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City revitalisation – South of Lichfield, Christchurch

Fast facts

Location: Bounded by Lichfield Street, Manchester Street, Tuam Street and Colombo Street, Christchurch

Project type: Revitalisation of historic commercial buildings and spaces to create a mixed use accommodation, retail and entertainment quarter

Revitalisation project timeframes: 2004–2008

Property developer and owner: Property Ventures Ltd, Christchurch

Website link: http://www.sol.net.nz

Case study researcher: Janet Reeves, Context Urban Design Ltd

Key statistics

Site area: 5,500m²

Approximate percentages of use mix:

Retail floorspace: 12 percent

Hospitality floorspace: 25 percent

Office floorspace: 33 percent

Number of residential units: 77

Introduction

The South of Lichfield lanes revitalisation project is located in the old warehouse district to the south-east of Cathedral Square in central Christchurch. This area contains a wealth of historic character buildings. The buildings typically have decorative façades that face onto the main streets, with rear plain-brick walls facing onto a network of lanes and service yards. In the 1990s, many of these character buildings were empty or neglected and the lanes rundown.

Several studies recognised the potential of these historic warehouse buildings, such as the 1998 study of the blocks east of Manchester Street, prepared for Christchurch City Council (the Council). However, there was little enthusiasm from developers for pursuing these revitalisation ideas because of the complex nature of multiple ownership and lack of financial support from the Council.

Between 1998 and 2004, the Council continued to explore ways to revitalise this area, and some-small scale, piecemeal redevelopment of existing buildings occurred in the area. At this time, the Council also set up a ‘facelift’ project for historic buildings and streetscapes (the High Street Heritage Project) in the southern stretch of High Street, running diagonally across the main street grid to the east of Manchester Street and the South of Lichfield project area. The Council worked with owners to remove excess wiring, signage and unsightly fire escapes, repaint buildings and renew lighting.

The High Street Heritage Project was completed in 2002 and came at a time when High Street was starting to be transformed from an underused secondary shopping street into an upmarket street, with independent fashion boutiques and cafés on the ground floor buildings and residential and other uses on the upper floors. The adjoining Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology added its own vibrancy to the area by introducing fashion and jazz schools on the corner of Tuam and High Streets. In addition, private developers began to accumulate land to the east and west of Manchester Street.

In March 2006, the Council held a week-long ‘Future Directions’ charrette exploring opportunities for revitalising the whole central city area south of Lichfield Street and east of Colombo Street, around 10 street blocks. The South of Lichfield block was in the north-western corner of the ‘Future Directions’ charrette area. The outcome was 22 council actions to stimulate revitalisation.

A Central City Lanes Plan was adopted by the Council in 2007. It covers the network of lanes in the Christchurch central city, including those in the South of Lichfield area. The Lanes Plan sets out how to administer requests to improve or create back lanes running through the primary city blocks.

Context of South of Lichfield.

Design process – the ‘South of Lichfield’ project

Site aerial view of South of Lichfield.

The South of Lichfield project, known locally as SOL, has created a vibrant, mixed use area from historic commercial buildings and back access lanes. South of Lichfield currently comprises a group of buildings that front onto Lichfield Street in the north and Tuam Street in the south. The area is bisected east–west by Struthers Lane, a public right of way. Lichfield Street is a busy one-way street, on the north side of which is the Christchurch Bus Exchange, Christchurch’s central bus station building.4 The southern side of Lichfield Street has an almost continuous building frontage comprising heritage and character buildings. Prior to the South of Lichfield project, these buildings were under-occupied and poorly maintained. The Council offices are in Tuam Street, immediately to the west of the project.

Property Ventures Ltd is a Christchurch-based development company. Its first project in South of Lichfield was an apartment/hotel completed in February 2004. Conversion and upgrading of the existing buildings has progressed steadily since then. Renovation is now nearing completion on three major buildings, the creation of a new lane, a new square, re-paving of an existing lane and the installation of street furniture and artworks. Work continues on improvements to the streetscape and the alteration and conversion of further buildings.

The strong determination and vision of Dave Henderson, the managing director of Property Ventures Ltd, has played an important role in the success of this development. Dave Henderson felt that Christchurch was suburban in character and lacked the high density, vibrant urban centre commonly enjoyed in cities elsewhere. He wanted to create a neighbourhood with its own sense of place, and focused on the area south of Lichfield Street because it was rundown and likely to meet with less opposition from existing occupiers and interest groups.

 

Lichfield Street.

The South of Lichfield project comprises the following elements.

