Friday, September 4, 2009

The Next Big Thing

Yesterday I attended the Council of Ministers for a presentation on the much hyped and slightly overdue Masterplan for the North of St. Helier, aka How to deliver the Millennium Town Park without it costing the States of Jersey a penny. This project, as its name implies, is already a decade overdue since it was voted by Jersey people as their preferred States sponsored project to mark the new Millennium, a green lung stretching from Bath Street, adjacent to the Odeon, across the private car park (the 'Talman site') and the Gas Place car park. It's also a decade since more than 16,000 people signed a petition calling for the whole site to be used for the purposes of a park, with underground car parking. And if the Council of Ministers have their way it'll be another decade before the first sod is turned and the first blade of grass sprouted.

Amongst the plethora of hiccups, false starts and delays that have probably already cost a small fortune and put a smile on the faces of a whole host of UK consultants, there have been two main problems in delivering the project: first, the issue of the contamination of the ground due to its previous use as the Island's gasworks. But I think even those most committed to the goal of stalling the project would have to admit that there is now enough information to go on in terms of dealing with the contamination - and there's even a couple of million left in the States' coffers to pay for this. (All the rest of the promised States' funding has gone, but the decontamination money is safe for the time being, so it's not all bad!)

The second reason for the delays has been the need to provide alternative car parking, as consultants' reports filed at some stage down the years determined that the original aim of underground car parking was simply not feasible. That was when the idea was dreamed up of putting a car park on the site of Ann Court ... once the residents had been rehoused and the outworn accommodation demolished, you understand. The information sign alongside the site still gives this as the timetable for delivering the park by 2012. Yet when the Housing Department started moving people out of Ann Court, nearby residents began to wonder at the wisdom of putting a multi storey car park there, rather than new sheltered housing, for example, or some decent open space - with a perfectly serviceable multi storey car park a hundred yards away in Minden Place, why build another one on Ann Court? And didn't the Island's commitment to a sustainable less car-reliant future mean that we would think twice about such a project?

The solution dreamed up by the Planning Minister was to have a masterplan of the whole area, originally promised in a few months but actually it's taken nearly twice as long, but then delay really is the common theme of this project. The consultancy that won the contract was Hopkins, who've only recently completed the Esplanade Quarter Masterplan. They asked to see me at the start of the exercise and I was pleased to have a chance to share my vision for the kind of regeneration that would follow the creation of the Town Park. These were not my views alone; they were the dreams and aspirations of literally hundreds of men, women and children who had been part of the popular movement that led to the petition; they were primary school children (now adults) whose models of the kind of park they would like to play in were put on display in the Town Hall back in the 1990s; they were members of the Millennium Park support group who canvassed the views of residents of the area.

The most important thing, I told the consultants, was that people want the whole area for a park. They don't want to be offered a compensatory area somewhere else and a smaller park here, after all, this is a pretty small park by any standard. If you run between Robin Place and Gas Place it takes how many seconds? (it will take a fit child much less). The extra width at the bottleneck of the park can be provided by incorporating the two streets as extensions of the open space, even though they would have to be paved to allow essential and emergency access. The original design, completed at the end of a two-day workshop, accepted this as gospel: that's why the petition was so specific - we don't want you to build on the park. Not a car park, not a cafe, not a toilet block, but parklkand, from one end to the other and from one side to the other (we could and should be getting the Le Seilleur building incorporated into the scheme to provide complementary services for the park). This is what I told Hopkins: by all means look at the opportunities to regenerate the surrounding area; by all means supply artists' impressions of a leafy traffic-calmed David Place, and dream of the gentrification of Bath Street, but your key job is to solve the problem of where to provide the car parking that will be displaced by the Town Park.

What have Hopkins done? They have come up with a scheme that shows a line of three-storey houses along the northern side of the bottleneck, and housing on three sides of the Gas Place car park. The site needs 'enclosing', you see (the consultants employed ten years ago argued that the creation of the park would lead to the redevelopment of the park-side properties anyway, as night follows day.) Green Street car park has found its way into the Masterplan, too, with lots of redevelopment there, and (no surprises for guessing this one) they are proposing underground car parks for the Town Park, as well as for Ann Court! Underground parking, is, after all, perfectly feasible. All of this, and there's more, at no cost to the States.

The Council of Ministers were impressed, as you would expect. Surely this would be the death knell for Deputy Southern's amendment to the Business Plan which seeks to reinstate some States funding for this States sponsored Millennium project! But more exciting than defeating Deputy Southern (such victories pall after a time) here was the perfect replacement for the Esplanade Quarter Masterplan, the multi million pound project likely to be mothballed due to the credit crunch - here was the Next Big Thing! Would it deliver the Town Park? Not in the lifetime of this Council of Ministers. But what a splendid opportunity for more consultants, and for more delay!

There is a lot to admire in the Hopkins Masterplan for the north of St. Helier, don't get me wrong. But as far as delivering the Town Park is concerned it's a blind alley. A decade ago we voted to create a park across the whole of the site, and to put the parking underground - why don't we just get on with it?