Grainger Town, the historic centre of Newcastle, missed out on previous regeneration bonanzas. Now it is getting a £120m facelift.
As the quayside redevelopment nears completion, Newcastle is turning its attention to refurbishing the city centre. Compared with the multimillion-pound programme carried out at the quayside by the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation, the architectural conservation of a bunch of city-centre buildings by the municipal authority may sound like minor works.

Far from it. Individual projects, such as the refurbishment of a shop front, may be valued at a few thousand pounds, but in total, £40m of public money is being channelled into 30 ha of city-centre streets. This is expected to lever in a further £80m of private investment.

If the scale of operations is comparable with that of the archetypal 1980s urban development corporation, the centre’s cocktail of urban problems and the approach taken to tackle them are very much of the 1990s. Ironically, the city centre has become the victim of Newcastle’s successful urban renewal programmes. Large companies and lawyers’ practices have relocated to modern deep-plan offices on the quayside, retailers have moved to new shopping centres, and businesses have shifted to the new Newcastle Business Park, leaving 93 000 m2 of city-centre floor space vacant. Lack of rentals has led to lack of building maintenance, and the whole area is suffering from a familiar cycle of economic and physical decline.

What complicates the issue is that the underused commercial floor space happens to be housed in one of Britain’s finest and most extensive collections of neo-classical stone buildings, comparable with Edinburgh New Town or Bath. Known as Grainger Town, the area takes its name from speculative developer Richard Grainger, who built most of the city centre in the early 19th century using a clutch of inspired architects. These buildings are justifiably listed, many of them grade II* and grade I, making refurbishment rather than redevelopment the order of the day.

This peculiar mix of run-down commerce and decaying historic architecture has brought together two national quangos that are commonly antagonists rather than bedfellows. English Heritage, which led the way in conserving the area’s historic buildings, holds up the scheme as a flagship for its latter-day policy of “regeneration through conservation”.

The other partner, English Partnerships, now expanded into the new regional development agency, One North East, has been channelling big money into the area. For an organisation charged with regenerating swaths of devastated heavy industry and coalfields, earmarking £25m over five years for city-centre refurbishment may seem out of proportion. But Jonathan Blackie, One North East’s director of regeneration, argues: “Dereliction and economic problems in Grainger Town are as acute as those of the coalfields. We want to help the area earn its living again, and to do so while retaining the best of the buildings.” In 1997, English Heritage, English Partnerships and other public and private organisations joined forces, forming the Grainger Town Partnership, to tackle the area’s economic and physical problems. Headed by Newcastle City Council, the partnership has a staff of 15, including surveyors and a conservation officer. The partnership operates by persuading property owners, developers and housing associations to improve buildings and sites in the area. It dangles carrots in the form of development grants, but is also prepared to wield the stick of compulsory purchase orders.

In the words of assistant director Peter Howe, the partnership’s aim is “to improve the competitiveness of the area” by encouraging a mix of viable offices, retail and leisure uses befitting a regional capital. As Grainger Town’s shallow stone buildings could not be stretched to accommodate large organisations, it targets small and medium-sized enterprises. Another major concern is that, over the decades, residents living in the upper floors of Grainger Town’s blocks have been flushed out by the businesses below, with the result that the city centre shuts down at night. Accordingly, the partnership has been co-ordinating Britain’s largest scheme of “living over the shop” conversions.

With the partnership now three years into its allotted seven-year lifespan, regeneration projects of all shapes and sizes are reaching completion on the ground. Schemes range from small-scale refurbishments of shopfronts and conversions of upper floors to flats, to the transformation of two grand Victorian gentleman’s clubs into huge, vibrant pubs. The most ambitious project to date is Red Box, the mixed-use conversion of the former Post Office building carried out by local architect Alan J Smith.

Many problems remain, however. ”The fragmented land ownership makes it difficult to assemble sites that are developable,” says Howe. “And compulsory purchase orders typically take 18 months to carry out. Another problem is that surface car parking in the area is being reduced by the creation of a new trunk road through the area. We are encouraging the development of multistorey car parks, but site assembly is a problem here, too.” “The biggest challenge of all,” continues Howe, “is raising market confidence to invest in and occupy buildings in the area. But the two large public house conversions and Alan Smith’s Red Box are clear manifestations of confidence in the area. We are at last getting the pieces of the jigsaw back together at the same time as maintaining our regeneration strategy. That makes Grainger Town a model for a large number of cities that are currently pursuing policies of town-centre regeneration.”

Red Box mixed-use development

Red Box is one of Britain’s most complex mixed-use conversions of a historic building. The grand Post Office building of 1872 has been converted to a mix of offices, loft-style apartments, artists’ studios, an art gallery and a restaurant. The £5m scheme is the brainchild of local architect Alan J Smith, who will move his own 40-strong practice into the former telegraph hall later this month.

JD Wetherspoon château-style pub

Pubs have emerged as the frontiersmen in the regeneration of Grainger Town. The JD Wetherspoon chain acquired the Union Building, a Victorian gentleman’s club masquerading as a Renaissance French château that had lain derelict for 20 years, and converted it to a huge public house with a warren of bars, saloons and restaurants for £4m.

Living over the shop in Grey Street

Grainger Town boasts Britain’s largest programme of “living over the shop” refurbishments. Some 520 flats are being converted out of vacant upper floors with more than £5m of public grants. In Grey Street, conversion of upper floors is being hampered by fragmented ownership and the loss of the original front doors to the shopfronts below, making access, means of escape and refuse disposal difficult.

Threatened cornersite, Grey Street

Grainger Town’s regeneration problems are far from over, as illustrated by a key corner site on Grey Street. Two grade II-listed Victorian stone buildings have languished on the site for more than 20 years, despite being offered substantial development grants. The partnership is now pursuing a compulsory purchase order, which could delay improvements for another 18 months.