No 92 Lichfield Street

Built as a receiving depot for imported British merchandise in 1893, this is now occupied as a steak house restaurant and dance club on the ground floor, the Christchurch City Council call centre and offices on the first floor and apartments on the second floor.

92 Lichfield St.

No 96 Lichfield Street

Built for the Wellington Woollen Manufacturing Company in 1919, this now houses bars, restaurants and shops on the ground floor while the upper three floors have been converted to living space, which provides long- and short-term affordable accommodation in 110 rooms, together with theatre rooms, a library, cooking and dining areas and an outdoor courtyard.

96 Lichfield St.

His Lordships Lane

Adjacent to No 96 Lichfield Street, this was built as an eatery and hostel. Known as His Lordships Larder, it was destroyed by fire in 2000. The space it occupied has been converted into a paved thoroughfare, known as His Lordships Lane. This lane provides a new link through to Struthers Lane, allows access to new shops and bars on either side and provides a sheltered outdoor seating and gathering space.

The lanes through the development have been upgraded and repaved, and new lighting and overhead artworks have been installed. The street space is occupied by planters, tables and chairs, signboards and heaters, which are moveable.

His Lordships Lane at night.

No 110 Lichfield Street

This was purpose-built for Bells Motor Works in 1920. It now accommodates His Lordships Café and bar on the ground floor and a Mexican restaurant on the upper floor.

110 Lichfield Street.

179 to 187 Tuam Street

These two buildings were built for the Lichfield Shirt Company in 1932 and 1954. The front part of the buildings, facing Tuam Street, now house a large record store on the ground floor while upper floors are being converted to offices. To the rear, some of the outbuildings have been demolished to create a new plaza, known as South of Lichfield Square. Pedestrian access is afforded to the square from Tuam Street by walking through the record store. South of Lichfield Square is edged with cafés and bars, which have an active frontage with the square. The upper floors of these buildings, overlooking the square, are mainly occupied by nightclubs. The rear of the building on the north side of the square accommodates a large screen, which turns into an open-air theatre at night.

179–187 Tuam Street.

Urban design issues

The revitalisation of the Christchurch central city area relies heavily on the actions of private developers. The Council strategies, policies and plans, such as the Cathedral Square improvements, new Bus Exchange, a ‘first hour free’ parking scheme and a central city marketing campaign, have helped promote the central area. However, because the Council has limited funds to create its own revitalisation projects it must provide the right conditions for private revitalisation and be ready to respond to, and take advantage of, any developments that are occurring.

Several design issues have arisen with the development of the South of Lichfield project. These are:

  • Heritage fabric demolition and alterations, and the effect on the integrity of the buildings: While the developer wants to see positive adaptation of the buildings, there is mixed opinion over the extent to which heritage fabric should be altered.

  • Permeability of large blocks with back lanes and the safety of the public space: Lanes and small backyard squares break down the large 220m x 100m Christchurch blocks. Where lanes are opened up to public use, safety issues need to be addressed. For example, the spaces need to be well overlooked, have clear sightlines through them and sufficient levels of activity to ensure casual surveillance.

  • Getting the right combination of uses: The South of Lichfield project provides a mix of hospitality, retail, office and accommodation uses. It is predominantly an area for night-time activity, catering to a young market. Retailers, however, need high foot traffic during the day time to survive, and can have difficulties with night-time rubbish being left for them to clean up in the morning. Problems with residential uses are limited because apartments are not immediately adjacent to outdoor spaces, and tenants are required to sign a ‘no complaints’ clause.

  • Private and public space all reads as public space in the South of Lichfield project: Issues arise if people who are attending events block the public right of way or if vehicles stray into the private squares.

  • Obtaining statutory consents can be complex and time consuming: Requirements such as earthquake strengthening, fire engine access, wheelchair access, development and reserve contributions all combine to inhibit the physical and economic viability of the South of Lichfield project.

Evaluation of urban design principles

Context

The South of Lichfield project demonstrates the social and economic value of embracing the existing character of an area, and shows how heritage buildings and spaces can be reused and adapted to create a vibrant mix of new uses and spaces. The project demonstrates the importance of recognising latent potential in a neglected area and the need for vision and tenacity to bring a renewal project to fruition. The South of Lichfield project is a catalyst project, where new activities can be used to develop further activities in the wider area.

South of Lichfield has responded to its context in many ways. Its location, close to the vibrant tertiary education centre, city centre, Christchurch Bus Exchange and Council offices, has been capitalised upon by creating short-stay accommodation, bars, nightclubs, shops, cafés and restaurants. Vibrant and productive uses have been found for the heritage buildings and spaces of the area. Large city blocks have been opened up and the network of lanes and backyard squares extended.

