Royal William Yard transformation could be a model for Plymouth
Urban Splash has rescued Royal William Yard from oblivion. Keith Rossiter asks Tom Bloxham, its boss, whether he could do the same for Plymouth city centre.
IN A handful of years Urban Splash has transformed Plymouth's derelict Royal William Yard into one of the region's best destinations.
Over coffee at Seco Lounge, overlooking the former naval victualling yard's harbour, I asked for his advice on how to drag Plymouth city centre back to life.
"What I hate is Any Town UK – a shopping centre full of all the usual chain stores and with nothing special," he said. Plymouth stands out because the independent traders have managed to cling on. You have a fantastic city centre. There is an amazing collection of post-war buildings, so celebrate them. A lot of modern buildings are beautiful.
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"When I was a kid people were demolishing Victorian villas. They would never dream of doing that now.
"Decide what's special about Plymouth – the sea, the university, the architecture – and shout about it."
The secret to the success of Royal William Yard is the diversity of users. "Rather than doing just a building, I'm interested in the way an area works," he said.
"When we first came here in 1999 it was not even on the map. The MoD kept it shut off."
Working in partnership with the South West Regional Development Agency, the first thing Urban Splash did was to create apartments. Before the 2008 recession these did well. Urban Splash sold £30million worth on the first day they went on the market.
But Mr Bloxham, chairman and co-founder of Urban Splash, admitted: "In 2008 we went through a real problem and we were in the eye of the storm." The company responded by going into the rental market.
Royal William Yard really took off once they started to bring in other users – an art gallery, River Cottage Canteen and Deli, studios for Plymouth University fine art students, Seco Lounge and Prezzo, and the Town Mill Bakery.
Last year's British Art Show 7 brought visitors from across the South West. On the May bank holiday Monday this year the Royal William Good Food Market had 7,000 visitors. Alongside these activities are businesses like Bluestone 360, the successful brand and business development agency.
"Hundreds of jobs have been created and many new businesses have been set up," Mr Bloxham said. "But we think we are only halfway through the journey.
Mr Bloxham was in Plymouth to give a lecture as part of Plymouth University's celebration of its 150th anniversary. Speaking to an audience of architects, academics, planners, business people and a few Royal William Yard residents, he admitted that the diversity created some conflicts over issues such as noise. But he insisted: "Royal William Yard was always intended to be a mixed community."
Urban Splash is investing £20 million at Royal William Yard this year, and already the 20,000 square foot New Cooperage building is complete and looking for a tenant.
"New residents and shops will be coming soon, including some interesting brands that have never before been in Plymouth," Mr Bloxham said. "There is an interesting concept for a wine shop."
Residence 2, the old admirals' residence, is now complete and Urban Splash hopes to fill it with small businesses. It is also working with Plymouth City Council to create a History Centre in the Factory Cooperage, to house the Museum and Art Gallery stores, South West film and television archives and the Plymouth and West Devon Public Records Office.
It is also keen to attract a boutique hotel operator to the Melville building – what was the nerve centre of the victualling yard.
"Austerity brings innovation," he said – a lesson for city planners.