NEWS COMMUNITY & SOCIETY

Maketank community arts centre closes after more than four years at the heart of Exeter cultural life

Crown Estate unwilling to renew lease after problems with roof preclude repairs in block scheduled for demolition as part of CityPoint redevelopment.

Maketank Crown estate Citypoint Paris street Princesshay Sidwell street

Maketank, an artists’ collective that transformed a vacant three-storey building in Paris Street into a thriving independent community arts centre, has been forced to close.

The venue opened in 2019 with the support of Exeter Phoenix following the closure of The Bike Shed Theatre after its eight year run in Fore Street.

Billed as a “cultural laboratory for social change”, Maketank has hosted hundreds of workshops, performances, exhibitions and events that have showcased local creativity and has supported projects including educational charity Exeter Science Centre.

It also led Exeter’s reception of Ukrainian refugees with the launch of The Conversation Café in an empty Princesshay shopping centre retail unit opposite Maketank in March last year.

The community-led resource hub will not be directly affected by Maketank’s closure.

Maketank window display Maketank window display

Maketank closed its doors on 10 October, nine months after it was first given notice that its lease would not be renewed by The Crown Estate and its partner Nuveen Real Estate.

The Crown Estate is a UK property portfolio worth around £17 billion which belongs to the British sovereign but is managed by a semi-independent body.

The notice followed the emergence of problems last year with the roof of the Maketank building which may have posed risks to its occupants and required recovering rather than running repairs.

Maketank says that The Crown Estate cited unspecified health and safety risks and “refuse[d] to enter into dialogue” despite what it describes as “enquiries and letters of support from multiple key stakeholders” including the city council, county council and university.

The Crown Estate says that all its Paris Street and Sidwell Street tenants, who have short-term and/or peppercorn leases, are aware of longer-term plans to demolish the buildings for redevelopment.

A spokesperson said: “The Crown Estate recognises the important work of Maketank in the local community and has been happy to provide premises at no cost.

“However, due to increasing health and safety concerns about the condition of the roof, we have taken the difficult decision not to further extend the lease and vacate the premises having given the tenant an additional eight months to find alternative premises.”

Maketank exhibition Maketank exhibition

The future of the area has been in doubt since the September 2017 failure of previous proposals for its redevelopment, to be led by The Crown Estate and Nuveen, which were supposed to be delivered in parallel with the council-funded construction of the bus station and leisure centre.

An extension of the existing Princesshay shopping centre was envisaged that was presented as “a comprehensive retail-leisure led mixed use development”.

Exeter City Council, which owns much of the site, granted outline planning permission for the plans in July 2016. To prepare for demolition The Crown Estate then began terminating leases on Sidwell Street and Paris Street.

The council was upbeat until September 2017 when its leader and chief executive were summoned to London to be told The Crown Estate would not be proceeding with the plans after all because of market conditions.

It subsequently commissioned an outline plan for a new development from Jones Lang LaSalle, the firm which presented the as-yet unbuilt Harlequins redevelopment proposals in 2020.

The plan, which the council agreed in December 2018, included several build to rent blocks, two hotels, extensive office space and some ground floor retail and food outlet provision.

They also included a new civic centre for the council to move into so it could redevelop its offices on the other side of the road.

It entailed the demolition of the remaining buildings on the site to enable the construction of a total of just under a million square feet of new buildings, nearly twice the size of Princesshay.

CityPoint redevelopment scheme drawing

CityPoint redevelopment scheme drawing

Businesses ranging from independent retailers to chain stories left. The council then revisited the 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.

It then reviewed the scheme’s viability again in the context of the coronavirus pandemic in June 2020, when it decided to “accelerate the development process”.

It 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 supposed to be on the basis of “very strong investor demand for opportunities in the Built to Rent sector”.

In September 2021 council leader Phil Bialyk said it was hoping to deliver the first phase of development, its new civic centre, with help of the Government Property Agency and the University of Exeter, which wants to construct an “innovation hub” on the site.

He said it would be “some years” before anything happened to the Paris Street and Sidwell Street retail units and added that the council “will want to work with whoever our partners are at the appropriate time to accommodate all those people who are currently there should they wish to remain. That is what we would want to do.”

Maketank studio Maketank studio

In August last year Jones Lang Lasalle produced a review of Exeter employment sites that forms part of the evidence base for the new Exeter Local Plan.

It said the “public sector and speculative Grade A offices” included in the CityPoint redevelopment plan were both viable and deliverable.

However it then downgraded their “deliverability” in another assessment of employment sites it produced for the new local plan evidence base three months later.

In March this year the council’s finance director said that economic conditions make the CityPoint redevelopment “challenging”, but confirmed that the council still hopes to deliver something based on the Jones Lang Lasalle plan that was now agreed nearly five years ago.

The council apparently does not consider Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and interest rate rises, and all their effects on the construction sector and property markets, sufficient cause to question the viability of the scheme despite wanting residents to accept these as major causes of Exeter City Living’s development delivery failures during the same period.

Maketank print studio Maketank print studio

The ongoing saga leaves the independent businesses and community and culture organisations that have pioneered an unplanned renaissance in the East Gate area, which the council describes as a “tired area of the city”, in perpetual precarity.

Among them Maketank is determined to continue, despite there being no sign of the council leader’s pledge to step in.

In a statement the project said it “will be using all the richness of the last five years to build a campaign for a purpose-built cultural space in the city centre, one with the capacity to support the diverse range of stakeholders Maketank has been known for – and many more”.

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