Worthwhile uses for meanwhile spaces

Charlotte Hutchinson, Carter Jonas, looks at meanwhile spaces, the concept of temporary occupancy of an empty space awaiting redevelopment, and their benefits to local communities.

Related topics:  Commercial,  Meanwhile Spaces,  Empty
Property | Reporter
23rd February 2024
Empty Space 585
"By providing a community arts or sports facility, a market or a food hall, the developer is effectively ‘testing the water’ for permanent use of this type – a very effective form of market research"
- Charlotte Hutchinson - Carter Jonas

Despite the Letwin Independent Review of Build Out largely exonerating the development industry of ‘landbanking’, developers are all too often criticised for leaving prime sites dormant behind hoardings.

But as those reading this will know, delay in progressing a development is rarely the choice of the developer: it is the unfortunate result of a range of issues. Letwin identified market absorption as the main reason for delay and other issues, then and now, have concerned planning hold-ups, a construction industry staff shortage and difficulty of obtaining building materials.

More recently the problem has been exacerbated by planning moratoriums on nutrient neutrality and electrical capacity, and local planning authorities stalling on decision-making due to political uncertainty.

If the gap between the developer’s commitment to a site and the first spade in the ground has grown, it is rarely at the behest of the developer, whose raison d'être is to develop.

This is demonstrated by Carter Jonas’ clients up and down the country who are compensating for unavoidable delays in the most positive way possible – creating worthwhile ‘meanwhile uses’ on development sites.

The Evolution of meanwhile uses

Charlotte Hutchinson, in Carter Jonas’ London office, explains the evolution of meanwhile uses: ‘A meanwhile use is the short-term use of a temporarily empty building or site which is awaiting redevelopment or has a permission in place which is yet to be implemented.

In London, meanwhile uses have been utilised for over ten years – from Flat Iron Square, Bankside’s popular food, drink and event destination, to King’s Cross’ iconic art installation and natural swimming pond Of Soil and Water.

At Elephant and Castle, Charlotte explains, ‘Lendlease introduced its highly successful Mercato Metropolitano at a disused paper factory. It gave new food and beverage businesses the opportunity to 'incubate’ in a purposely designed new business hub.

This concept proves highly successful and can be seen in cities across the country, allowing owners to test the market for their business ideas without committing to the ongoing cost of rent and business rates as is usually necessary. Ultimately those who may not have done so otherwise are allowed to start a business.

The social value of such spaces is now being recognised. Say, for example, someone who enjoys cooking for their family and friends and sees a gap in the market for their food.

They may wonder if they could turn their interest into a viable business. Initially they may take on a market stall, moving into a semi-permanent space within a dedicated meanwhile space with other vendors. This would attract footfall and then, with the reassurance that the food is popular, they may open a restaurant. It’s a good news story all round!’

Meanwhile uses in Cambridge

On the outskirts of Cambridge, Richard Seamark is working with, U+I on the regeneration of a former water treatment works. The 47-hectare site, part of the wider Cambridge Northern Fringe East will eventually host over 5,000 homes, office/ lab and employment space and a new district centre which will include a mix of retail, hotel, community and leisure, education and public spaces.

U+I’s vision for the area is to ‘draw on the innovative Cambridge environment and create a socially and economically inclusive, thriving, and low-carbon place for living and working’ and to ‘create a distinctive new part of Cambridge that will offer an amazing quality of life and respond to many of the challenges of the 21st century’.

In line with this philosophy, U+I is looking to fully embrace the concept of using meanwhile uses. The benefits are wide-ranging as Richard explains: ‘The size and complexity of the project will require development in phases, offering the opportunity to bring forward meanwhile uses that help provide early activation.

The site lies adjacent to two of the more deprived wards in Cambridgeshire, and the use of meanwhile uses that offer social value can provide support to those areas of need.’ Food banks, charity shops and workspaces for arts groups have all benefitted in this way.

Separately, Richard’s team has worked with homelessness charity It Takes a City to address the growing problem of homelessness in Cambridge, specifically in providing emergency accommodation during the pandemic.

Carter Jonas provided its planning services to enable the consent of six modular homes which were built off-site by social enterprise partner New Meaning Foundation and installed on an under-utilised parcel of land on Newmarket Road in Cambridge.

While consent is temporary, it provides an important solution to a very significant housing challenge in the area until a longer-term, permanent solution can be found.

As Richard explains, ‘Landowners and developers of large consented or allocated strategic sites are invariably pleased to provide an interim solution where land reserved for later phases of development could be made available on a shorter-term basis until that development phase is ready to commence.'

The same is true of Green Belt sites, where a landowner might have longer-term ambitions for Green Belt release or a Local Plan allocation, but the reality of delivering development for the intended purpose might be still many years away.

Meanwhile uses and social value

The social value of such initiatives is plain to see. ‘Beyond that,’ says Charlotte, ‘The development benefits in many other ways. The establishment of a new business hub or market which enables local residents to experiment with business ideas can result in the final scheme providing the spaces that those businesses need as they grow.

Similarly, by providing a community arts or sports facility, a market or a food hall, the developer is effectively ‘testing the water’ for a permanent use of this type – a very effective form of market research.

Furthermore, simply maintaining a presence locally and engaging with the local community can help foster a good relationship with the local community, providing a positive start to a public consultation exercise.’

Whatever the reasons for permanent structures to be delivered, there are many better ways to use a potential development site than hide it behind hoardings – with benefits to the community and developer alike.

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