Character

The South of Lichfield project recognised the distinctive character of this part of Christchurch. Its predominance of brick buildings, narrow streets and enclosed spaces has a different character to the main streets of the city centre. The developers and designers have been careful to maintain the hard urban feel and robust semi-industrial theme. For instance, the paving is grey, extends from façade to façade and is simple in design. Elaborate patterns or coloured pavers would be out of character here, deflecting attention away from the buildings. There is little soft landscaping, with greenery being confined to large concrete or metal planter boxes, some (deliberately) painted with graffiti art. The introduction of free-standing signage by individual occupants has the potential to undermine the simple, uncluttered industrial look.

South of Lichfield Square during a daytime concert.

Choice

South of Lichfield provides choice for Christchurch residents and visitors in that it offers a new and different urban quarter. In particular, it is an alternative to the nightlife of the well-established Oxford Terrace ‘strip’ on the western side of the central business district. It also provides a further opportunity for inner city living and thus allows people to choose a less car-dependent lifestyle. The opening up of lanes through the block provides a choice of routes for pedestrians, and an alternative to walking around the perimeter of the block. The introduction of a new lane (His Lordships Lane) has further increased the choice of routes.

The flat ground surface, devoid of kerbs, permits wheelchair access and allows the spaces to be adapted for new uses.

South of Lichfield Square at night.

Connections

The lanes of South of Lichfield are, predominantly, a pedestrian environment, with vehicular use confined to accessing properties within the quarter. The lanes provide connections through the block, although their role as short cuts is limited (that is, for most people, it is just as quick to walk around the edge of the block). This has meant that the lanes are places in themselves, rather than merely thoroughfares.

The South of Lichfield block is currently a little isolated from the centre of Christchurch, and its existence is not obvious to those unfamiliar with the area. It is unlikely that it will ever become a main connecting link and, therefore, will need to rely considerably on adjacent activity or being a destination in itself. There is the potential for revitalisation of further buildings and spaces along connecting lanes.

Creativity

The South of Lichfield initiative has brought ‘something different’ to Christchurch. There are unusual elements to the development, such as overhead artworks, a car placed high up on a building façade, the 1950s-themed Minx restaurant, a large indoor/outdoor gas fire. In addition, warehouse features, such as metal fire escapes and façade signage, have been preserved. The project has endeavoured to be quirky and vibrant and create its own identity. The developer has ‘asserted artistic authority’ to achieve an eclectic unplanned composition, redolent of places that have evolved incrementally over time. Property Ventures Ltd retains ownership of the complex, and each tenant is carefully selected to add to the mix. Almost all are one-off enterprises and not chains or franchises.

South of Lichfield artwork.

Custodianship

The South of Lichfield initiative has utilised existing building stock, with its adaptive reuse of historic and character buildings. It has opened up previously private backyards for public use. However, issues remain with the lack of activity at certain times of the day and night in the lanes, especially in the wider area. The residential population of this part of the inner city will need to be considerably increased through the progressive revitalisation of the lanes. Increasing the number of people on the streets will not only add to the feeling of safety but also enable the establishment of local supporting services, such as corner dairies.

Collaboration

The South of Lichfield project is part of a vision to upgrade the lanes and city centre as a whole. Both the Council and developer share this vision and are working steadily towards achieving it in mutually supportive ways. While the Council has not provided any financial assistance to the South of Lichfield project, it has contributed by upgrading the public lane running through the area.

The ‘Future Directions’ charrette was an opportunity for building owners and stakeholders in the area to become involved, develop a collective and detailed understanding of the issues and contribute to the renaissance of these city blocks.

The Central City Lanes Plan was widely circulated (although with little response) and provides the basis for others to participate in the revitalisation of similar back lanes.

There has been little public consultation in the South of Lichfield area because all of the buildings are privately owned.

Lessons learnt

The area south of Lichfield Street is large enough to develop into an urban village, with its own amenities. Because the cost of property in this area is lower than in other parts of the city, Property Ventures Ltd is considering including affordable housing and small retail and business ventures alongside more profitable concerns. This would allow a good mix of uses and users to be assembled, which is critical in attracting people to live in the area. The challenge will be in retaining affordability as demand accelerates and property values increase.

South of Lichfield is comfortable to be in and human in scale. This is because of the existing buildings and careful attention to detail on the part of the developer. The elements in and around the outdoor spaces have evolved incrementally, rather than being part of an overall masterplan. Tenants have been selected on their ability to be interesting and enliven the edges of the spaces. There have been elements that have not worked and these have been changed. For instance, a low wall at one edge of the square that was initially retained is now being removed because it hinders the flow of the square. The developer, lacking a knowledge base of mixed use developments, is learning as the project proceeds and uses are selected to suit the spaces, their location within the complex and to complement each other.

