In the last few days The ARTches, the proposed development of the Hotwalls area in Old Portsmouth in to an arts & craft quarter, has become a contentious issue on social media like Facebook and Twitter and more importantly under the formal planning application at Portsmouth City Council. If you are unfamiliar with this development proposal, we featured it recently during the previous public consultation and you can read that HERE. Sadly, and maybe unsurprisingly, the debate has polarised with roughly the lines drawn with some local residents with an against petition that has been running for a couple of weeks and a new for petition launched this week. We’ve spent a little time looking at both sides of the argument and have come up with our own position and the reasons behind it.
First up, Strong Island have to express some bias from the outset. I say bias but this also sheds a little light on the beginnings of this project. Back in 2011 Strong Island were asked to partner up with Portsmouth City Council and the University of Portsmouth with the Strong Island Exhibition at the Round Tower. The Round Tower is an incredible structure and in many ways more interesting and historic than the popular Square Tower yet it had been derelict for decades. PCC despite not having much funding strived to help make the place suitable for use again and with the help of local architects Deer Park Alpha the building (with it’s leaky roof) was home to a local arts exhibition that attracted over 6000 visitors in two weeks. We felt the project was a huge success and was also an indicator that the area itself would, for many reasons (some stated below), be a perfect location to be developed in to an arts quarter. You can find out more about the exhibition by watching the film HERE.
The Strong Island Exhibition was not the first use of the area for the arts, not even close. As many, many city residents and visitors will no doubt know the arches have been an unofficial home to artists for decades, with people at work there as well as selling their work. In recent years there has also been highly successful events with Portsmouth Creative Movement (a collective of local artists, designers, etc.) as well as markets in and around the Square Tower. Since 2011 the Round Tower has also been home to a variety of cultural activities including film and music performances and exhibitions. So it’s fair to say this space has a recent history of successful community & cultural usage. Also, from what I can see, with very little complaint.
One reason for the interest in this particular part of Portsmouth is it’s location on the Solent and it being an intigral part of the architectural heritage of the city itself. The space is also part of the Millennium Walk which has been shown to be one of the Portsmouth locations with the biggest footfall, even on winter days you’ll see people walking and exploring. The walls and towers of this area are protected and rightly so. Saying that…you have to remember that this area was also semi derelict barracks for many, many years…both an eyesore and criminally neglected & underused. The Round Tower and arches have actually only really been brought up to good repair in the last 18 months with a new roof and the arches bricks fixed or replaced where required. Sadly, historic spaces can no longer be frozen in time anymore. With local councils all over the UK having their budgets cut maintenance for these buildings and spaces is no longer a trivial budgetary matter. Apart from a raise in Council Tax the other easy option is to find a way of the building or space generating income and become self sustaining. The Square Tower is a good example of where this may be possible…but what about the Arches Cafe? Quite simply, locations and plans such as this have to be made up of different businesses, each of which feed in to the other. A visitor to the gallery may visit an artist studio and buy a piece of work, then buy food or drink. Businesses in isolation will find things difficult where working together they can succeed and it is also worth considering the wider location with it’s businesses too. Saying that, a considered business plan is vital and as of now it seems that this is an area for discussion with maybe more detail required in the plans.
There is absolutely no doubt the area is of local historical importance. The Round Tower is in many ways far more important than the arches, with it’s original wooden tower one of the first buildings of note for the city way back in it’s past. For the improvements already done with the Round Tower and for the ARTches development English Heritage have been heavily consulted and going by what I have heard from good sources they have been enthusiastic. The architects for the ARTches project are PLC Architects, who clearly have a very real understanding for developments within historic, protected spaces…demonstrated with their Conservation Award this year from the Royal Institute of British Architects for the development of Spitbank Fort. Spitbank Fort, a local, historic structure sympathetically developed in to a successful business drawing visitors from all over the UK and further afield. I’m no expert…but I’m willing to defer to English Heritage and RIBA when it comes to these things.
Strong Island wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the art and craft creativity expressed by local artists, designers, photographers, painters and more. More than ever the creative sector in the city is flourishing with individuals and businesses excelling not only locally but also nationally and internationally. Portsmouth has no reason culturally for not being able to support the ARTches project with the gallery space and artist studios likely to be heavily over subscribed. The artist studios in the development we believe seek to support local artists and businesses and also bring them wider exposure to the general public. Collective studio spaces have been shown to work in many shapes and forms and we have some new and established businesses like this already in Portsmouth. Maybe, for an example of success in a similar vein consider Farnham Maltings, up the A3. Who wouldn’t want something similar like that locally? Art, craft, jewellery design of excellent quality showcasing local talent and just as importantly allowing people to sell and buy…all helping the local economy. It goes without saying that there are already artists within the city who can command significant money for their work. There IS money in art. More importantly, other towns and cities have actually done very similar developments, with Old Leigh in Southend-on-Sea a great mix of local art, craft and fresh shellfish and Exeter Quayside a waterside row of arches packed with culture and a real tourist draw. There may be questions over the details but it’s pretty clear, Portsmouth doesn’t only want a cultural quarter, it NEEDS it.
I can’t help but think there are still some issues with both the development and the idea to leave it as it is. Parking is always a problem in this city and the more successful ARTches becomes, the busier it gets and the pressure on spaces builds. Is that a reason to stifle cultural development and creating a new visitor attraction…no. What if the new Mary Rose museum was stopped because there was no extra parking capacity at the Dockyard’s carpark…? The city would have suffered. On top of that the area in general has great public transport links and is very close to Gunwharf and The Common. What is vital is a reasonable, realistic and sustainable business model and that is something everyone wants to see. On the whole, despite the local objections I can’t help but feel that if the development protects the historic structure for future generations, supports culture within the city and help attract visitors to Portsmouth it can only be a good thing for everyone.
Whatever your view, for or against, the most important thing is to make sure your opinion is heard. Let Portsmouth City Council know if you approve or object and let them know why by adding your comment to the application online HERE (type the ref No. in the box 13/01017/FUL). You can also sign the for and against petitions too, yet these may not have any direct influence on the planning application.
Whatever happens…apathy and cynicism will certainly never improve Portsmouth for the better, be sure to get involved in the decision making going on right now.
Great to see that even this conversation on the ARTches development has inspired local creativity, with Andrew Whyte’s diminutive yet internationally recognised Legography photographer getting in on the debate: