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Members of the newly formed Sorting Office Revisioning Team group (SORT) argue that the development of the Temple Meads site should truly reflect the needs of Bristol residents and the environment

Words & photos: SORT

The wasting edifices of the old sorting office behind Temple Meads station stir a sentiment in all who pass. Eyesore/icon, abandoned to dereliction for 18 years, planned for, speculated on…

There has been much enthusiasm about transforming the key five-acre site since the Temple Quarter Enterprise Zone (TQEZ) was launched in 2011. Last year Bristol council acquired it for an estimated £5.4m: a huge opportunity for a development worthy of Bristol’s progressive spirit – but will it happen?

Hold the wrecking ball

view from inside across the roofThe TQEZ’s Spatial Framework requires it to “showcase adaptive reuse which minimises energy requirements”. Yet the council has budgeted £2m for the building’s demolition, according to cabinet meeting minutes from March. In response to an FOI request about the rationale for demolition, the council described its vision of “high quality, commercially led, high density mixed use development” for the levelled ground.

An economic model predicated on replacing old buildings with new ones mirrors the thinking that has led us to potential ecological catastrophe. “A clear opportunity will be missed if the sorting office is not developed in line with a view of a sustainable economy,” says Dr Yannis Dafermos, economics lecturer at the University of the West of England and research associate at the New Economics Foundation. Resource efficiency, reusing materials and re-visioning buildings are key parts of this economy. ‘Knocking down the sorting office is a lazy and wasteful option – the council are not thinking creatively or sustainably,” adds Lucy Pedler, director of The Green Register, a not-for-profit sustainable construction training organisation.

Refurbishing is possible: the previous owners had planning permission for refurbishment until 2015. This and the EZ’s commitment to adaptive reuse suggest the council’s rationale for demolition is based on damning structural surveys. But it has never referred to any such survey; instead it cites market demand, cost efficiency and the opaque “maximisation of economic benefits”.

Money isn’t everything

view out of window across the train tracks with Totterdown on the horizonWhich economic benefits? For whom? Making money on the site is allegedly key to funding Bristol’s Arena Island – the council hopes to raise more than £15m from it. Yet vacant sites abound in the TQEZ, such as Glassfields and Bristol Assembly. The Arena will bring “millions in additional spend to the region” via major musical and sporting events. It’s vital to the overall TQEZ development, but as it was planned before the sorting office acquisition, other funding must be available without selling off assets of enormous potential to the community.

The council faces the ubiquitous public sector conundrum: how to balance financial considerations with community needs. The pursuit of economic growth informs its decisions – but what of localism? Suppose it invited a range of community stakeholders, progressive thinkers and academics to share their visions for the site. What might we hear?

For one thing, Bristol has a housing crisis. Private rents leapt 18% between 2014 and 2015. Over 8,000 people are waiting for council houses while just four have been built in five years. Mayor Marvin Rees has committed to building 2,800 affordable homes during his tenure; some of these must surely feature in plans for this area.

There’s also the problem that alternative economies are stifled: “’Makerspaces’ are a growing industry, yet we have to turn people away,” says Pete Fry of community interest company Old Market Manor, a creative centre for hot-desking freelancers.

New economic frameworks

Reframing the parameters by which we measure any redevelopment’s success, from a profit-and-loss model to one reflecting broader community, social and environmental values, could help to shape a new vision for this site. Housing, work and creative spaces, community and learning areas, food production, transport, and more could all combine to showcase Bristol as an innovative, radical, creative powerhouse. Our community has a wealth of expertise that could richly enhance this vision. Certainly there are better ways of spending £2 million than just knocking this building down.

The sorting office affords the city an opportunity to transform a building from an eyesore into something genuinely iconic, addressing economic needs both globally and locally. We ask the Council to consider its position on the building wisely, and we ask readers to sign the petition at www.thesortingoffice.org.uk for an open consultation.

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Comments

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  • Tim says:

    Not sure I agree with this piece.

    Re-use and preservation aren’t necessarily a good thing in their own right. Sometimes you need to knock things down to create something better (“‘Better for whom?” you may ask of course, but there’s no reason why the answer should be different than it would be for a redevelopment).

    The fate of the sorting office is tied in with bigger plans for the area and with the redevelopment of Temple Meads station as well as Temple Quarter in general. The idea is to create a new eastern entrance to Temple Meads station and a new public subway between the current main entrance and the new eastern entrance, opening up currently closed sub-levels of the station. This is incredibly expensive of course, and mostly unfunded, just like many other parts of the Temple Meads station redevelopment. Network Rail will only fund a small part of what’s needed to make this station fit for the 21st century and for the new city quarters that are going to emerge in the surrounding areas over the next 10-25 years. That funding gap is probably in the hundreds of millions.

    Anyway, ignoring all that for a second, and going back to that new eastern entrance to Temple Meads station. This new entrance will be the main entrance for most of the new Temple Quarter area plus the main gateway for the new arena. The current sorting office is simply a disaster in every respect. It is hard to imagine how to create a nice public space or urban area with the current sorting office building in place. No amount of lipstick is going to turn this pig into something else. I think it needs to be knocked down so that we can create a first class public space around the new entrance and create the right mix of public space, new homes, offices, commercial establishments and public facilities.

    Now my understanding is (and I might be completely wrong) that the city’s plan is to develop this area and surrounding areas intensively in order to raise the funds required for the station redevelopment. I think that’s a good plan, as long as we get good public spaces and a decent mix of new homes in addition to the usual office developments. I just can’t see where else the money to implement the area’s masterplan would come from otherwise, and chances are good that whatever will replace the current building will be a massive improvement.

