Leicester’s Curve theatre, which opens on November 15, is a striking design from one of the world’s most respected architects, Rafael Viñoly. It is an exciting new cultural development that stakes a claim for the city to become the artistic capital of England’s East Midlands.
But Curve is much more than that. It is also a symbol of the regeneration of what many see as one of the UK’s least attractive cities into an urban centre that for the first time is attracting large numbers of people to live at its heart.
Curve, with its large glass façade, will become one of the key buildings in Leicester’s new “cultural quarter”, into which arts, media and design businesses are locating. The area features many conversions of attractive former Victorian factories into smart apartments.
Until recently the central area had one of the smallest residential populations of any British city. That is now being corrected in a hurry, with the construction and conversion of properties that will soon see 8,000 people taking up residence, attracted by new 24-hour facilities as well as a safer and more appealing city centre.
“It’s vital and very exciting,” says James van Oppen of estate agency James Sellicks, which has advised the people behind some of the inner city developments on design and marketing as well as being an agent for the sale and letting of apartments in several refurbished factories in the cultural quarter. “I have always said that residential development cannot lead the regeneration of any city. Jobs have to come first. We have to have a strong commercial core [without which] you are going to have a weak residential market.”
The revitalisation of the city centre has brought with it the opportunity to reconnect the local people with the city’s heritage. Many of the old and attractive industrial buildings have escaped demolition because their former function as hosiery and shoe factories meant they needed lots of natural light and therefore large windows. Now ideal for residential use, they have been turned into apartment complexes where one-bedroom units can be bought for about £100,000 ($158,000) .
“What has been built has been good,” van Oppen says. The new commercial developments have had the effect of gentrifying the city centre, attracting people who would previously never have even visited Leicester from the county’s towns and villages to socialise, shop and even live. “Before, there were many people in the suburbs and the county who weren’t visiting the city centre,” he says. “[Now] it’s like being in a different city. It’s like London.”
Another regeneration impetus has been the £350m, 100,000 sq metre Highcross shopping development, which has almost doubled in size what was previously the Shires retail area. Developer Hammerson predicts it will become one of the 10 most heavily used shopping centres in the UK. Despite Highcross’s launch last month coinciding with the onset of recession, department store John Lewis reports initial sales almost a third greater than expected.
As well as a mix of retail, restaurants and a cinema, Highcross includes 120 apartments with shared courtyards. Prices range from £99,000 for a one-bedroom studio to £223,000 for a two- or three-bedroom flat, through estate agency Knight Frank.
Richard Brown, development manager for Hammerson, says the new retail complex has to be seen in conjunction with the opening of Curve and a package of other regeneration schemes – valued in total at £3bn – in creating a new start for Leicester. “Curve is going to be great for the city,” he says. “It’s a big selling point for people from the provinces.”
The overall renewal programme has been planned and led by the Leicester Regeneration Company. Chief executive John Nicholls says that reshaping the residential, retail and commercial elements of the city are complementary and mutually dependent. “We are developing the local economy,” he says. In addition to more than 2,000 retail and hospitality positions that have been created it is expected that 500,000 sq ft of new offices will generate an extra 4,000 commercial jobs.
But making the city exciting is equally important, Nicholls argues, in order to persuade people that they want to live in Leicester. “That involves improving the quality of life, including the cultural offering. Buildings like Curve raise the profile of the city. We are making a more vibrant place to live. The underlying mission is to broaden the city’s economy and make it more prosperous.”
One of the props in achieving this, he argues, has to be good design. “The quality of the environment and the range of retailing will make it viable in the long term,” he says. “Leicester was a backmarker in regional terms. It has really moved forward.”
As well as accommodation within Highcross and adjacent to Curve, Leicester’s revival also means making much better use of the city’s 11 miles of waterfront, on the banks of the River Soar and the Grand Union Canal.
Much of the accommodation planned for waterfront areas has stalled as a result of the economic crisis and while sites have planning permission, several schemes will not be built until the financial and property environments improve.
But the possibility of waterside living is seen as one of Leicester’s key attractions as the regeneration progresses. “We are breathing new life into the city – making a place without ‘no go’ areas, with more activities at night and more family activities,” says the leader of the city’s council, Ross Willmott. “There is much more to come with the waterside schemes and proposals for a children’s hub. And Curve has to be Britain’s most exciting theatre development.”
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008