Following a string of high-profile wins in recent months, including the £170m redevelopment of Wigan Galleries and more recently a £60m residential scheme in Widnes, 2021 is a crucial opportunity for the lesser known developer to put its stamp on town centre regeneration.
“Wigan is very exciting because it puts us on the major mixed-use regeneration stage,” founder Mark McNamee told Place North West in an interview.
Chester-based Cityheart this week confirmed its appointment by Halton Council to redevelop the former Golden Triangle industrial scheme in Widnes into 360 homes, as tipped by Place North West last month.
Cityheart was founded by McNamee in 2005. In its infancy, the company focussed on student accommodation schemes, shying away from longer-term projects while it built up its cash reserves.
However, its focus shifted towards public sector-led regeneration projects a few years ago when McNamee became concerned that the student housing sector was “on the backside of the demand curve”.
The past 12 months have been the most successful in the company’s history, as it was selected to deliver a trio of prominent regeneration schemes across the UK, three of which are in the North West.
In early 2020, Cityheart was selected by East Herts Council to deliver a £90m regeneration scheme in Bishop Stortford, alongside a project team comprising Glenn Howells Architects, MM Management Services and Kier Construction.
Around the same time, Cityheart tasted its first public sector success in the North West, when it was appointed alongside Rise Homes to deliver the residential element of Stockport Council’s interchange scheme, construction of which is due to start in the coming months.
Victory in pursuit of the planned overhaul of Wigan Galleries shopping centre alongside joint venture partner Beijing Construction Engineering Group International followed in December, as revealed by Place North West.
Then, at the beginning of February, Cityheart’s regeneration credentials were further boosted when Halton Council appointed it to redevelop the Widnes industrial estate, which sits off Foundry Lane in Halebank.
With a hat-trick of large-scale North West projects on its plate, Cityheart is well placed to contribute to the debate on how to restore and revitalise the region’s town centres in the years ahead.
“[The country] is going through a retail revolution so we need to look at how that issue is addressed,” McNamee said. “Councils have got to take the lead in trying to repurpose their town and city centres.”
Like many who ply their trade in town centre regeneration, McNamee said luring people into the town and building footfall is key to the future of our urban centres.
“They need to be more attractive places for people to live in, but it is not just about delivering residential. It is about delivering things that make people want to live in places – like more green and open space, more schools and more doctor’s surgeries.”
More often than not, the conversation about repurposing and revitalising towns is underpinned by the issue of the declining retail market, and, while McNamee concedes that retail no longer has the pulling power of years gone by, he believes it still has its place.
“There needs to be a big push towards bringing independent retailers back,” he said. “Redevelopment has always been focused on big companies with big covenants because they were the ones that generated the value for the developers and building owners.
“But these are falling by the wayside. We need to go back to a more unique retail offer. The values won’t be the same but what is offered will be that much better.”
He added: “That’s what councils are about, they want to make their towns better places to live.”
While this approach to incorporating retail is a helpful framework to work with, McNamee, who spent five years as managing director of developer David McLean, says he is a firm believer that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to town centre regeneration.
Rather, each project should be approached with an open mind and be driven by an engaged and proactive local authority.
“Every place is individual,” he said. “In material terms, there is nothing that any town centre needs to have. Each one is peculiar to its own circumstances.
“The biggest driver is that the public sector and residents buy into a project and want it to work. It is then up to us to join in and facilitate and project manage that vision for them. It’s about working as a team.”
In Wigan, where the Cityheart and BCEGI joint venture is setting its sights on a 2025 completion of the Galleries project, McNamee has no concerns over the enthusiasm or not of the council.
“Wigan Council is incredibly ambitious and they are great to work with. We had a call [with the council] recently and they are so up for this, it is unbelievable,” he said.
The first phase of the Galleries scheme, due to start on site in around 12 months’ time, will involve the construction of a 460-space car park in the basement of the former shopping centre, followed by a cinema, market hall, hotel and the first of tranche of the total 464 homes proposed.
“At the moment, the Galleries is a monolith of a building and it almost turns its back on the town centre. Taking it down and introducing permeability, leisure facilities, and residential will make it so much more vibrant,” McNamee said.
Outside the box
Cityheart’s Galleries pitch – chosen over those submitted by more established names such as Muse Developments and Eric Wright Group – struck a chord with Wigan Council as it veered away from the mainstream, according to McNamee, who said he had a good feeling about the project from the start.
The company’s more “outlandish” approach is exemplified in the Galleries leisure offer, McNamee said.
Instead of providing a 12-screen multiplex cinema (the type often proposed as the anchor tenant of a town centre regeneration scheme), Cityheart put forward the idea of an art-house offer: a six-screen boutique cinema that is “less corporate and more customer-friendly”.
“Town centres need individuality,” McNamee explained. “People generally like things that are different and individual, it appeals to them more.”
In the often expensive and ruthless world of public sector procurement, such a focus on individuality and a gradually expanding list of successes over established big-hitters in town centre regeneration is expected to do wonders for Cityheart’s prospects of winning future work, the founder concludes.
And, as the process of reimagining the country’s high streets gathers pace and councils get their hands on money from the Government’s High Streets Fund in the months ahead, there is likely to be plenty of work on offer.