    In an ideal world we could of course “just” refurbish it and create a community hub and social housing etc. etc. This simply doesn’t seem like a realistic option though.

  • Ben says:

    Dear Tim

    You clearly don’t agree with this piece.

    The point of the article is that the thinking involved in buying the site to knock it down for private companies to commercially develop is the same kind of thinking that has put us in massive social, financial and ecological crises globally and locally. The housing crisis we face in the city is one facet of this.

    The bigger plans for the area further exemplify the same thinking. An arena, currently delayed with costs escalating to over £90million; one which was deemed unviable a decade ago – but now the cadaver has been somehow resuscitated despite the economic turmoil we are in. An electrification of the train line from London -which was put on hold indefinitely yesterday. The Temple Quarter as it currently exists is scattered with empty plots of land – check out ‘The Anvil’, ‘Glassfields’ (empty for at least seven years), ‘The Assembly Bristol’…. empty sites waiting for flats and offices to manifest. We wait on. Those office buildings that are here? ‘To Let’ signs abound. Whatever intentions the area has for being a thriving part of the city – be it a gateway or ‘leisure and retail destination to equal Cabot’s Circus’ feels dead.
    It seems that knocking down the building will just serve the purposes of contractors eager to do their business. Then an empty site will languish, for years, providing a car park for contractors to build the Arena- if they ever do. Then, eventually, the site will be sold to another developer to turn into unaffordable flats, half-empty office spaces, and chain shops. If the economic story that a few people are believing in continues.

    There are already tunnels connecting the Cattle Market with the station. Knocking a building down for £2million shouldn’t affect that. Maybe Network Rail just want the Sorting Office gone as a vanity exercise… Does a pig warrant a £7.4million operation though? Once again, it’s thinking which isn’t reflective of the city’s, or the planet’s needs right now. If we are unable to fund services, should we bankrolling speculative demolitions for uncertain developments? Haven’t we got greater needs for the city immediately, than 10 to 25 years in the future? Is the station’s redevelopment that pressing?

    As for realistic options… observing the homelessness and deprivation in the city, and walking through the empty Temple Quarter, I’m afraid nothing seems real for a 21st Century that last year was the Green Capital of Europe.

  • danny says:

    There are two reasons you want to promote the reuse of this building. Your business is next door or you’re passionate about reuse.

    If its the passion of reuse my advice would be to fight the battles you’re likely to win. This really isn’t the building to focus on, its of no architectural merit. I haven’t been in there but my guess its cast concrete panels filled with rebar. The cost just to survey each panel will be huge, plus the cost of retrofitting the building so it can be used again will be even larger and your left with a ugly 1960’s building.

    If its reuse your focused on, concentrate on other at risk buildings in Bristol with much more merit and much economical to reuse, Brooks in St Werburghs, Napoleonic hospital on Blackberry Hill, the beautiful 30’s flats on St Mattius to name just a few building currently awaiting demo.

    My fear is that promoting reuse on a building like this will take away from the reuse campaigning that been going on in Bristol for some years. The bottom line is that commercial reuse in Bristol simply doesn’t exist and we need to try and make the economic case. By promoting this building it could be perceived that its a personal agenda and not based on economics and believe me Bristol City Council will use any excuse not to reuse/reclaim and its just another reason to dismiss reuse by saying we’re all a bit mad and we have personal agenda’s. The head of Barratt’s SW recently told me they love Bristol because Bristol planning don’t make them do any reuse or reclamation as allot of other Councils do.

    • Kaleb Debbage says:

      Hi Danny

      Thank you for your insights. You are correct that we ought not to fixate on re-use above all else. It is but one facet of the diverse struggle for a more people and planet conscious engagement with our public spaces and their future.

      Supposing adaptive re-use of the actual building is not structurally possible or economically viable (even after broadening our economic parameters), the case for a community-led development of this site, post-demolition, is just as strong and necessary.

      Best,

      Kaleb

      • Mike says:

        Hi,

        I’m not saying don’t fixate or reuse, what I’m saying is choose your battles, BCC’s record on reuse is basically zero. BCC are quite happy for reuse to be categorised as something that a little voluntary organisation in Easton can do and not to bother the adults with it. WHY? because reuse isn’t this at all, reuse should be the absolute first priority on any commercial scheme in Bristol, why? because it saves money and more importantly saves a huge amount of very valuable material and could make a massive difference to the whole of the Country. The fundamental problem is developers hate reuse, why? because it costs them time and money why reuse the 1,000,000 reusable bricks off a commercial site when they can just simply order more new ones, its the easy option that benefits everyone (except the environment). BCC planning certainly aren’t going to upset any of their favoured big developers by applying the law and forcing them to reuse, City Councillors aren’t going to push it they want a new shiny building to show off (Air Balloon school is a a classic example of this, reuse wasn’t even considered, SKANSKA were actually consulted on the demolition).

        So back to my point, trying to promote reuse on this building is simply playing into the hands of BCC and developers, this is about the worst building to concentrate on as per my previous post, what there are building that would actually be cheaper to reuse.

        Personally I’d sell it for housing, I’d rather see mental health services funded than money pumped into this.

        Take a look at the 2012 Waste Regulations then ask your Councillor why Bristol refuses to enact them? If your Councillor is a Green even better because the regs are actually part of their manifesto but sadly all the Greens I’ve tried to engage with simply don’t want to know, which is a shame.

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