Finzels Reach: our journey to inject new life into Bristol’s medieval heart
Posted on January 10, 2019
By Gavin Bridge, director at Cubex, the developer behind Finzels Reach.
As we near completion on the first phase of Finzels Reach, we’ve been reflecting on the last six years, the ups and the downs, and the journey we went on to bring this area of the city to life. We are often asked about the approach we took, so I thought I’d pen a few words about it. Well, it’s been quite a journey (and a lot of hard work!) but it’s gratifying to see how well this new neighbourhood has been received; Bristol is a city we love, live in, work in and play in so it’s important to us that we make a real and lasting contribution.
When we first took on the neglected former brewery and sugar refinery site, it was widely acknowledged in the city as a major challenge. A previous regeneration scheme had gone into receivership, and it had stalled, leaving a single office building, only 25% let, together with 140 apartments, half of which lay empty and unsold.
Six years later, it is now becoming a flourishing new neighbourhood, opening up a part of the city that had been closed off to the public for over 200 years. Finzels Reach, one of the largest mixed-use regeneration projects in the South West, includes over 440 new homes with a range of sizes, styles and tenures that’s enabling a balanced, mixed community. As well as a landmark new green office building, there’s new contemporary workspace within unique, historic former brewery buildings, plus a new 168-bed hotel and restaurants, cafes and a microbrewery on the way.
But placemaking – giving somewhere its own unique identity and making it a place people want to be – is about much more than just buildings.
The task was not just to regenerate the site itself, injecting new energy into this part of the city, but to re-build confidence among investors and across the wider city in the market and the site itself, particularly amongst potential occupiers. We got moving on construction quickly so people could see buildings coming out the ground – after all, seeing is believing!
We made use of much of the existing planning consent to do this but also used our local knowledge to adapt the plans so that it reflected what Bristol really needed. For example, we felt the office was too large for the market, so we split it and brought in a hotel instead, and we re-examined the original plans for the bridge, getting rid of a lift idea and replacing it with a striking S-shaped bridge that improved the flow through the site.
We hear a great deal about ‘mixed-use’ development these days, but what does it really mean? In the case of Finzels Reach, it means creating a place where people can be part of a wider mixed community that is full of life, but also a destination. By having companies large and small as well as a hotel based there, there’s vibrancy in the daytime, while restaurants and cafes – the likes of Left Handed Giant and Spicer & Cole are all opening ventures soon – will bring people from across the city to the area in the evenings too. A popular weekly street food market and a string of events have also helped hugely in bringing the street scene to life.
Another important element of our approach was our decision to create the public space early on, putting in new streets and communal landscaped spaces first, rather than waiting until after the buildings were in place. Whilst this poses a challenge from a construction point of view, as it is, after all, a tight site, it helped to encourage people to use the space in the early days, so potential future occupiers and residents could envisage what the area would be like.
Engagement with the wider city was also vital. We wanted people not only to know about the emergence of this new part of town, but to feel part of it. We invited the city in and opened up the conversation with the public about what was coming and how it was progressing. For example, we wanted the public to feel they had a sense of ownership of the new bridge connecting the site to the city centre and Castle Park, so we ran a competition to name it.
We also felt it was crucial to future-proof the development and push the bar in terms of quality in all aspects of the project. Our speculative office building, Aurora, is the most sustainable outside London and has been designed so it is fit for the future in terms of its technological capabilities. We brought build-to-rent to the site, a model that originated in the US, providing professionally-managed homes specifically for rent. We also paid careful attention to sensitively mixing new architecture with old, carefully blending the two to make the heritage of the buildings sing. This has helped give the area its own individual personality, providing homes and quirky workspace that are completely unique.
For us, it’s been important to make a difference to Bristol in a positive way and we hope we’ve been able to achieve this through our work at Finzels Reach. It’s also an example of how as a Bristol-based company we have attracted funding from Asia, the US and the Middle East to invest in Bristol, and we are keen to go again. Here’s to a new year and a new horizon, and in the case of Finzels Reach – one just over the road where we have plans for phase two!