Positive Light Projects, a community arts initiative led by photographer and former Exeter College lecturer Brendan Barry, opened a new education and resource centre earlier this month in the Sidwell Street building that used to contain clothing chain Peacocks.
It is one of several organisations which have taken advantage of the opportunity to move into empty buildings which were prematurely cleared because of plans to redevelop what is now known as the CityPoint development site but was previously intended to be an extension of Princesshay shopping centre.
These include Maketank, an artists’ collective which has transformed a three-storey building on Paris Street into a creative, rehearsal and performance space and ArtWork Exeter, which is based in the Awesome Art Space gallery further down the street.
Independent retailers including houseplant specialist Hutch, wine, cheese and cider supplier Pullo, the Cuckoo taproom and bottleshop and Kids Hub Coffee, a cafe with children’s play area, have also set up shop there.
The east side of Paris Street has been visibly transformed, and a similar process is underway on the south side of Sidwell Street, where Positive Light Projects has joined The Sidwell Street Bakehouse, a St Sidwell’s Community Centre project which trains volunteers in craft bread baking and sells high-quality loaves in what was a branch of Halfords.
After negotiating a lease on the old Peacocks building, Brendan Barry has spent the past few months, aided latterly by a team of volunteers, turning its three dreary floors into artist studios, project and gallery space, a darkroom and photography studio, meeting spaces for creatives to mix and mingle and office, private study and studio space for local groups.
The ground floor, which retains the former shop windows, is particularly flexible, being a large single space with new moveable walls which can be used to subdivide it.
He describes Positive Light Projects as “a not for profit organisation using the visual arts to engage and inspire a diverse range of audiences and communities as well as developing emerging artists and aiding them move their practice forward in exciting and innovative ways” and says it has “a focus on and strong belief in community based, socially engaged creative practice”.
It is incorporated as a community interest company and the appointment of a full board of directors is underway.
Mr Barry does not envisage a formal grand opening, but intends to bring the facilities on stream as they become available for use. His business model is based on providing a mix of facilities and activities, some chargeable, some not. His aim is that the project will become as self-sufficient as possible.
Planned activities include:
- Courses for developing and emerging practitioners
- Workshops covering contemporary and traditional technical and contextual approaches to photography and the visual arts
- Talks by internationally-recognised artists on their work and professional practice
- Symposia exploring concepts within and approaches to the visual arts
- Exhibitions of the work of high profile and emerging artists
- Community art showcases
- Resident practitioners who create work on site
- Commissions which fund the production of new work.
The first Positive Light Projects course, in photographic skills, began on 9 July and is being delivered in partnership with Exeter’s CoLab and Exeter Homeless Partnership. People with lived experience of homelessness have been encouraged to take part.
Funding is a major challenge for community start-ups. Positive Light Projects raised more than £35,000 from 405 supporters in 35 days via a successful Crowdfunder campaign. Brendan Barry emphasises that all those people have invested emotionally as well as financially in the project.
A further £15,000 was provided from locality budgets held by Devon county and Exeter city Councillors. Mr Barry says that building refurbishment works will cost £45,000 and the remainder will be used for community projects planned for the rest of the summer.
More recently Exeter City Council awarded the project just over £12,500 from its strategic fund, which is aimed at refurbishing community buildings.
Amal Ghusain, lead councillor for culture and communities, said: “Positive Light is a fantastic project that is playing an important role in reinvigorating Sidwell Street and could be the spark for other artistic and cultural initiatives to follow and take root.”
However Exeter City Council intends a major redevelopment of the site bounded by Sidwell Street, Paris Street and Cheeke Street, which includes the new bus station and St Sidwell’s Point leisure centre as well as Positive Light Projects and its independent neighbours.
Its plans have their origin in the September 2017 failure of previous private sector-led proposals for its redevelopment, which were supposed to be delivered in parallel with the publicly-funded construction of the bus station and leisure centre.
