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Clifton eyesore may undergo partial ‘community buyout’

After a decade of failed attempts to redevelop the former WH Smith building on Clifton Down Road, the owner is now in talks with local residents interested in buying back part of the site.

A pedestrianised street corner with tables and chairs, and period shopfronts in the background.

Local campaigners’ vision for widening Kings Road into an improved public space.

Area in Focus

Boyce’s Avenue is pedestrianised, lined with cafe seating and greengrocers’ stalls. There’s a florist, a charity shop and other independent businesses – just what you would expect from a quaint pocket of Clifton Village. But if you turn around you’re greeted with large, ugly, graffitied hoardings. 

The hoardings have been there for two years, since a prominent eyesore was demolished after lying unused since 2014. It looked like the redevelopment of the former WH Smith building would finally happen after the site’s owners got planning permission in 2020 to turn it into a three-storey block of shops, cafes and offices. The plans won the backing of local councillors, but were slammed by community groups as “stark and brutalist”. 

Owner THAT Group announced in July that the development plans were no longer viable because of exponential rises in construction costs. 

Now plans are emerging for a partial community buyout of the site. According to Green councillor Paula O’Rourke and the Clifton and Hotwells Improvement Society (CHIS), THAT Group is now open to a community buyout of part of the site. But as much as £3m could be needed. 

In recent years, Bristol has seen communities coming together to reclaim beloved buildings, from the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft to the Exchange in Old Market. But in this case, what does ‘community buyout’ actually mean? A few rich Cliftonites waving their cheque books? Or a genuine attempt to reclaim public space for residents to enjoy?

‘A new version of an old idea’

I meet members of CHIS for a coffee at Caffè Nero, one of the only chain stores on the streets bordering the now empty site. 

The group celebrated when it was announced that the development plans were no longer viable. The most recently planned building was “far too dominant, monolithic and architecturally uninteresting”, says Chris Jefferies. “We are very relieved that isn’t going to happen. It would have been… in some ways more of an eyesore than the old post war building.”

Jefferies eagerly pushes across the table an image of a different vision for the site. 

Despite some scepticism when this idea was first proposed years ago, he says: “Now people are starting to think, presumably because they’ve got so fed up with seeing what is there now…perhaps we could do something positive for this area.”

The former WH Smith site in the heart of Clifton Village has been derelict for almost a decade.

The image shows Kings Road widened to create an elongated square with market stalls, trees and seating, while the rest of the site could still be developed into shops or restaurants. It’s a design that CHIS commissioned to show what things could look like if the developer sold off around 40% of the site to the community.

Jefferies says the developer is “extremely interested” in the idea, and that there are an unknown number of residents willing to splash out to make it a reality. 

What does the community want?

Green councillor Paula O’Rourke has also been having conversations with the developer about the future of the site. She says what residents tell her most often is that they want some kind of green space or square with benches. 

O’Rourke’s view is that bringing economic activity to the area is the priority. “Clifton is a town centre and that boost to the local economy that would come from offices, a hotel or even residential,” she says. “I would like to see it as a dynamic commercial site.

“What I’m keen for [the developer] to do this time is to get the opinions of local people,” she continues. “I’ve talked about elements of co-design of the site, at an early stage. And I think there’s an appetite for that, not to bring forward a design proposal that is unacceptable. 

“I’m very concerned that we’re going to be left looking at that hoarding and that is absolutely not what we want,” O’Rourke says. “I’ll do anything to get those hoardings down, but there has to be an economic argument for the developer.”

While conversations rumble on about the long-term future of the site, O’Rourke is keen to see temporary uses, such as installing shipping containers that businesses can rent out, or hosting a Christmas market.

Out and about on the surrounding streets, we speak to Jane Lagado, who has lived in the area over 30 years. “They’re talking about containers, like in Wapping Wharf, which won’t be good for here,” she says, adding that it is a “scandal” the site has sat derelict for nine years.

Jane is critical of the previous plans. “It was too big, going from two- to three-storey, it wasn’t green,” she says. “It was a disaster, so I’m very pleased [about plans being scrapped]. They’re now saying it would cost too much to develop. It’s all about money.”

Her ideal outcome would be some public space with places to sit. This is also the view of Sue Wells, who has lived in the area for 10 years. “I had this fantasy, we could have a square with a fountain with some shops around it,” she says. “A little community area, because there isn’t anywhere like that in Clifton Village. I like the idea of a communal, open space, with seats, and a fountain.”

When I explain the vision of a community buyout, she replies: “That sounds great. There’s plenty of people around that would want to contribute to something like that.”

Negative impact on local traders

The other key local voices are businesses surrounding the site. Roshdi Lasisi, who runs Clifton Fruit and Veg, says the disused building and then the hoardings have had a negative impact on his business. 

I’d like to see some kind of public space – anything is prettier than the current view.

“It’s been nine years, there were always plans and it never worked. We’re waiting for something better… It’s a really great spot but it’s not good to be closed and empty for so many years. 

“More businesses would be amazing for the village, because it brings more people to the area,” he adds. 

He points at the grim view of the hoardings across the street. “When people sit down next door in a café, they want to see some green, maybe.”

When I ask about the idea of the community buyout and creating more public space, he is supportive. “Hopefully that plan works… If I won the lottery, I’d have a lovely business there.”

Anastasia Stockton is assistant manager of Mercy Mercy Mercy, a café that has just opened on the corner of King Street and Boyces Avenue. It’s run by the same people behind Sunday General, a bakery on the site that closed in January. 

“I’d like to see some kind of public space, not offices,” she says. “And nothing that will block out the natural light. Anything prettier than the current view.

She supports the idea of a community buyout of the space and would welcome new businesses coming to the area, either temporarily if the site was opened up, or in the permanent development. 

“It’s all about independent. Something like Starbucks would upset a lot of people. You’ll be welcomed as long as you’re not a chain.”

What does a community buyout actually look like?

After further meetings with That Group, Jefferies from CHIS says: “The CEO of THAT Group has confirmed that, should a community group be in a position to purchase part of that former WH Smith site, then he is committed to making it happen.” 

Jefferies adds that THAT Group is now working on different proposals for the rest of the site that could go alongside the partial community buyout, ahead of negotiations on the right price, and which section of the site would be offered for sale. 

O’Rourke confirms the developer is increasingly interested in this option. But she has concerns about the community buyout, and even in Clifton, raising the rumoured cost of £3m feels like a “long shot”. 

“There are still lots of questions,” she says. “Who would want to put such large amounts of money into it, and what would they want to achieve?”

But she is still determined to “do everything she can to support” the community effort.

Peter Tisdale, the chief executive of THAT Group, did not respond to our requests for an interview.

“There is considerable interest now,” Jefferies says. “Both sides are hoping an agreement can be reached, so that something of benefit to the community can happen.”

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