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Interview with Mark Latham: Urban Splash

To coincide with Peter Blundell Jones’ revisit to Park Hill Estate in Sheffield, featured in October’s AR, Silvana Taher interviews Mark Latham, Development Manager at Urban Splash

Silvana Taher How is the project structured?

Mark Latham The freehold of the estate is owned by Sheffield City Council, but we have a long 250 year leasehold on Phase One which is the northern area (the bit we’ve started work on) and the construction site. The rest of it is still in the city council’s ownership, although a basic agreement has been pre-agreed for the completion of the site.

ST In principle how long does this first phase last?

ML It’s hard to answer. We’ve said 10 years from starting on site, but it really depends on how quickly we sell, which is just sensible practice. We don’t want to flood the market. The first release is 78 flats out of a total 264 flats. There were times in the past when we might have released them all in one go, but those were different economic circumstances.

ST Have you ever taken on a project of this scale and this notoriety?

ML Yes, although this is probably the one with the biggest reputation, both positive and negative. It’s obviously positive within the architectural and design community, and probably negative among laypeople. Although it’s interesting that there is a real fondness for Park Hill amongst many residents, especially people who have lived here. There’s more of a prejudice among people who haven’t lived here, as it’s generally regarded as the prison on the hill.

ST In a way it could be said you are dealing with a rebranding exercise.

ML Yes. And in fact the re-colouring of the panels is very closely allied to that question of rebranding. We felt that in order to achieve the change in perception that was needed to make it an economic success, a radical transformation or appearance shift was required.

ST Given the history of Park Hill, in that it started out being a massive success and then had huge problems, have you used the legacy of its failure to inform a regeneration schedule?

ML Definitely. We talked a lot to the residents about what they did and didn’t like, and what did or didn’t work. But we also used our experience as Urban Splash. One of the biggest changes has been the change in the tenure mix, which is now 1/3 social housing to 2/3 private housing. We felt it was simply not a normal urban environment to have 3000 people, the size of a small village, all from one social group.

ST About the 1/3 to 2/3 divide - is that segregated in terms of facilities, public spaces etc.?

ML No. Everyone uses the same lifts, the same streets in the sky to their front door, and each front door is exactly the same. There are only a very small number of fit-out differences inside the flat. I think that is mainly a maintenance issue, so that things can be replaced without it being Urban Splash bespoke.

ST Maintenance and security were obviously two of the really big problems, which let Park Hill down over time. Have you done something to ensure this doesn’t happen again?

ML Taking security first, the big move was to close the streets (in the sky), so they are not public streets anymore, as they were in the original scheme. The security line is now at the ground floor. Previously this didn’t exist, so you could just could walk in and walk through any of the streets in the sky. It was one of the major things which all the residents said needed to go.

ST And the maintenance?

ML Massive amounts of research and work has gone into that, to come up with an appropriate service charge level, and that works like any service charge.

ST How does the service charge work? Do you ask social residents to pay the same service charge as those in the private sector?

ML We do, but it’s part of their rent structure. So it’s paid through the housing association, Greater Places. But it is also worth saying that maintenance was absolutely at the top of everyone’s priorities. It has been absolutely inherent in all the design thinking.

ST You’ve got 40,000 square feet of commercial space coming in here. Is this something that you imagine will service the residents of Park Hill, or are you actually hoping to compete with the Sheffield Town Centre?

ML It will not necessarily compete, but it will provide additional space within the city centre. We have flexible consents for all the ground floor spaces. It could therefore be a mixture of retail space, offices, pubs and bars. We are also very hopeful that we can relocate the fantastic children’s nursery during the first phase.

ST One of the biggest things about Park Hill was the streets in the sky, which you have changed. What has changed exactly, and what was the thinking behind it?

ML Essentially we have modulated the street frontage. This was driven by a number of different things. One was how to have access to the riser for maintenance. In the old Park Hill, it was land locked, so you had to go into someone’s flat to repair it. The other thing that we were worried about was the lack of passive surveillance. The old street was very blank with only a tiny little strip window next to each door.

Now we’ve created corner windows which gives the impression of surveillance. We knew we wanted to keep the streets in the sky, as a key part of the design concept, but even the original architects said that they were not especially happy about this aspect of Park Hill. The streets did perform in some of the ways they had hoped, as social spaces, for instance, but they also had real drawbacks in terms of no surveillance and a sense of being incredibly institutional and somewhat relentless.

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