York’s Roman Quarter development: A site with potential both above and below ground, but the Council sees merely an ‘ugly duckling.’

Whilst large-scale proposals are often rejected by the populace (usually sight unseen), there is nevertheless a need and therefore a time and a place for such developments. Cities are constantly evolving and as such, new elements are always necessary. 

Here, the baseline qualification is that proposed developments must be ‘bespoke’ to their unique conditions, being sited, coordinated, programmed, planned and constructed holistically in such a manner so as to further enhance their site and setting. 

Within historic contexts, proposals able to demonstrate such a benefit should therefore be permitted in order to facilitate positive change that will in turn result in the continuing social, economic and environmental success of an area and its associated character and appearance; historic or otherwise.

The site of the Roman Quarter – a planned high rise – offers such an opportunity in a part of York’s city centre that would clearly benefit from such development.

A Location Ripe for Change

Whilst located within York’s historic city walls, the site’s immediate context is the opposite of what one expects when thinking of York’s historic more central core.  Its near surroundings comprise high rises ranging from the mid-C20 to the present day and more akin to a large, modern city than the generally lower, historic, more organically evolved buildings and streets for which York is renowned. 

Furthermore, the application site includes a building (Northern House) explicitly recognised as a ‘detractor’ from its overarching Character Area. Development proposals are therefore welcomed in order to facilitate positive change there (however challenging that may be, given the site’s intensively historic context).

Supplementing the potential for physical and visual enrichment, would be the higher profile presentation of York’s Roman history, which would finally be given due prominence by means of a proposed “Roman-themed attraction”. This will further accompany a “two-year archaeological dig” with the development being supported by York Archaeological Trust.

But earlier this year, York City Council rejected the proposal – what went wrong?

A Tale of Two Buildings

In February – following several rounds of consultation, comment, alteration and (some) support – the Council rejected the proposal; primarily for reasons of scale, massing and form, but further combined with an objection from Historic England.  While changes to the scheme had already been made with respect to said concerns, these were evidently not enough. 

From a perspective of aesthetic and programming, the proposed Roman attraction and the 10-storey building comprising 211 apartments, offices and shops are almost two entirely separate entities.  Whilst logical as one planning submission, this “two building” configuration has nevertheless highlighted the tower – in contrast with the attraction below, which is universally welcomed – as being a potentially more problematic aspect, and which is indeed the source of principal concern for the Council.

It would therefore appear that this dual aspect of proposals has – rightly or wrongly – given the impression that the attraction is merely a means to justifying an end comprising the mixed-use development, instead of appearing as a component part of what is actually one integrated whole.

If at First, You Don’t Succeed…

Any development of this scope and nature is a challenge, even when coupled with best intentions.  Unfortunately, in the view of the Council, this iteration proved an unsuccessful attempt to balance all variables – both tangible and intangible – and the task remains with the applicant to address all outstanding concerns to the satisfaction of the local planning authority.

The project is not entirely lifeless however, and ongoing discussion between developer North Star, the Council, and other relevant parties continue with the intention being to redesign a more acceptable scheme that benefits not merely the application site and its more immediate surroundings, but York as a whole.  

It is therefore hoped that a solution can be found that serves as a positive precedent for not only York, but other, large-scale developments located in intensively historic contexts, along with the benefits they are able to bring to the existing fabric they are stitched into, and the communities that occupy this.

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