In the latest in a series showcasing regional architecture practices, Place North West sat down with David Cox to talk about what makes Preston unique, transforming its housing offer, and how developers can kick-start the next phase of the city’s growth.
“There’s a row of developers on the starting line and nobody wants to put their foot over it,” begins Cox, as Place meets the architect in Bistrot Pierre in Preston, a converted listed building designed by the practice and opened last year.
Fronting the newly-improved Fishergate, it seems an apt venue to talk about Preston, a city that Cox feels is on the cusp of something big, but is lacking a final push to get the next stage of development under way.
The practice has been active in the city in one form or another since the 1930s, but in the last 10 years it has carved out a niche as one of Preston’s foremost architects, along with the likes of Frank Whittle Partnership and Cassidy & Ashton.
After graduating from the University of Manchester’s school of architecture, Cox’s career has taken in London and Berlin, where he spent seven years as co-owner of a multi-disciplinary practice, before returning to join Wood Associates, as the practice was then called, in 2001. After Wood’s death in 2009, Cox was left as sole director, before rebranding the practice in 2013.
So why Preston?
“It has everything a big city has to offer but its unique selling point is its smallness: it’s a micro-city” he said.
“It’s got all the leisure facilities – the Harris, the markets – but it has that smallness where you know people, and you can make an impact here. Our impact has been bigger here, in that context, and I enjoy living in a city where you can wander around and see people that you know; that doesn’t happen in bigger, more anonymous cities.”
While it has its USP, however, the city feels almost perpetually on the cusp of something big; never more so than the failed Tithebarn project, a £700m John Lewis-led masterplan for the city centre, which was canned in late 2011 after the retailer pulled out. But what’s changed since then?
“Two years after I first arrived Preston became a city, Preston North End were on the verge of the Premier League, and the first £1m apartment had been advertised in the city, and everybody thought, ‘wow, this place is really doing well’. Then in 2008 the Tithebarn project disappeared and everything went very quiet for about three or four years,” recalled Cox.
While Cox agreed the city has a similar level of confidence in itself as it had before the recession, the problem stymieing new projects, and discouraging some developers to some degree, is land values.
“Anyone looking to develop in this city is looking GDV based on historic prices in the city, rather than the prices of that potential development,” he said.
“We need a value-defining project that would reset retail and land values to prove that the city is viable.
“It needs someone to take a punt, or it needs a bit of Northern Powerhouse stimulation – something from regional or central Government to say: Preston has the potential.”
Part of this punt could lie in office space, which Cox believes is lacking in the city, where a model similar to Blackpool’s Talbot Gateway could be used – a commercial development anchored by a council tenant to kick-start a regeneration area.
“All the commercial agents are getting national enquiries from big Government departments and companies that are looking at Preston, and they all say they need something like 30,000 sq ft, even as much as 100,000 sq ft,” he said.
“Everyone gets very excited, and asks the agent, ‘when can we have it?’, and the answer is three years, because it hasn’t got planning. They want it within 18 months, not three years.
“To get to that 18-month period that’s so critical for end users, somebody needs to put their hand in their pocket or guarantee rents to bridge that gap between historic and present values in Preston, similar to the way Blackpool have done it.”
Another solution to kick-start growth could be city-centre living, something which Cox is a great advocate of. He has made no secret of his dislike for “identikit” housing developments, with Buckshaw Village, branded by Cox as “just awful”, in particular attracting his ire.
City-centre housing has begun to come forward, with Etc Urban converting a Victorian warehouse on Guildhall Street into loft apartments as part of a £3.5m development. While the city council has put forward a city living strategy, Cox argued some of these have not been ambitious enough.
“What really frightens me is the thought that we’ll end up with hundreds or thousands of one and two-bed flats in the city, which are aimed at an investor market, and not built for people who live here,” he said.
“Preston should be looking at experimenting with how we do housing and how we live in a city centre. To me, that means aiming ourselves at families living in the city.
“There are housing action zones – Stoneygate being one – that should have been more ambitious. We need to attract investment, but we should be more fussy about it.
“If we can take our time, and encourage people to look at models of family housing in the city centre, we’ll end up with a much more successful city in the next 20 years.”
While Cox admitted the viability gap will remain, there could be a solution: “The viability challenge should be covered by social housing; I know that sounds naïve, but somebody has to realise that we bloody need it,” he said.
Models that could work, he argued, include the private-rented approach, although the city’s lack of traditional terraced properties means a Placefirst-approach, which the developer has proved to be successful in the likes of Liverpool and Morecambe, looks less likely.
“We’ve cleared away a lot of terraces so I don’t think we have that kind of potential on a large scale; what we do have is a city centre fringe full of soft and marginal uses, which can be assembled and used in a much more productive way. It would be new-build, which in a way is unfortunate, but that could help building in a new model,” Cox said.
The viability challenge also brings with it challenges around quality, with developers looking to keep costs down in every way possible, often putting pressure on architects to value engineer schemes to keep up margins. But Cox argued this view is beginning to change.
“I remember coming here from Berlin and putting forward designs where the client and the agent would just shake their heads and say, ‘that’s not Preston’,” he recalled.
“I don’t want to do steel frame, metal cladding on the outside, with plastic windows. That’s the expectation, but since 2012 people have started to think, actually we should be looking for a bit more quality and we should be raising our expectations.”
He cites The Tramshed, one of the practice’s projects delivered for the Worthington Group in the city, as a benchmark for the quality the city should be aiming for; the mixed four-and-seven storey building features 315 student bedrooms along with amenity space on the ground floor.
The city’s growing ambition is shown by another of the practice’s projects, the 20-storey LoftHaus, which would be Preston’s second-tallest building behind the Church of St Walburge.
Although revealed last January, the building is still going through the planning process, but as Cox said, the scheme is one of those “on the starting line”.
While the city again feels like it’s approaching something big, what’s next for the practice? Cox’s view is it should be very much like the city: “A micro-practice punching above its weight”. The aim is to keep the practice at its current nine staff – potentially expanding to 10 – with “two or three partners”; Cox is currently the sole partner at the practice.
“I already find it frustrating finding myself wandering around the office, seeing what people are doing, managing them; what I want to do is sit at my desk and draw,” he said. If the city outgrows its smallness, that will be Cox’s biggest challenge.