hall and the widely praised regeneration of the canalways around Brindleyplace. These developments and more ensured Birmingham was strides ahead of rival conurbations.
More recently, architecturally daring projects such as the Mailbox shopping centre, or upcoming mixed-use schemes such as Martineau Galleries on the eastern edge of the city centre, seemed to continue the theme.
But the city's hard-won reputation for urban regeneration is now being undermined by a series of delays. And it's not just the three projects profiled in these pages - the Central Library, the Saltley supercasino and the New Street Station redevelopment - that have stalled. There's also the Arena Central development in the city centre, which was supposed to house Britain's tallest building, and the Paradise Circus proposal, a £1bn office scheme in the heart of the city. Both failed to get off the ground. Meanwhile, the redevelopment of Digbeth coach station has been in the pipeline for more than 20 years and the area around it continues to decay.
In the past decade, Birmingham was passed over to host the national football stadium and the national millennium project. Both were built in London. To add insult to injury, in 2003 the city missed out on European Capital of Culture status for 2008, which went to Liverpool - another northern rival that has overtaken it.
Architect Will Alsop is one of those who attributes these problems to a lack of strong leadership at the city council, the biggest local authority in the UK with 40 wards. The council is run by a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ousted Labour in 2004. "Sir Albert Bore [council leader until 2004] had a vision, but now there's a mismatch between officers and leaders," says Alsop. "Manchester had a shared vision. Birmingham don't quite pull together and get exciting things done. Birmingham is very nervous of the new. It will go so far and then retract."
Alsop, who produced the first design for the long-delayed New Street Station redevelopment, is not sure he'd return: "When push comes to shove, they get nervous and want to do normal. They need a braveness to continue that isn't there at the moment. I'm not put off working there but I would be wary to go back."
Ken Shuttleworth, a local boy whose practice Make is working on Birmingham projects including the Mailbox and the City Park Gate masterplan, doesn't quite see things the same way. "I haven't had any difficulty working in Birmingham - in fact it's been rather fun. I enjoy pushing things forward a bit," he says.
He admits, though, that "the city does need a push in terms of quality" and that "it seems not much has happened recently". If this slump continues, the position Birmingham so craves in the premier league of cities will remain firmly out of reach.
Caught in the crossfire: Rogers' Central Library
Earlier this year, Richard Rogers Partnership announced it was to sever all links with Birmingham, following a chastening experience with the city council over proposals to build an iconic library.
The story began in 2002, when the Labour-run council appointed Rogers to draw up concept designs for a landmark £180m Central Library. The site was in the city's proposed cultural quarter, Eastside, a rundown district one mile east of the city centre. It was intended to stand alongside Grimshaw's Millennium Point, an imposing metal and glass structure housing a technology innovation centre, Imax cinema and the city's museum of science and discovery - but a lone development in the midst of boarded up buildings and wasteland.
By 2004, a funding package for the scheme was being put together when the council underwent its first change in control for 11 years. Labour was out and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition - which retained power in elections this month - took its chance to set its own agenda.
The coalition proposed to scrap the Rogers designs. It said costs were mounting and that the city's main library should be in the centre of the city. It proposed an alternative: a £147m two-site option, a lending library in the city centre and an archives library in Eastside.
The architect's team was shocked. "I believe they were negative because it was a Labour initiative. It appeared to be pure party politics," says a source from Rogers.
The new administration, however, had evidence to back up its position. It had commissioned an independent report on the scheme by consultant Invigour. The study revealed that only 4% of the central library's 5000 daily visitors would be inconvenienced by a trip to see archives stored in the Eastside building, while use of the library could double if located in the centre of the city.
The Labour group still vows that if it comes back into power, it will revive the Rogers scheme. But a cabinet vote in March this year went in favour of the split-site option. The cabinet's next step will be to appoint a project manager in the coming months.
Following that vote, Rogers announced the decision to break its ties with Birmingham. Lord Rogers claimed he could no longer commit his team to continue working on a different project in Eastside, the City Park Gate masterplan, for clients Countryside Properties and Quintain. The team would have to start the plans from scratch, the practice said, because the originals had related to the library plans, and they claimed they did not have the resources to do this.
At first, says the Rogers source, the team was overjoyed to win the commission. "We had a great relationship with the client at the beginning. But when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition council came to power, the project stalled. Things ground to a halt very quickly. We had just one meeting with the Tories about the scheme a few months after they got into power where they were very negative. It seemed they were already sure they did not want to take the project forward."
Rogers was quickly replaced by Ken Shuttleworth's Make on City Park Gate, but a report by cost consultant Gardiner & Theobald last July suggests that the practice's departure may cost the city dear. It concluded that having Lord Rogers on board would help the council secure state and European grants. To this day, no external funding has been secured.
Councillor Ian Ward, a former Labour cabinet member, believes Rogers' experience could also put off other practices. "I think internationally renowned architects will think twice about working here now," he says.
But Ken Hardemen, a Conservative councillor and cabinet member for regeneration, insists the council had valid reasons for its actions. The Rogers scheme was commissioned as just a concept design, which had never been properly costed, he says. "It was thought up as the iconic component of the European Capital of Culture bid. There was media speculation it would come out at nearly double its original price at £350m."
Losing streak: Councillors veto supercasino in Saltley
Locals call it the Saturday Night Fever Drag - a two-mile strip of straight road where boy racers joy-ride their souped-up cars every weekend. This is Landor Street, which cuts through Saltley just to the east of the city centre - one of Birmingham's poorest districts.
