Friday, 11 April 2014

Paradise Towers

"Build high for happiness" was the catchphrase used by the residents of Paradise Towers, in the Doctor Who story of that name. It would have been appropriate for Deputy Rob Duhamel who was sharing with the Chamber of Commerce his vision for St Helier's urban future.

The title seemed promising enough, and if it had been the Constable, Simon Crowcroft, giving the talk, I would imagine we would have had some very positive and realistic ideas put forward for the Town. Instead, we had a panorama of different buildings, some very modern styles, some very unusual ones, and alongside this, by way of soundtrack, Deputy Duhamel taking the audience on what can only be described as a journey Over the Rainbow to the Land of Oz, in which the boundaries of St Helier should be delineated by planting nut trees.

Building high was one of the Deputy's few realistic proposals, as he said this would avoid urban sprawl outwards. But then we had the idea that flats should become more centres of community, and more personalised. They might have green bushes growing up their walls. New flats might have a communal swimming pool. Quite who would pay for all this and maintain it never seemed to cross the Deputy's mind.

I know some flats have been too small, and there are good grounds for stipulating minimum sizes for internal spaces, but while the Constable was talking about this on BBC Radio this morning, that aspect did not appear as much a priority in the Deputy's remarks as he took us on his tour.

Although my concentration was drifting at that point, I'm pretty sure about the communal swimming pool. I know that the flats in Paradise Towers had such a facility, and it seemed strange that the good Deputy should be thinking along the same lines. There should also be spaces within buildings, and to the side of buildings, and balconies, and bright, bold, colour schemes. And urban farms, or something urban where green things grow. And the buildings would be tall, to avoid urban sprawl. Although not 30 stories, which is what he said was really tall. 10-15 stories, I assume, would be fine in the Deputy's vision.

Presumably we would be able to avoid the tall ugly buildings that stand out along St Clement - Les Marais Flats. The Deputy's vision, to go by the pictures, would have large rounded corners, curved surfaces, lots of sparkly glass surfaces, or if square would have multicoloured walls, and not look anything like Les Marais.

But would St Helier really take avante garde designs, and would they be liveable in? Would transporting a pastiche of Valencia modern architecture to Jersey work? One can, by the way, see why the Deputy is enamoured of Dandara's reflective glass design for offices.

Of course, most of us live in the real world, and there, buildings get run down, with broken lifts, and need maintenance and cleaning. Urban farms on rooftops would require even more. And spaces beside buildings are ideal places for trapping litter. Bold colour schemes need repainting, and would they really be that nice?

I know people say that the vivid custard yellow of Normans has grown on people, but I can number at least several dozen people who still think it is something to tolerate. That is not so important for a brand image. Go-compare gained notoriety by having an advertisement that everyone hated. And the same is true of buildings selling a brand. But would you want to live in something that colour?

Meanwhile, Deputy Duhamel was telling us that people now identified where they lived by postcode, and needed to regain a sense of place. I don't know what strange people he has been talking to, but while I may identify my address by postcode when online entering forms, if I want to give someone directions for where I live, I would say 24 Moonshine Apartments, Gloucester Street, and not 24 Moonshine Apartments, JE2 4QX.

People don't as a rule think of where they live by postcode, but Deputy Duhamel seemed to think they did. Perhaps he'd been reading too much science fiction. This talk about "personalising an address" did not chime with how people in the real world behave, although I could imagine such a scenario in Isaac Asimov's "Caves of Steel". Is the Deputy confusing fiction with reality, I wondered, as I know he is an aficionado of Asimov's works?

He went on about the fact that we needed to rethink places like the Central Market as they declined. Clearly, he doesn't visit the Central Market much. It is bristling with stalls, and to use his favourite adjective, is vibrant. Fruit, vegetable, flower stalls, places for snacks and refreshment, the Red Triangle stores, chocolate shop etc. It still has charm and character. The main threat to the Central Market is the idiotic scheme to knock down the short term shopper's car park at Minden Place, which I believe is still somewhere in the future planning stage.

Now St Peter Port'sMmarket did need to be rethought and revitalised. It was quite different. I remember going to Guernsey, and it became steadily more run down, more empty, until it closed. It had a great disadvantage; it did not have a central fountain, and a great canopy of a roof, and was more long aisles with stalls one side or sometimes both. It lacked the character that St Helier's market has.

