BRIGHTON’S Circus Street fruit and vegetable market sold its last apple in 2006.
Now the seeds of the area’s rebirth in the shape of a £100 million redevelopment lie in the palms of city councillors who will say yay or nay to the scheme in the next few weeks.
Reporter NEIL VOWLES speaks exclusively to the scheme’s architect Lee Halligan about his vision behind Brighton’s newest neighbourhood and his response to criticisms of the scheme.
IT SEEMS strange that in the centre of a bustling, in-demand and strapped-for-space city like Brighton and Hove, there remains aging buildings left to crumble through the passage of time.
Many of these scruffy, hulking, graffiti-covered museum pieces now seem set for a new lease of life. Brighton and Hove City Council has already given the green light for the redevelopment of the Astoria, the Hippodrome and Buxton’s furniture store in recent months.
Now the latest, and most ambitious, of these dinosaur makeovers is set to come before the city’s planning committee in the coming weeks.
The Circus Street fruit and vegetable market is showing its age and neglect with a huge, gaping hole in its roof and rusting metal structure.
The creators of a radical £100 million regeneration of this area aim to transform this forgotten neighbourhood into a must-see part of the city.
With proposed new residential housing, a university library, dance studio, student accommodation, restaurants, shops and new office space, a site that has stagnated for almost a decade could be transformed in three years.
A key target for Lee Halligan, associate at architects shedkm, was to make the area easy to walk through, eradicating the current series of unwelcoming dead-ends.
He wants to make the whole area “a better, brighter and safer environment”.
He said: “The historic gradients of The Lanes are still in place, the routes are grown from the farmer’s field plans and so we have tried to come back and engage with how the site flowed before the market was here in the nineteenth century.
“We wanted to open them up again so that we can bring people into this amazing space as they make their way through to Kemp Town or Queen’s Park.
“There are now east to west and north to south cross routes through the area with a square right in the heart of it.
“These aren’t going to be dead, quiet spaces, they are going to be enlivened by the dance studio in the day and into the night, by the office space during the day and by the restaurants at night.”
As with any large-scale development, the proposals, which were first released to the public almost a year ago, have been met with opposition.
While no-one is calling for the retention of the unremarkable and uninspiring market building, the city’s two most significant conservation groups, the Brighton Society and Regency Society, pulled no punches in their assessments of the initial designs earlier this year.
They raised concerns about the height of high-rise buildings, the amount of natural light that would come into the site, the width of alleyways between buildings and an overriding concern that the site would be overdeveloped.
Mr Halligan said they had taken the criticisms on board and modified the scheme.
He said some of the tallest buildings have been lowered. The student accommodation tower has been reduced from 14 storeys to 12.
The office building has been reduced by 3.6m in length and brought further away from existing properties in Carlton Row.
An addition has been designs for a community garden, featuring allotments, growing space, pergolas and wall climbing plants, between the new development and existing properties of the Milner Flats.
Consulted residents have opted for the new garden to be open to the public but with gates that will be locked at night.
Mr Halligan said: “We had to be thinking about outside our red line boundary as well and how the other neighbourhoods will integrate right next to one of the most improved areas of Brighton when this is completed.
“The success of the project is in how integrated the new buildings will be with the neighbours.”
Mr Halligan said it was important the building designs complimented existing buildings in the area.
The residential block has taken its narrow proportions and balconies from the Regency townhouses of The Old Steine and beyond.
Designs have also been influenced by a number of the best-loved buildings in the city. The library will be a similar colour to the Royal Pavilion and Art Gallery.
Other inspirations include the site’s market history and it is hoped the square will match the hubbub and liveliness of Borough or Spitalfields markets in London.
Jubilee Square was another inspiration – a previous Brighton success story in converting an industrial wasteland into a modern and accessible urban space.
But Circus Square will be 20% bigger, the dance studio’s public space open out directly into the square for open-air performances.
Conservation groups have complained about the height of the buildings and their prominence in the relatively low-level Valley Garden conservation area.
Designers were keen that larger buildings would act as “markers” so people can find the area.
Mr Halligan said: “There have been concerns about the size of the buildings and we have taken great care to maintain important site lines but it is also important to tell people that Brighton exists beyond Valley Gardens.”
Mr Halligan said conservationists’ concerns about the amount of light getting into the squares and alleyways were misplaced. He said the north-south orientation of the scheme’s alleyways made sure that light would stream through the area throughout the day.
He said: “There’s no problem with the light.
“It’s maybe a different feel to what some people are used to but we are not in a place where there will be back gardens.”
A key design concept was to create a “patchwork” of different building heights, styles and features.
Mr Halligan wanted to avoid making the new site a collection of big blocks and was keen to give every different building use its own unique style.
He said: “We got excited when we realised that this scheme didn’t need one type of building, it needed 11 different buildings.
“The dance studio is special, I can’t think of another aluminium clad building in the heart of the city.
“It will reflect the colours from the other buildings and at different times of the day, you will get different qualities of light.”
Mr Halligan has already spent nearly two years working on the project, in which time the designs have evolved.
He said: “The project has seen a number of changes in the year since we submitted the planning application and it has been changed for the better.
“The scheme has been pushed and pulled, it has been added to and reduced, and now we have reached a compromise that we feel is viable. The formula that has worked had to take on board the criticism from outside such as the Regency Society and then go back to our clients and make sure that it also works for them financially. In my opinion, Brighton has a real opportunity to have a scheme that will be recognised, a modern development that fits into a historic Brighton setting.”