Situated next to the city's heavy industry zone - car breakers and scrapheaps line the drag - Saltley is in desperate need of change. Residents here have more reason than most to be concerned about Birmingham's stalled progress on regeneration initiatives. Plans for a £300m sports village next to Birmingham City FC stadium have faltered since the council withdrew its backing in March.
The Birmingham City-led client team, which included architects HOK Sport and RTKL as well as casino company Las Vegas Sands, proposed to build a 55,000-seat stadium for the football club, a casino complex, a hotel, retail outlets and affordable housing.
The scheme depended on being granted a supercasino licence by central government, as Las Vegas Sands would then inject funds to kick-start the development. But the council vowed to support only one bid from the West Midlands and found itself having to choose between Saltley and a rival £250m bid from the NEC, which is owned by the council.
At first, the Tory-Lib Dem coalition was leaning towards Saltley, spurred on by Ken Hardeman, cabinet member for regeneration. "I could definitely see its benefits - the chance to develop one of Birmingham's poorest areas and provide a new stadium," he says.
But on the prompting of the Chamber of Commerce and West Midlands CBI, the council decided instead to formally back the NEC bid. It was reported at the time that a secret study commissioned by the council revealed the Saltley scheme would seriously challenge the NEC's prominence in the region. It also found that an NEC casino could boost council revenues by £35m a year.
Karren Brady, Birmingham City FC's chief executive, told the Birmingham Mail that most councillors knew that the scheme offered by the football club was the best for regeneration and the best for the city.
She called on Jerry Blackett, policy director of the Chamber of Commerce, to resign after it emerged that the chamber nominated four paid members to the board of the NEC's management company.
But Blackett says: "The NEC is strategically important to the region. For every one pound spent at the NEC, £10 is spent in the region. There is a lot of competition around now with conference centres and we have to keep up.
"There is no financial interest for us in the performance of the NEC. We appoint four members, and it doesn't bring us any money."
As for the council, Hardeman insists it "marginally favoured the NEC on the basis that their economics stood up. We have concluded that all the revenue and capital will amount to about £350m over 10 years."
If the supercasino licence is granted, the council has pledged to use casino profits to fund a stadium for Birmingham City. But Hardeman admits a stadium without a casino, with associated hotel and retail opportunities, will not bring the same benefits to Saltley.
For the Birmingham City project team, the experience has been very frustrating. One team member says: "Birmingham had a massive opportunity and it missed out on a city-transforming regeneration that other places have enjoyed."
Indefinite delays at New Street Station
Commuters on British trains are used to delays. But years of hold-ups around the redevelopment of Birmingham New Street Station have amazed even the most hardened travellers - and can't be put down to leaves on the line.
Dark, dank with peeling paint and overcrowded, New Street Station in central Birmingham is openly referred to by city officials as a subterranean blot on the landscape. For many, the station is an unwelcome reminder of the tired image Birmingham has worked so hard to shed.
The Network Rail-led project team is yet to submit a detailed design planning application or a business case to secure funding for the redevelopment. It is far from the only stakeholder on the scheme, however. At least seven different organisations including the city council and regional development agency Advantage West Midlands are involved, all with their own contrasting agendas. This has meant the scheme has moved forward at a painfully slow pace. The only way to speed things up is to co-ordinate all the key players and claw much-needed funding from the Department for Transport.
Carol Stitchman, Network Rail's New Street project manager since 2001, explains how the process became more complicated as more organisations got involved. She says: "A lot more stakeholders came on board including Advantage West Midlands, the council and Centro [a metro company with plans to build a tram in the city centre]. We also have to secure funding from the Department for Transport so have to satisfy them that our business case works."
In February this year, architect John McAslan + Partners' £500m vision for the station was finally revealed. But the scaled-back design was budgeted at £150m more than the original concept and provoked much comment, including that of the Birmingham Post's arts editor, who likened it to "a bog-standard Multiplex cinema". Already, £5m has been spent on design work.
Media reports claim that the plans were pared back because not enough non-governmental money could be found among the stakeholders to fund a more radical design, including demolition of The Pallasades shopping centre above the station.
The project has also suffered some unforeseeable blows. Alsop Architects, which was originally commissioned to draw up designs for the station in 2003, went into administration in late 2004 and was promptly dropped from the scheme. Consultant Atkins was working alongside Alsop Architects and was also dropped in late 2004. The practice was replaced in March 2005 by a WSP engineering-led consortium, which includes architects McAslan and Chapman Taylor. However, because of the slow pace of the project, Network Rail announced in February it would miss its already postponed deadline of 2012 and the station would not be complete until 2013 at the very earliest.
Andy Scott, Atkins' Birmingham office director, says the project desperately needed strong leadership to pull all the stakeholders in the same direction from the start. "People play games with projects," he says. "With New Street there was a bit of a game going on agreeing where and what percentage of the funding would come from each body. People were reluctant to put their cards on the table and we needed someone to take control."
The delays and lack of drive on the project have caused annoyance in the business community.
Sir Digby Jones, director-general of the CBI and an enthusiastic ambassador for the West Midlands, warned last September that the project team needed to "pee or get off the pot". He told a Conservative party conference: "I am exasperated the business community cannot see any progress on the most important hub outside London and a conduit for trade north, south, east and west."