Birmingham’s rough diamond

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By Sean McAllister, 3rd November 2006

Sean McAllister reviews new development in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter

It may be a cliche, but the Jewellery Quarter really is Birmingham’s hidden treasure.

A conservation area covering 265 acres (107 ha) with a 250-year history and containing 200 listed buildings, the quarter is gradually becoming gentrified with five independent art galleries, two museums and many of Birmingham’s best restaurants and bars.

However, the Jewellery Quarter is far from being a polished gem. It is a regeneration zone that is very much a work in progress, and has around 100 derelict buildings and various sites crying out for development. It is also home to one of the city’s most controversial development sites: the Ludgate Hill site.

Developers such as MCD Developments and Chord Developments, based within the quarter, have already spotted the potential and in the last five years developed mixed-use schemes worth more than £250m. Such development has helped turn the quarter into an up-and-coming area popular with residents, creative businesses and high-end bars and restaurants, which still offers investors and developers plenty of opportunity.

Andy Munro, operations director at the Jewellery Quarter Regeneration Partnership, describes the change: ‘Five years ago you could only get a bacon butty in the Jewellery Quarter, and they looked at you funny if you asked for a salad. Now, it’s turned into a cappuccino society and businesses like this ambience.’

The quarter has arguably more history and character than any other party of Birmingham. First famous for toys, then buckles, until shoelacing killed off the industry, the area finally became the home of jewellery manufacturing during the 1700s. The industry grew in importance and many of the buildings there today are from its glory days in the 18th and 19th centuries. But industrial use, bomb damage in World War II and a lack of investment all contributed to a decline in the fabric of the area.

The quarter remains an important centre for the jewellery trade. There are between 400 and 500 businesses in the area linked to the industry – including 100 jewellery retailers – and it makes 40% of all the jewellery manufactured in the UK.

A renaissance in the area has seen it become a thriving area for creative support businesses, such as PR and media firms, software companies, developers, including Stoford Developments, and architectural practices – half of all the city’s architectural firms are housed in the quarter.

Even Arts Council England, which will relocate from London, has shortlisted properties solely in the quarter with criteria for a freehold building of around 10,000 sq ft (930 sq m).

‘Its historical nature means it has a lot of small buildings,’ says Philippa Pickavance, partner at Drivers Jonas. ‘This makes it easier for small businesses to afford their own premises instead of going to the traditional core around Colmore Row where they would have to rent 2,000 sq ft (186 sq m) on part of a floor.’

Rents in the quarter are also lower – typically £15/sq ft (£161.46/sq m) but as high as £19/sq ft (£204.52/sq m) – compared with prime rents on Colmore Row of £30/sq ft (£322.92/sq m) or £21-24/sq ft (£226-£258/sq m) on the sides street off Colmore Row.

‘The Jewellery Quarter is perfect for businesses like ours,’ says Claire Barker, director at PR firm Kinetic Communications, which is based at Tenby Street. ‘It’s in the city centre with a B1 postcode, yet has relatively quick access and exit to city limits owing to its proximity to the ring road.’

It is this enthusiasm from businesses as well as residents that provides plenty of development opportunities. MCD has invested between £140m and £180m in the quarter over the last five years – a figure that managing director Steven Byrne says could rise to £300m because of the huge potential he sees.

Chord is also committed to the area, and has three mixed-use developments in progress. Since 2000, it has developed schemes worth about £100m. ‘There’s nowhere like it and I like the fact that it’s cut off from the city. Other areas don’t have the same inherent character or community spirit,’ says director Geoff Shuttleworth. He believes that 60% of Chord’s future activity will occur in the area.

Admiration for the area is not limited to developers located in the vicinity. ‘It’s an emerging business location and I like it,’ says Mark Robinson, development director at Chase Midland. ‘In London you’ve got areas like Camden and Clerkenwell that have a more relaxed business environment and offer smaller offices, which is something that the Jewellery Quarter provides Birmingham.’

But Byrne believes the quarter is still undersold as a location and has more to offer than higher-profile areas such as Eastside. ‘Eastside is soulless and it will take that area more than a decade to create a soul. The Jewellery Quarter already has a soul but it doesn’t have the profile,’ he says.

That is likely to change with several planned high-profile developments (see map, previous page). MCD is converting Brindley House – an empty 140,000 sq ft (13,000 sq m) 1970s office block on Newhall Street – into a £37m scheme with 182 flats.