The private sector redevelopment was to be led by joint landowner The Crown Estate, a UK property portfolio which belongs to the British sovereign but is managed by a semi-independent body, and its development partner TH Real Estate.
It was envisaged as an extension of the existing Princesshay shopping centre and presented as “a comprehensive retail-leisure led mixed use development”.
The plans received outline planning approval from Exeter City Council in July 2016. To prepare for demolition The Crown Estate then began terminating leases on Sidwell Street and Paris Street.
The city council was upbeat until September 2017 when its leader and chief executive were summoned to London. There The Crown Estate explained it would not be proceeding with its development plans, citing market conditions. A public announcement followed a few days later.
At the same time, the contractor being lined up by the council to build the leisure complex and new bus station also withdrew its interest in proceeding.
The city council subsequently found a new contractor and started work on the publicly-owned part of the site. The new bus station is due to open on Sunday and St Sidwell’s Point later this year.
To fill the void left by The Crown Estate’s change of plan, the council commissioned a consultancy study of alternative uses for the site from Jones Lang LaSalle, the firm which presented the controversial redevelopment proposals for Harlequins shopping centre last year.
This set out an outline plan for a new development including several build to rent blocks with hotel accommodation, retail and cafes, office space and a new civic centre. What was now to be called CityPoint would involve the demolition of the remaining buildings on the site and the construction of a total of just under a million square feet of new buildings, just short of double the size of Princesshay.
The outline was presented to councillors in December 2018 and officers were authorised to work up a development plan.
Meanwhile, the commercial life of Paris Street and the south side of Sidwell Street decayed as businesses either decided they had no future in an area of planning blight or were compelled to leave because their leases were being terminated.
Chain stores Peacocks and Halfords vacated their Sidwell Street premises and Paris Street lost the community-owned Real Food Store café and shop. This was forced to split in two, the shop successfully relocating to Queen Street but the café subsequently closing after moving to the foyer of Exeter’s central library. Other small businesses also closed.
The city council Executive then revisited its redevelopment plan in September 2019, when it agreed to progress the scheme by entering into a joint ownership and land promotion agreement with the other main partners, and again in June last year, when it reviewed the scheme’s viability in the context of the coronavirus pandemic and decided to press on by accelerating the redevelopment process.
The city council, again following advice from Jones Lang LaSalle, said it was “keen to ensure that we look to maintain momentum on key projects such as this which will define the city’s future as we emerge from the pandemic”. This was principally on the basis of “very strong investor demand for opportunities in the Built to Rent sector”.
Empty shop premises are to no one’s advantage. They are an eyesore and the fabric of the buildings that houses them suffers through lack of daily use and maintenance. The city’s trading offer is reduced and their landlords have no rental income.
Rather than demolish and rebuild to suit the interests of investors and property developers, the way that independent businesses and organisations have stepped in to fill the unplanned voids on Paris Street and Sidwell Street may present a better way forward for the city centre.
They have successfully negotiated viable, if not long-term, leases, are providing paid and voluntary local employment opportunities and are ensuring that any profits remain in the city rather than being extracted by remote corporate shareholders.
Positive Light Projects has been able to transform the old Peacocks building with support from both the community and a network of partner organisations. Alongside CoLab and the Exeter Homeless Partnership, Exeter Phoenix and Exeter College are also involved: the new creative hub hosted the college’s annual Diploma Art and Design Exhibition in June.
Brendan Barry sees partnerships as a way of building trust in what Positive Light Projects has to offer. He believes that many of the people he wants to engage are unlikely to respond to a “Welcome, come in!” sign on the front door, and will need to be encouraged by others to put themselves forward.
When asked whether he feels secure about the future, he answers in the negative. He recognises that the shadow of CityPoint means that he and the other tenants in the area could be required to vacate their premises at any time if redevelopment becomes a reality.
Meanwhile, the city is witnessing the transformation – however temporary – of standard retail units into a series of unique locally-run businesses which strengthen the community, enhance the city’s cultural offering and are making strides towards building a better Exeter without a demolition order in sight.