I can't imagine anyone has any real affection for St Johns Centre but it has been a familiar if not horrendously ugly part of Liverpool's urban fabric for a long time.
I personally am no fan of this insular and dated building which arguably puts two fingers up to the grandeur of St Georges Hall and Lime St. Perhaps this was because at the time of it's construction there was real talk of demolishing what today forms our civic 'quarter' including the Great North Western Hotel building.
What has brought this centre into focus for me is a recent brush with the St Johns Liverpool twitter feed. What started out as engaging in a discussion about the suitability of St Johns Centre for the Liverpool leg of the Britains Got Talent auditions become quickly an opportunity to highlight just how tired St Johns centre is and how despite massive investment in Liverpool's retail offering over the last 10 years both St Johns Centre's previous owners Land Securities and it's current owners seem to be investing as little as possible in this asset, despite it's high foot fall.
Take what you might from the above tweet but for me it suggests perhaps the owners of St Johns Centre feel it's current state is symbolic of Liverpool today, how depressing for the city.
But this attitude clearly echoes that of the rest of the area which has been increasingly down at heel for many years now, especially when you consider the success of Liverpool One which for many is a perfect example of where Liverpool can really get it right with regards to it's built environment with re-opened and re-established streets and new and varied architectural styles rubbing up against regenerated and refurbished buildings to create a real sense of place.
Clayton Square, Williamson Square, Queens Square, the former Blacklers Block, Central Station Shopping Centre all create what I refer to as an 'Axis of tat' running though the heart of Liverpool today.
Take Clayton Square, once the modern and airy glass jewel in central Liverpool's retail heart has been gradually cluttered, cheapened and now closed off to become nothing more than an mdf cut-through to central station and a shadow of it's former self playing host to pound shops, budget gyms and an over sized Boots rather than creating an impressive space with a variety of retailers both independent and large chains.
Then we have Central Station shopping centre, another element of the 'Axis of tat' that like Clayton Square and St Johns continue's to receive the 'lipstick on a pig' treatment with the bare minimum of investment in what should be a premier gateway to the city and it's underground transport network. Just imagine if Central Station shopping centre was actually sitting in the centre of London, or even the outskirts of London? I can guarantee it wouldn't be the cramped, dated and clearly under-invested in shadow of it's former self as a mainline national rail terminus.
So what is the answer? how do we take this area forward? what catalysts would be needed to ensure the centre of gravity for Liverpool's city centre doesn't continue to focus solely on the waterfront and how can the city ensure that Liverpool's front door step screams modern, forward looking and ambitious to visitors and commuters alike?
What y-imby suggests is a complete overhaul of the entire area, a 'capital' scale project that goes beyond the scope and impact of Liverpool One. Known simply as 'Central' the project would encompass St Johns, Clayton Square, Queens Square, Clayton Square, Liverpool Central Station and shopping centre, lower London Road, Bold St, St Georges Plateau, Lime St, Renshaw Street, the former 051 block and the site of the former Royal Mail depot on Copperas Hill.
It would be recommended to include the struggling Central Village scheme and former Lewis' building and also for steps to be taken to take ownership of the Britannia Adelphi Hotel which of late has seen it's reputation badly damaged and who's owners it has been reported apparently refuse to invest in this asset until the surrounding area is improved. It's our view this should all act in tandem.
A phase 1 masterplan would see the demolition of St Johns Centre and the creation of a mixed use and larger scale new focal point for central Liverpool. With the Radio City Tower retained and refurbished towering above a new opened up section of the city with new streets and spaces that would enable Church St to connect more easily with Lime St Station and encourage lower London Road and St Georges Plateau to become less isolated and part of the normal flow of activity across the city centre.
New major anchor store units could be created, similar to Liverpool One with John Lewis and Debenhams with perhaps an opportunity to bring some major retail names to Liverpool that have as yet been unable to find suitable premises, Selfridges for example. Naturally a new home for the Holiday Inn would be needed as well as space for other smaller hotel operators.
Commercial space would also be a key factor and this could go a long way to addressing Liverpool's chronic shortage of Grade A office space development today and given the site's proximity to not one but two of the UK's busiest station's - Lime St and Central - it would surely be an easy sell for any organisation looking for a new commercial HQ?
That leaves then the question of St Johns Market. Despite recent efforts to refurbish this well established market space the demand and footfall simply isn't there. Market's are flourishing in other parts of the country therefore surely St Johns Market now needs to look at why it is arguably failing and consider relocating to another part of the city centre that might allow it be more accessible and attractive? Perhaps the Ropewalks area would make more sense as a permanent outdoor space for St Johns with an international design competition launched to create a new landmark structure for the market traders and encourage new independent businesses to get involved.
Of course all of this is simply my observations and ideas for what I view as an area in desperate need of real investment, solid and reputable national developers, real international design and thinking as well as a determination to position central Liverpool as a beating commercial and retail heart for the entire north of England.
What do you think? Let us know your thoughts and ideas!