The Council is supportive and encouraging of the project. Property Ventures Ltd has had a good relationship, in particular, with the former mayor, and with the leader of the Central City Revitalisation team. It would be preferable to secure a dedicated council liaison person for large projects like South of Lichfield.

The developer has highlighted the need for a change in approach in Christchurch to a more urban way of thinking. Urban, rather than suburban, solutions to inner city issues are required, along with the acceptance of some disadvantages in exchange for advantages. For example, a noisy environment and restricted parking may need to be endured in return for being able to have all the attractions and conveniences of the city within walking distance.

Multiple ownership of land and buildings is a barrier to further urban renewal in this area. The accumulation of sufficient land and buildings by Property Ventures Ltd has enabled a comprehensive renewal project to proceed. Nevertheless, there is a difficulty in extending the project beyond its existing boundaries because adjacent owners have different ideas, motives and circumstances.

The development does not have a high profile, since its core is tucked away behind the main street frontages and the project is yet to be well connected to other central city attractions. An aggressive marketing campaign will be needed to draw people into the area. Once there, people are attracted by the celebration of the history and character of the locality, and the activities in the new lane draw people in to discover the centre of the block.

Lichfield Street is a busy, two-lane, one-way street. This creates a traffic-oriented environment, which is contrary to the relaxed, comfortable atmosphere of the South of Lichfield project. A previous attempt by the Council to introduce a two-way traffic system into Lichfield Street was thwarted by opposition to the transfer of the one-way system to a parallel street.

Value gained

The South of Lichfield development has saved an historic part of the Christchurch urban fabric by finding new uses for old buildings, and building upon the existing urban form. This intrinsic character gives the development a competitive edge over other potential sites that tenants might choose. South of Lichfield has helped to enliven this part of the city and has shown how a viable and profitable revitalisation project could be created in other parts of the Christchurch central business district.

The density and mix of uses brings vitality and vibrancy from midday to late at night, and this activity helps to make these lanes feel safe. The development provides a place for people to meet, gather and interact.

Moveable street furniture maintains the adaptability of the outdoor spaces so that they can be used for a variety of purposes.

The paving, artworks, lighting, shop fronts and building façades and activities all combine to create a high-quality environment, which is attracting residents and visitors to shop and spend their leisure time in the area.

The South of Lichfield initiative is seen by the developer as the start of a much larger revitalisation initiative of Christchurch’s inner city. The development of South of Lichfield Square serves to anchor the first corner of a new urban neighbourhood and give it a personality. As more buildings are brought back into full and intensive use, there will be the scope for neighbourhood amenities, such as bakeries and convenience stores and the restoration of a theatre in Tuam Street.

Potential wider lane improvements around the South of Lichfield area.

Property Ventures Ltd has acquired several properties in the larger area south of Lichfield Street and is already underway with a new development that will provide flexible living/working spaces. There is strong demand from potential businesses and residential purchasers, and other developers are showing interest in this previously undesirable locality.

Conclusion

The South of Lichfield project and other initiatives in the area south of Lichfield Street are now gaining momentum after a long gestation period. Because of the lack of development pressure in the past, the historic buildings were not demolished and the urban fabric remains to be adapted for present-day use. The residential component of the revitalisation is critical, and success will be dependent upon a large increase in the inner city population and supporting uses to make it comfortable, convenient, vibrant, attractive and affordable. The South of Lichfield project is demonstrating that such urban design qualities can be achieved.

Resources

Christchurch City Council March 1998. Christchurch Heritage – A New Life. A study by Athfield Architects Ltd.

Christchurch City Council 11 April 1998. Central City East Renewal. Report to Christchurch City Council Environment Committee.

Christchurch City Council 11 May 2000. Central City East Renewal Project. Report to Christchurch City Council Environment Committee.

DPZ Pacific, Robertsday, Seth Harry & Associates 7 August 2006. Central City South, Future Directions Charrette. Prepared for the Christchurch City Council.

Christchurch City Council September 2006. Central City Revitalisation Strategy, Stage II.

Christchurch City Council July 2007. Central City Lanes Plan. Retrieved from http://www.ccc.govt.nz/CentralCity/Programmes/CentralCityLanesPlan2007.pdf (15 April 2008).

Christchurch City Council, City Promotions. Christchurch Central City Lanes Walk – Lichfield Street Network. Retrieved from http://www.christchurch.org.nz/Activities/CentralCityLanesWalk.pdf (15 April 2008).