Exciting plans approved
Bold and ambitious plans for the development of the site of the former Mecca Bingo hall in the High Street were approved by Ashford Borough Council’s Cabinet, with the scheme heralded as a major part of a wider town centre regeneration strategy.
The proposals cover the old bingo hall site and also the council-owned Vicarage Lane car park. It will, subject to planning permission, deliver an exciting mix of high-quality residential and commercial uses together with improved public realm, indoor and outdoor performance and event spaces, and new community facilities.
The scheme is expected to have a vital role in creating a vibrant town centre with the aim of attracting investment, drawing more people into the area and creating jobs.
After the Council acquired the site in March 2018, it appointed consultants Ash Sakula to prepare a concept design. The Ash Sakula vision involves the partial demolition of the rear of the existing Mecca building (the bulky rear auditorium) with the façade and first-floor rooms fronting the High Street (the old ballroom) being retained and converted to provide for a community event space.
At ground floor level the existing foyer will be knocked through to accommodate an arcade forming a pedestrian link between a larger outdoor performance space and the Lower High Street. The performance space will be surrounded by food and beverage and retail outlets. On that part of the site which is currently Vicarage Lane car park and fronting Station Road, will be around 61 homes, with a mix of houses and flats. There will also be some studio / work spaces along St John’s Lane.
To compensate for the loss of parking spaces in Vicarage Lane, the Council is planning to build a multi-storey car park behind the Hollywood Bowl on Station Road. The aim is to deliver the two projects in tandem so that there is no loss of town centre parking.
Cabinet was reminded that consideration had been given to using the old bingo hall as a theatre but after taking advice on the feasibility and viability of a large-scale theatre there it had been concluded that this use would not be appropriate. However the exercise confirmed that Ashford may be able to accommodate a theatre and the search for a more suitable location is now “a sharp focus,” councillors were told.
Cabinet members heard that the Council has considered the different options for delivering the Ash Sakula scheme. These included selling the site to a developer, developing the scheme using in-house resources only, delivering the project with a specialist Development Manager, or negotiating a Joint Venture with a third party.
After careful consideration, it was decided to work with a Development Manager. This option provides many benefits, including allowing the Council to retain as much design and quality control as possible, while combining the Council’s existing in-house skills with the expertise and industry know-how of a Development Manager.
The Council will now press ahead with detailed preparations before a planning application is brought forward. Consultants will be appointed, including an architect, a quantity surveyor, a planning consultant and a Development Manager.
Cabinet voted to allocate funding to ensure the delivery of the scheme, to be met from the use of reserves and borrowing where necessary.
Council Leader, Cllr Gerry Clarkson, welcomed the plans, describing them as a vital part of the transformation of the town centre.
He said: “Having taken expert advice on our options for developing this prominent site we now have a clear vision for the way ahead. Of course we have been well aware that there is a good deal of public support for a theatre and as I have said previously, we are open to that suggestion. I believe that with Ashford and surrounding areas growing, our catchment may be becoming large enough to sustain a theatre, and work is underway to identify a suitable location.”
He also put forward an extra recommendation that; ‘Discussions continue with local residents and businesses to refine the delivery of the scheme that will enable it to earn general support’, to ensure there continues to be plenty of opportunities for residents to shape the scheme. This was agreed by Cabinet.
Cllr Graham Galpin, portfolio holder for corporate property, said Ash Sakula had provided an exciting preview of the possibilities available on the site.
“The repurposing of the Vicarage Lane car park to bring new residents and businesses into the town centre is an important project. It provides vibrant town spaces and improved access to cultural assets and performance areas.
“The decision to use a Development Management process, under our control, considerably de-risks a project where the risks have already been mitigated. It also allows local residents to receive an improved return on their investment, thereby underwriting service delivery.”
Cllr Neil Shorter, portfolio holder for finance, said: “This project will transform not only the lower high street but the wider town centre. By bringing residential and small scale commercial opportunities into this area, a lively sub culture will be created providing a destination for visitors and locals alike.
“By retaining control of the design of the project due to its delivery model, not only will residents benefit from the financial return, profit will not outweigh the design and social benefits to be enjoyed by the town.”