'We are not sat on our hands' - a developer has hit back after councillor's criticism
A developer behind work to regenerate Middlesbrough’s tallest building has hit back after a councillor said it was a disgrace that four sites in the town centre had remained empty for so long.
Centre North East, Gurney House, Church House and the former Crown pub were all mentioned at an Economic Development, Environment and Infrastructure Scrutiny Panel as sites that would require costly solutions if they were to be brought back to life.
Cllr Saunders, leader of the Middlesbrough Independent Councillors Association (MICA), said: “The length of time that these buildings have been derelict, I think it’s an absolute disgrace. It’s just a shame that the council can’t do any more about it.”
In response, John Taylor, of Parker Barras, who works with Centre North East owners Cliff Court Developments, said that work was ongoing to regenerate the office block.
He added: “The property had predominantly been vacant before our clients purchased the property, I think it was in late 2016, and we did have several interested parties and obviously covid has stopped some of those conversations.
“We are discussing it with other interested parties and our client has submitted a planning application for the external works and we are progressing with the plans.
“A project of this size does take time. We are certainly not sat on our hands, we are proactively talking to several parties and progressing with the planning applications.”
Mr Taylor also said that as soon as the building was acquired, tenants were secured for the commercial units on the ground floor – this includes Turtle Bay, Lane 7 bowling and Soho nightclub.
An announcement should be made within the next 12 months with a start date for plans for the rest of the building, according to the developer.
He added: “With everything that’s going on in Teesside and with it being Middlesbrough’s tallest building we are keen to see it brought back into use and it’s obviously about finding the right operator to do that.”
In 2018, there were plans for a sky bar and a casino, student accommodation, a restaurant chain and a gym.
The following year, the council also suggested it could move in, however, Covid led to a rethink of those plans.
A planning application was lodged with the council in November to give the building a facelift, which would include a new double glazed curtain walling system that was inspired by the steelmaking history in Middlesbrough.
In May, it was agreed that the council would form a new partnership with Stockton-based company Jomast, which owns Gurney House, near the A66, and Church House, on the corner of Bedford Street and Linthorpe Road.
At that time, a report stated: “Jomast Developments Ltd are keen to work closely with Middlesbrough Council to align visions, market compelling proposals for prospective tenants/investors, and explore external funding support to aid commercial viability.”
There have been numerous plans over the years to regenerate the two buildings.
In 2012, a £32m “Gurney Street Triangle” scheme was unveiled and it was hoped that a casino, restaurants, a luxury hotel, a budget hotel, a multi-storey car park and banqueting facilities would all come to the area.
However, by 2014 plans had stalled after the economic downturn impacted the plans, however in 2018 the 83-bedroom Premier Inn, on Wilson Street, did open.
In 2012, plans were also approved to convert Church House into 77 apartments, with updated plans lodged in 2016 for 87 flats and leisure facilities on the ground floor.
However, the plans have not come to fruition and it still stands empty.
Mayor Andy Preston has recently announced that the council could buy the former Crown pub on the corner of Linthorpe Road and Borough Road to stop it from sitting vacant.
The mayor added: “What I want to do is preserve our fantastic buildings, bring them back under council control if necessary, so what I want to do is launch a process of a compulsory purchase order so that the people of Middlesbrough own this.
“If a private landlord wants to do something with it, that’s great, but if they won’t then we will buy it, hopefully at a knockdown price and preserve it for future generations.”
The building was originally constructed for Elite Cinemas in 1923 and then became ABC in 1987 before becoming a bingo hall and then a pub – it is included on the town’s Local List as it is a “valuable local heritage asset”.
The council’s director of regeneration, Richard Horniman, responded to Cllr Saunders’ concerns about the four sites at the council’s panel meeting.
He said: “It doesn’t matter how heavy-handed we get with somebody, the answer for each of those buildings is a very expensive one for somebody.
“Sometimes, not suggesting this is the case particularly with those [four buildings], but we do have other sites in this situation where people have ended up owning them but don’t have the financial wherewithal to do anything about it so quite often we will go and put pressure on them and the response is, we will do something with it if you’ll give me the money.”
Mr Horniman said he had a degree of sympathy for the owners because the solutions to fill these buildings are so large and expensive, it means they aren’t going to happen easily.