It’s only when the sun comes out that you realise – we need to talk about Williamson Square.
The city’s most central square is currently undergoing another facelift, after Marks and Spencer’s landgrab of the entire Tarleton Street block from Church Street back to the square.
Work is almost complete on a new four-floor building where the old Stoniers china and glassware store used to be.
It’s a speculative development – Marks and Spencer has no plans to extend into the space itself, despite earlier promises to make this a flagship store. That’s partly due to their failure to revamp this entire side of Williamson Square when the Job Centre refused to budge, despite offers to relocate at M&S’s expense.
Originally, this block was to be transformed into a futuristic new M&S, with access from the square.
“We developed the concept for a contemporary and welcoming shopping experience and create a 200,000 sq ft flagship store trading over five floors,” they said, back in 2008. That would have made it easily the biggest M&S in the world.
Their ambitions have been scaled back somewhat – and those big plans, sadly, haven’t taken wing.
So what can we expect?
One thing we can’t expect is the store’s earlier vision – for a futuristic M&S with outstretched wings, wind turbines and day-glow escalators. Instead, they’ve opted for a polite, restrained and reasonably handsome limestone-clad facade.
When the scheme went before planners the talk was of a mixed use development, offering retail, finance and professional spaces, cafe and restaurant opportunities or business use. Encouragingly, the space is flexible: units could be small (ideal for start ups) or reconfigured and conjoined.
The city’s planning committee approved the scheme, saying the proposed development would regenerate a vacant brownfield site, and diversify the retail offer within the city’s BID area. But for this development to offer a seeding ground for small, indie stores, the Council would have to look again at its rates system, and really show how keen they are to nurture the city’s retail entrepreneurs.
If not? Well, you only have to look around to see what shape the new addition could take.
Because talk of diversification is all well and good, but, in the past couple of years, the square’s western side has seen not one, but two bookmakers bookend the block. Appropriate? We don’t think so. Look out from the space-age drum of the Playhouse bar and you see a square with a severe personality disorder. Bookies, jobcentre, fenced off bin store, part-time fountains and sorry-looking street traders. We thought rule #1 of geometry was that a square should have four equal sides. Not here. No two elevations are even close to approaching symmetry.
But it wasn’t always like this. Until 1965, the north side of the square was home to the Theatre Royal – its elegant Queen Anne-style facade complementing the stucco of the Playhouse (pic top r). Now it’s the monstrous New Look and LFC store. Who thought this building would complement the square? And can we have their address, please?
Nowadays, it’s left to the fab Paulo and Donato’s Italian deli to show the rest of us how it could be done (oh, ok, and Sayers. Gotta love their Strawberry tarts). Imagine if the Playhouse drum started at ground level with a cool theatre cafe. Imagine if the Council paid for really nice, uniformly designed trading stalls for our beleaguered traders, and supported mini stalls from the likes of Lucha Libre, We Are Castro, and Lunya to entice us to linger. Imagine if the Job Centre was in a more sensible location. Street food is so hot right now. We’ve got the streets. We’ve got the food. Let’s join the dots for once, and make Williamson Square a street food square.
“The scheme constitutes a complementary mix of uses,” says the planning committee, “in a highly accessible and preferable city centre location, and will benefit the local economy, whilst providing enhanced employment prospects.”
It certainly constitutes a new start for this sorry corner of the city – and to be fair to BID, they’re doing their best to animate the space, with bandstands and programming throughout the calendar (we’ll say nothing about the Christmas markets, eh?)
But sit on those fancy, curved seats for any length of time, and you can’t help but have a sinking feeling.
City squares still have a major role to play as decompression zones: places where the city can pause, relax and socialise. A place where all paths merge, where office workers, lunching ladies and map-wielding tourists collide at coffee shops, pavement cafes or cultural centres.
Most city squares started life as market places, surrounded by grand civic buildings. An at-a-glance status report of a city’s wealth and ambition. It’s a job our cities usually leave to John Lewis these days. But the squares remain – even if the markets and public proclamations, the balcony waving and the public flogging have long gone.
But world class cities still require world class squares. What’s the betting we’ll get one, eventually, in Williamson Square? And which of its two bookies do you want to use to place it in?