St Peter Port has urban sprawl, but it also has a very attractive town centre, with cobbled lanes, and a harbour that is delightful to look out on. While the Deputy (and Simon Crowcroft this morning) criticised the urban sprawl all the way to St Samsons, they didn't say much about the charm which the centre of St Peter Port has, and which is rather missing from St Helier.

And along went the Deputy, churning out clichés and truisms as if he had pillaged an entire dictionary. One man's meat is another man's poison. We are all different. None of us are the same. We are all individuals. And as the Old Harbour is no longer a trade port, how about removing the boats which have lost their raison d'etre for being there (as they are not commercial), filling in the Old Harbour and replacing it with flats. I suppose you can't expect a talk by Rob Duhamel not to have trademark lunacy somewhere there.

This was a build up to the grand finale, in which he showed us a photo montage from above of what "La Collette Village" would look like with St Malo superimposed on it. There's all that reclaimed land, it's just warehouses, it is ugly, and it could be a whole community of buildings for people to live in. The incinerator could be build elsewhere when it needs replacing. The fuel farm could be moved elsewhere. We were not told where. That's the kind of messy detail that spoils a fantasy.

By this time, the talk had rambled probably far over an hour, and most people, as I looked around, seemed to have lost concentration, fallen asleep, or were using their smart phones. Deputy Sean Power obviously thought it was a good time to catch up on the news about RBC and the waterfront, and tweet on it. Events were overtaking Deputy Duhamel's visions, and even Senator Philip Ozouf's vision of an International Finance Centre.

The Deputy eventually came to the end of his talk, and there was a moment for questions. There wasn't a question, but one person did speak up to say they didn't agree with the Deputy's vision, and that some of us had work to do rather than spending something more like two lunch hours at the event. No questions, because people were desperate to get away, and back to their offices!

The event was packed, but I suspect if the Deputy speaks again, it will be the long haul for those with stamina, and the numbers will be considerably less. The Chamber clearly needs to set firm guidelines in place for a talk, or people will simply stay away.

There are going to be workshops, and other seminars to look at a "Future of St Helier" strategy, with a hash tag #futuresthelier. Unless they are radically different from the contents of this talk, I can't see much in the way of attendance. Talking shops are all very well, but as Simon Crowcroft said this morning, there are a lot of good ideas already in the pipeline which need addressing.

The problem with the Deputy's ideas is that they present very large pictures, but have no fine details at all. It's like looking at mountains, and thinking it would be nice to climb them, but without looking at training and gear. It lacks feasibility.

What would I like to see on the table for the future of St Helier? These are rapidly sketched ideas, and may not be much good. But they are all feasible. They look at what is there, and how we can work with it, and develop it.

Parking - getting short term commuters in and out, and also parking for office workers who, after all, often use St Helier's refreshment facilities during lunch times. Minden Place should not go until there is a replacement catering for the same number of cars. Congestion was also mentioned by the Constable this morning; it was scarcely touched upon with any realistic suggestions by the Deputy.

Blended design - where there are modern buildings of glass and steel, more will blend in. But where there are older historic buildings, modern ones unless designed to fit, stand out like a sore thumb.

Older buildings - these are often now multiple flats, and some are kept well, flower beds, while others are positively tatty. Something needs to be done to address this.

Civic pride - any festivals, bands marching down King Street (I remember that was daily in the Summer) is not only good for tourists, but instils a sense in which St Helier is a place to be proud of.

Rentals and leases - a look into high rentals and terms of leases in St Helier. Despite assurances, there still seem to be a large number of empty shop fronts.

Revitalised harbour - buses, café - where did they go? It is a scandal that the Ministers responsible  - EDD and TTS - haven't done much about this at all beyond shrugging shoulders.

Keep fit walks - leaflets giving historical and / or spotters guides - good for tourists, good for locals to keep fit and go different ways through town in lunch hours. Younger children would appreciate an "Eye Spy" leaflet, especially if it ended at one of the parks.

I'm sure other people can come up with better ideas, and if I get enough, I'll do another blog!

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