Big City Plan; Digbeth Thoughts

Author: Andy Hartwell

We have recently moved from the Custard Factory to just round the corner at Fazeley Studios. We made a conscious decision to remain in Digbeth, despite serious thought to move to the very appealing Jewelery Quarter, where we would enjoy the luxury of good bars, restaurants, and cash points! The main reason for our residing was that we have built good contacts in this area, and are excited about the potential of Digbeth, although we have been slightly frustrated by the lack of progress to date.

Thanks to bigcitytalk.org.uk I have read the Big City Plan options for Digbeth and personally believe a ‘Business Digbeth’ would be a good way to roll. As a growing media business based in lower Eastside this is the option that would best suit us.

Business Digbeth: Digbeth would become a modern city centre business quarter, involving refurbishment of the best buildings and redevelopment of the remainder. The emphasis would be on growing small to medium enterprises including high grade manufacturing, media and services which desire a city centre location. The area would become the focus for international business connected with Birmingham’s diverse working population and would be supported by a high speed next generation fibre optic network. Residential development would have a lesser role but it could include historic / iconic building conversions, live-work studios and other innovative means of enabling industrial, creative, and residential uses to work together. Improvements to the public realm would be encouraged, particularly along Digbeth High Street and High Street Deritend. This option could involve ring-fencing small areas for creative industries and developing more facilities like the Custard Factory.

Improvements to the Digbeth high street are essential. I don’t really need to highlight the fact that there are 6 lanes of traffic in some parts, and pavements that you can’t even walk up when they are crammed full of people waiting at the bus stops. It doesn’t make walking to and from Digbeth from the centre much of a pleasure. Fazeley Street and Bradford Street also have much potential for developing a link that would encourage footfall. I really like the idea of using the waterways more, and this is something that would be ideal in these areas. I was excited about the ‘Warwick Bar’ project, but massively disappointed when i heard it wasn’t going ahead.

I imagine this sort of development would be much more feasible if we were in a ‘Business Digbeth’, offering thriving SMEs a place to spend lunchtimes and evenings.

Iconic building conversions will really help get Digbeth on the map and generate the footfall that it is so desperately in need of. I believe this development would encourage restaurants, good bars and cash points(!) to the area the fastest.

Start-up Digbeth. This option would enable Digbeth to evolve as a neighbourhood where business ventures can begin. A significant proportion of the existing building stock would be protected as a way of harbouring creative and start up industries. The character of the area would continue to be derived from the industrial architecture, reusing buildings where possible, keeping the variety of small workshops interspersed with larger warehouses. Refurbishment would be confined to keeping the space operational in order to keep rents down. The streets would remain functional in character and the amount of new residential development under this option would be limited.

Isn’t this what Digbeth is at the moment? The Custard Factory alone offers start up businesses space at reasonable rates, and aims to facilitate the opportunity for creatives to work in an environment with like minds. The Gray’s already have, and are aiming to, reuse existing buildings to create studio and workshop space. In my eyes this option is already happening. A ‘Business Digbeth’ would no doubt have areas where this development would still facilitate start up businesses, and offer these businesses a network to accelerate business growth.

Living and working Digbeth: Digbeth would accommodate a significant amount of housing as a result of the redevelopment of some of its poorer industrial areas. The area as a whole would retain distinct areas of housing and employment but there would be an increased emphasis on residential. This might include student housing (if there is a continuing demand for such accommodation; demand is forecast to ease somewhat), which would help to support local activities such as the music scene and other creative industries. This option would bring more people into the area to support its local services. Digbeth would go some way towards contributing towards Birmingham’s brownfield housing needs.

Nice idea, but the existing residential areas remain largely unoccupied, and some residential development has been sat unfinished for several months. How would developing this even more help, if the current housing and live/work facilities have limited uptake? The area is directing itself towards a more commercial route, so if this is implemented effectively then eventually the residential aspect will benefit.

Our creative director Jim has just moved up to the Rotunda in the centre, after being fed up with the lack of facilities and the desolate environment he encounters in the evenings (the fact that his flat mate got beaten up and had his Christmas shopping stolen off him outside his front door didn’t help their decision much!) Is this a welcome that new residents would want?

These are my current thoughts, updates are likely to be made.