Churchgate: should it be refurbished as a high street shopping precinct, or could there be a more creative alternative for this blighted site, the market and Hitchin's riverside?
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Background: Built in 1971, Hitchin’s Churchgate shopping centre is reaching the end of its life. The emerging North Herts Local Plan states that the entire Churchgate area (covering the shops, car parks and riverside) should be redeveloped. However, proposals over the last 20 years have failed to proceed, showing how difficult this is.
The current situation: The Council's plans for refurbishing the Churchgate Centre in association with retail developers Shearer Property Group failed to secure vital funding from the LEP - Local Enterprise Partnership - in December 2018 and are no longer live. In March 2019 our vision for the Churchgate area was incorporated into the Council's Expression of Interest for first round Future High Streets Funding to enable a feasibility study into future-proofing Hitchin's town centre, using the model explored below.
Who are we? A group of 4 passionate residents with experience of development, calling ourselves Churchgate Resurgence PB (Pro Bono) as we are working unpaid to explore what opportunities would open if the building was totally rebuilt on a mixed-use model rather than solely relying on retail. We feel this is a once in a generation chance to develop this key site in the centre of town to benefit Hitchin for generations, building in flexibility to adapt to future changes.
Why are we doing this? We came up with these ideas to try and persuade the Council to consider alternatives before deciding to proceed using the existing buildings. We feel the retail climate is currently too uncertain for committing to refurbishing an old shopping centre for perhaps another 50 years. It seems the LEP agree. Research shows that comparable towns have revived their high streets by revitalising their markets. A new covered market and street food hall with communal eating space could breathe new life into the area.
To indicate the opportunities, we produced a ‘concept’ plan and an illustrative map showing the ‘opportunities’. This is not a development proposal – we are residents, not developers.
Some facts about what is happening to town centre shopping across the UK
High Street shops are struggling across the country, facing rising business rates, changing tastes, lingering austerity and especially the move to online shopping.
Closures on Britain’s High Streets in the last six months were almost 17% higher than last year, according to recent analysis.
People are choosing to spend their money on experiences rather than goods. Memories of shared time spent together are more important to them than ‘things’.
Well-run markets are currently reversing the decline in previously failing town centres comparable to Hitchin. Altrincham is a prime example (see pic below)
Some facts about Hitchin town centre
Hitchin’s market has always been an important part of the town’s character and identity.
Although Hitchin has fared better than most towns through the recession, there have been several recent high street closures of both chains and independents, showing it is not immune to current trends.
Vacant units in December 2018 include Kenmore Interiors, New Look, Argos, Hawkins, Gatefold Record Lounge (original unit), Hinxworth Bridal, Morrisons, and CarpetRight.