The Kite in Cambridge is an unsuitable site for commercially marketed laboratories

Above – Christ Church Cambridge on Newmarket Road, from Britain from above [EAW013079] in 1948. Most of the buildings to the right of it were demolished to make way for The Grafton Centre.

Savills would be far better advised if they worked with the people of Cambridge in deciding the future of The Grafton Centre – now up for sale.

You may have seen the headlines in the Cambridge News. You may have seen the press release from the multinational property firm.

The press-release bodes ill for any future vision for this hotly-contested part of town – one that was marked out as an area for future redevelopment back in 1950 by Holford and Wright. The urban blight that spread across the area in the decades that followed (see the hearbreaking photos in this stream from the early 1980s) made it ripe for the decision-makers of the day to comprehensively redevelop the area. There’s a book waiting to be written / Ph.D thesis waiting to be researched on the story of this part of town during the 20th Century. The redevelopment was driven through by John Powley, the former Conservative leader of Cambridge City Council.

Above – the late Cllr John Powley (Cons – Castle), former leader of the city council, and later MP for Norwich South.

Mr Powley got his Grafton Centre, but in return the people of Cambridge destroyed his political party – so said his late political rival, former Cllr Colin Rosenstiel (Liberal / LibDem, Market).

Above – posted when he was still alive, to my old Twitter account. He also created these election charts that show the demise of the once-mighty Cambridge Conservative Association.

Above – Mr Edkins now maintains the election charts.

“Why is the site unsuitable for commercial labs or comprehensively redeveloping it again and building monster towers of luxury apartments to market on the international property pages?

In a nutshell: Woeful public transport access. Estate agents can say what they like, but building a large industry-specific employment site here – in this case commercial laboratories, inevitably means further increasing the demand for housing in a city that has a major housing shortage. This is because the nature of the qualifications needed for many of the jobs means bringing highly-skilled and qualified people from all over the world to a city which still does not have the infrastructure to serve all of us. That is a failure of central government given how centralised the UK is. At a time when we need to reduce the length of commuting journeys, an industry-specific site inevitably does the opposite. Furthermore, it shows parts of the property world did not learn the lesson of the creation of The Grafton – an industry-specific employment site, i.e. retail.

By turning it into commercial labs, it completes the privatisation of previous public spaces and public streets. While The Grafton is closed at night, the public have access to it during the daytime. With the expansion of Cambridge University, and the colleges expanding student numbers, formerly publicly-accessible buildings and facilities, including several old hotels, are now out of bounds.

You can explore the map of The Kite from the early 1900s and compare it to the aerial image from more recent times, via the National Library of Scotland here.

Go back to 1976 and the people of The Kite came up with their proposals for the gradual renewal of their neighbourhood. I found a very rare copy and digitised it – you can see the links here.

Ironically nearly half a century later, the property world and politicians would be recommending the restoration and renewal of neighbourhoods like this, taking advantage of proximity to the city centre, a strong neighbourhood identity and a very long local history. The proposals for a mixed community full of local independent businesses and community facilities may well have been more resilient to the downturn caused by the Pandemic, This is compared with the implosion of the branded store names of The Grafton that, after the banking crisis started falling like skittles. Mothercare, BHS, Debenhams, were just three that disappeared – all three of which rented out sizeable shop units.

Ironically, instead of delivering that long term sustainable regenerated neighbourhood, Mr Powley and colleagues delivered a large industry-specific facility that was vulnerable to external economic shocks.

“What does the local plan say?”

You’d have thought a firm of property professionals would have first had a look at the existing Local Plan to see what the existing proposals are.

Above – Grafton Area of Major Change: Masterplan and Guidance supplementary planning document – you can read it here.

The second paragraph of the vision – the first reconfirms its purpose as a retail space:

“The site will continue to grow as a retail destination for the City accommodating future growth in retail floorspace,”

Supplementary Planning Document December 2018

This will inevitably need reviewing given a whole host of trends, including internet shopping, the implosion of big brand names both before and during the pandemic, and finally the climate emergency.

This does not automatically mean ripping up the whole existing plan and turning it over into something completely different. In the case of commercial scientific laboratories, there are a host of logistical issues with supplying chemicals and resources.

Is it a good idea to have a site that stores large amounts of hazardous chemicals to be so close to tightly-packed houses and higher density neighbourhoods? As I’ve mentioned before, the public transport links are poor, and the roads regularly fill up with motor traffic. No one has come up with a solution on what to do as we transfer away from fossil-fuel-powered vehicles. (I still prefer the Cambridge Connect Light Rail proposals)

“What are the alternatives for the site?”

Listen to the senior reporter for Cambridge at the Cambridge News.

Alya Zayed is right. Back in 2015 I wrote about how Cambridge’s leisure and entertainment offer had not kept pace with the growth of the city. Not only that, transport planning was not taking into account of much outside of commuting for work or education. What would a mass transit system look like if it incorporated heritage, sport, arts, leisure and entertainment *at design stage*, and/or took into account the caring responsibilities more people have? i.e. resulting in a genuine transport network rather than a series of A-to-B bus lanes?

Interestingly, she’s one of the best placed people in the city to lead on such a campaign – a campaign to ensure that the city of Cambridge delivers for young people. Because we already know that we are failing our young people. Now that we have a new-look county council, and a new county mayor, there’s a huge opportunity to bring children and young people into the conversations on the future of The Grafton, because they are the ones who will have to live with the consequences of the decisions the adults make, just as my generation as children and teenagers had to live with the decision to clear The Kite and build The Grafton.

“Was the Grafton all bad?”

Definitely not – it was one of the few places we could go in town that did not price us out or crowd us out. It received a further boost in the mid-1990s with the expansion and creation of the cinema. For many, it was an exciting place to be at a time when the economy was slowly coming out of a recession, and also a time when you could feel the mood of society was in a very different place to that of MPs and ministers.

There’s a research project for the Cambridge Judge Business School to identify why The Grafton Centre failed in the long term. I believe there’s a public interest that such a report is commissioned and its full findings made public. Because it might be something other towns and cities can learn from.

The 15 minute neighbourhood

In a city full of cyclists, what could the site become if it incorporated high quality cycle routes? Ones where the residents of Abbey, Petersfield, and Chesterton could be on the site within half an hour travelling by cycle or e-scooter? What are the essential services that are not currently in the area that could be incorporated? What facilities could be put in that could serve the wider city, and make a difference in a host of other areas? (Hence the roller-rink proposal from some of you – something that could also provide a home for the Cambridge Rollerbillies Rollerderby Club – mindful that women’s sports are under-provided for vis-a-vis men’s sports, and something that might positively contribute towards health & sports policy aims).

Working with children and young people – and residents in the bordering neighbourhoods to shape its future

My plea to the city is to give the teenagers a large space to work with – involve them early on, at design stage – and meaningfully. Give them examples of what other towns and cities have done and built. Show where their ideas have been incorporated and credit them for it. Put something in place which enables them to create their own future – one in which they will have to live in.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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