A packed meeting took place at Hamilton House on Stokes Croft this afternoon to discuss the future of the building.
In attendance were businesses and studio holders based in the building as well as staff members of Coexist, the social enterprise and building managers. Also in attendance was Andrew Baker, a senior employee of property company Connolly & Callaghan (C&C), who own the building. Last week C&C issued Coexist with a notice to vacate the building by August 11th.
The meeting was called to discuss and clarify the sudden insecurity the notice to vacate has caused the 200 businesses, artists, community organisations and charities operating out of the iconic building.
Representatives of Coexist read out a letter received from C&C within an hour of the start of the meeting. The letter detailed C&C’s offer to Coexist of a 6 month extended lease on the building. The letter stated there would be break clauses on two of the three building blocks that could end the contract at three months if planning permission is not obtained for plans to develop part of the building into apartments, including some reserved for current Hamilton House commercial tenants.
This statement was met with a lukewarm reception from many attendees. This is in part due to the suddenness of a process that has interrupted the expectation that the lease would be renewed on a year-by-year basis, as it has done since Coexist’s establishment in 2008. This was described by a Coexist representative as a “clear and distinct change of direction”, though defended as a routine legal process by Andrew Baker of C&C.
Multiple attendees cited strong concerns about what this uncertainty meant for their businesses, with one saying that thousands of pounds of orders could be at risk if they could not plan beyond this period.
Creating “sustainable communities”?
However, this was not a usual discussion about a building’s use. Due to the stated social and ethical aims of both Coexist and C&C much of the meeting revolved around more vexed and less practical issues.
Speaking to attendees, representative of C&C Andrew Baker said that Coexist’s previous £5.5 million offer to purchase the building was rejected as it did not fulfill C&C’s notion of a “sustainable community” as well as requiring a loan from C&C. Though Mr Baker said “we feel there is more to be done”, he did not indicate exactly what this was.
An exasperated representative of Coexist stated that they were at once being asked to deliver unrealistically ambitious ‘vision’ while also presenting a viable business case with very little guidance from C&C. Indicative of what appears to be a lack of clarity in communications, the Coexist representative said that C&C had explicitly said that a purchase bid including additional housing within Hamilton House would be rejected, only to be told the lack of housing in the bid formed part of the eventual rejection.
Multiple comments from attendees asserted that the current arrangement is in fact developing into the ‘sustainable community’ that C&C say they wish to see, and that was due to Coexist’s effort. According to one attendee, as C&C had only ever granted one year leases it created the sense they “were managing the failure of Coexist and the community”. While Mr Baker raised that Coexist was in fact subsidised by C&C a response was made that one reason for financial issues at Coexist was due to lack of leasehold security, preventing them from securing grants and loans.
The lack of clarity has been exacerbated by the continual absence of Martin Connolly, the boss of C&C who is currently reported to be on a retreat in India. Mr Baker has stated that he is keen to work with Coexist moving forward, which will be encouraging to Danny Balla, a director of Coexist. Danny Balla said “we at Coexist feel strongly that C&C need to offer a solution that has the community interest at heart, as the current situation is untenable”.
As it stands, there appears to be a three month break in negotiations as part of the 6 month lease extension. According to C&C, if at this point “we cannot reach agreement we will seek alternative facilities managers”. It is not clear what exactly such an agreement would look like considering the plans by C&C to assess the value of the building as well as potentially purchase another building in the area.
The eventual future of the building will impact an area that has seen rapid change in preceding decade, though the direction is far from clear.