Across the road, a joint development between RO Developments and St Bernards Property has started developing a £63m mixed-use scheme called Newhall Square on the former site of Birmingham’s science museum. Due for a phased completion between 2008 and 2010, it will comprise 30,000 sq ft (2,790 sq m) of offices, galleries and work studios; 30,000 sq ft (2,790 sq m) of retail, cafes and bars; a 100-bedroom hotel; as well as 234 flats surrounding a new public square.

The Jewellery Quarter already has a soul but it doesn’t have the profile

Steven Byrne, MCD

Chris Bond, chief executive of RO St Bernards, says the Jewellery Quarter is a perfect location for mixed-use development.

‘It has a good residential environment – close to the city centre with frontages on to the canals – that is already proven. Plus it’s attractive to the “brass plate set” such as quantity surveyors, lawyers, engineers and architects, so it has a good balance.’

Chord’s current largest scheme is St Paul’s Place. Due for completion next summer, the £35m scheme will have 26,500 sq ft (2,460 sq m) of office space for sale at £250/sq ft (£2,691/sq m) and 176 flats behind the red brick facade of the former factory of buckle maker Thomas Walker.

Conservation piece

But in the past year, larger developers have paid greater attention to the quarter. The main interest has surrounded the Ludgate Hill site – a 2 acre (0.8 ha) surface car park that fronts on to Great Charles Street ring road. Amec was appointed to regenerate the site and incorporate a new coach station back in 1998, but earlier this year the council remarketed the site, receiving bids of between £6m and £24m.

HBG fended off bids from the likes of Castlemore, Sandpiper Estates, Abstract Land and Chase Midland. However in August, HBG’s Dutch parent Royal BAM Group forced a U-turn on the decision.

Abstract Land, Dandara, Sandpiper Estates and Stoford Developments have resubmitted bids for the site. A decision is expected next month.

The site is intended to be a new gateway to the Jewellery Quarter from the city centre. The only access is by a road crossing at Newhall Street and a decrepit footbridge that links Church Street to the Ludgate Hill site. Any new development will have to include a new connection, which would link it to the Snow Hill development and open it to the city core.

‘Connectivity is key,’ says Abstract Land director James Howarth. ‘The bid with the best connectivity to the city core is most likely to win because you’ve got to draw people over the ring road and bring people to the new restaurants and bars.’

His proposed scheme features a public square to give people ‘a sense of arrival’ when they cross to the Jewellery Quarter from the city centre.

But development in the quarter is not straightforward. Developers must adhere to the quarter’s design guide to ensure new buildings fit with the local character, while a conservation and management plan forbids residential development in a designated employment area.

Local engineering company AE Harris & Co, located on Northwood Street, encountered this problem. It wants to downsize and relocate outside the quarter and finance the move by redeveloping its site. It submitted an outline application for a 215,000 sq ft (20,000 sq m) mixed-use scheme with 105,000 sq ft (9,625 sq m) of offices, 18,500 sq ft (1,725 sq m) of retail and 95,540 sq ft (8,875 sq m) residential, but the plans were rejected last month because of the residential content.

The quarter is not all about offices and residential. Retail is growing in importance to support the area’s growing residential and business community. MCD is due to complete the refurbishment and recladding of the Chamberlain Building in January. Tesco Express, Subway and William Hill have signed up for the ground-floor retail space.

‘Now Tesco is moving here, we are in a position to attract the attention of larger retail investors,’ says Philip Jackson, director at niche agent Maguire Jackson. ‘Ten years ago it was too specialised for many non-jewellery retailers.’

Clive Dutton, director of planning and regeneration at Birmingham City Council, says the council wants to see the quarter become the city’s creative village by 2010. ‘We want to create the right conditions to grow it into a honeypot for creative businesses,’ he says.

‘It means safeguarding the jewellery-related activities, but also encouraging more creative industries to locate to the area.’

The Jewellery Quarter remains a rough diamond, but with the proposed development and the rising interest in the area, it has the potential to become the Tiffany of regeneration zones. While seeking further redevelopment and connectivity improvements, planners and developers must be careful not to destroy its unique selling points – its character, charm and community spirit – and risk turning it into another Ratner-esque district.

This article can be read at

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