True Mixed-Use: Lessons from Brighton’s Edward Street Quarter

Set to begin construction this year, Edward Street Quarter is the largest commercial development to be built in Brighton, UK for 25 years. Lucy Ingham speaks to Barry Jessup, director of developer First Base to find out how the mixed-use project is drawing from the local area, and what lessons can be learnt for other schemes

Due to begin construction in summer 2019, Brighton’s Edward Street Quarter is a vibrant mixed-use development that will introduce a high-quality public space to an already eclectic urban area.

Designed by architects BuckleyGrayYeoman and developed by First Base with backing from Patron Capital, the diverse project will include 168 new homes – including both private and affordable units – alongside 150,000 sq ft of commercial space.

While many projects are described as mixed-use, Edward Street Quarter is designed to truly embody the definition, creating a richly varied project that serves multiple needs within the area, while drawing on Brighton’s truly electric aesthetic and values.

And in doing so, the project is extremely high-profile for the area, being the largest commercial development to be built in Brighton for a quarter of a decade.

I caught up with First Base director Barry Jessup to find out what challenges the project posed, and what lessons it provides for other schemes.

Thomas Bryans

IF_DO co-founder and director.

Image courtesy of Simon Webb

Lucy Ingham:

This is the biggest commercial development in Brighton for 25 years. What challenges did that present?

Barry Jessup: “Two things, I suppose. One is the scale, the second is the mix of uses. I think those are the two things that make it interesting.

“The scale is not a particularly an issue, other than obviously it makes it very high profile as you take it through planning, and it also means that you need to be very coordinated in terms of the way that your design and construction is going to work. But those aren't major impediments.

“The mix of uses is more interesting. It's about 320,000 sq ft of total development and half of that is residential, roughly, and half of that is commercial. And the commercial is made up of offices, but also bars, restaurants and retail, possibly a cinema, and a gym.

“So the complexity, really, is about how you combine all of those uses effectively so that they create a really strong environment for the people who are going to be working or living there, or visiting there for that matter, but equally that works obviously from a design and construction perspective to make sure that it doesn't get too complicated and therefore the costs get out of control.

“So that's really the complexity – more a mix of uses, I think, than necessarily the scale.”

Li: Mixed-use developments are now far more common than they were a few decades ago. Given this, how much did you have to consider changing uses in the future?

BJ: “As a developer, First Base, all of our developments are very mixed-use. So we're very used to it. It is actually still the exception rather than the rule.

“We don't consider mixed-use developments to sort of be residential with a Tesco Metro on the ground floor. For us, mixed-use is where you've got almost equal proportions of different uses.

“And ironically that is what used to happen a hundred years ago. Mono-use development is only a post-war phenomenon, really, and particularly in the last couple of decades.

“So two things, I suppose. One is we do design our developments to be capable of evolving over time. But equally what you're trying to do is get the mix right today so that it is sustainable. And that's precisely one of the reasons why we prefer mixed-use development to mono-use, because I think it's usually mono-use developments that become obsolete.

Li: As your 50/50 split of commercial and residential is relatively uncommon, do you have to work quite hard to make the case for it with planners?

BJ: “The short answer is it can be. As it happens, on Edward Street Quarter it wasn't because the site was previously an office site and there was a strong demand for housing. So Brighton had already formulated a view that a mixed use development was correct.

“But certainly elsewhere it can be a challenge because you tend to find that a lot of local plans and lots of local policy is almost predicated on a on a mono-use per plot approach. And it can be sometimes challenging to then address that through planning.

“[However], in the vast majority of cases when you talk about genuine mixed-use it is very well received, because people appreciate that most of our favourite places that we all have, our personal favourite places, are mixed-use places.

“If I was to ask you your two or three most favourite urban places in the world, I doubt very much whether any of them would be mono-use. We all tend to prefer those more exciting, vibrant mixed-use locations. So people understand that sometimes planning, red tape can get in the way.”

Li: Brighton is known for being very vibrant and creative. How much did that influence the project’s design?

BJ: “A lot, is the short answer. Apart from anything else, our approach anyway is to design our scheme and appoint our design team very much based on the context of the developments.

“And from that perspective one, we are in Brighton so the approach needs to be Brighton-friendly because Brighton does, as you say, have a very strong personality, very strong character, and secondly within Brighton we're in an area called Kemptown and we need to be cognizant of the different character around our site as well.

“So it's all contextual; the design has to be contextual. There's no point in just landing a spaceship into a new town or city that you've developed elsewhere. That never works.“

Li: What features of the development do you consider to be most influenced by Brighton?

BJ: “Well the mix of uses we've talked about: I think Brighton is famous for that.

“Also the way that we've designed the layout. As in nearly every site in Brighton, there are lots of level changes, the topography is obviously very hilly in Brighton. We've got a drop of 9m from the top of our site to the bottom – that's obviously the best part of three storeys.

“But we've embraced that, so rather than trying to do what typically happened in the 1960s and 70s in terms of some form of platform-type development approach, we've embraced the change in levels to create a series of stairways and links between buildings, which tries to replicate the character that you see elsewhere in Brighton.

“We're working with BuckleyGrayYeoman as architects and I think the architectural style embraces the Brighton aesthetic. What we're not trying to do, of course, is anything pastiche, but definitely has a quirk and a character to it that I think people will recognise as being very Brighton.”

Li: This scheme includes a large number of workspaces aimed at the creative industries. Is this something you’re seeing growing demand for, and how do you ensure these needs are met?

BJ: “What's interesting for me is we talk about creative spaces or creative industries and we talk about tech, there are actually very few businesses that are in existence and successful that wouldn't claim that tech and creativity is at its core.

“I think what a lot of these locations do need are flexible workspaces that allow businesses to use them in a more flexible way than perhaps was the case before. So the role of flexible workspace in these developments is crucial.

“In the post-digital age we all have the ability to work in different locations, at different times, businesses expand and can contract really quite quickly. So we need to provide both the space and also the lease flexibility to allow businesses to do that, and to give them confidence to make investments in certain locations.

“So in short, I think the role of that flexible workspace in creating these mixed-use developments is crucial.”

Li: How much do you think that this this particular development can influence how others are done in the future?

BJ: “I hope a lot. Within the design of the scheme, our focus is just as much the space between the buildings as it is the buildings themselves. So the architecture has to be fantastic, but so does the space between the buildings.

“We're looking to integrate art, particularly from local artists, into the public realm, into the street furniture and that creates a character in its own right. And so we hope that actually this combination of high-quality architecture, well thought through design, interesting character and then mix of uses is a really useful model that could be replicated either in Brighton or elsewhere.

“The output, the end product, will be different elsewhere, but the principle and philosophy behind it can be very similar.”

Li: The UK is currently facing a housing shortage. How can this type of development help resolve that?

BJ: “I think there are two challenges that the UK faces at the moment. One is a housing shortage, but the second is the reinvention of the high street. And I think these types of developments can help to address both.

“I think where you have pure residential developments being pushed in urban areas, there is a distinct risk that what you're in effect doing is creating relatively soulless places that will lack character.

“I think by embracing this type of mixed-use development in the central town locations, we're able to address two problems at once. You're able to deliver housing that people want in high-density locations where they have access to local amenities and facilities, but you're also able to make sure that you reactivate and energise some of those ground floor spaces in particular, so that they become really desirable. So you can kill two birds with one stone. “

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