I’m not a designer, but I like to play one in real life.
I landed in England in 2005 and almost immediately did the unthinkable — took on the challenge to purchase, renovate/develop and sustainably operate a grade II listed Victorian building in the heart of Harehills — a multicultural enclave comprising, in the main, the geographies of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa on the edge of a predominately white Anglo-Saxon Leeds, England.
I knew nothing about development. I knew nothing about regeneration. I knew nothing about Harehills. I knew nothing about property management. I knew nothing about raising capital. I knew nothing about operating a conference, meeting and office building. Hell, I knew nothing about England.
To say I was naive, is putting it kindly.
But, what I lacked in knowledge and experience I tried to make up with energy, a positive bias and adaptability.
All the potential developers of the space that we aspired to develop had seen only one thing in the building: flats, and lots of them. Given the massive concentration of poor housing, the City Council had other ideas. And so the building stood vacant and increasingly vandalised for 20 years before we happened upon it.
The state of the building when we bough it in 2006/7 is evident in the sales price: £186,000.
The building we aspired to renovate was massive — standing at over 75 feet (without the spires) over only 2 1/2 floors comprising 40,000 sqft and wedged into the ground near the top of a hill surrounded by England’s largest concentration of small one up, one down back-to-back row houses.
Not only was it a very imposing building with imposing gates that said keep out —apparently, the Victorians were big on rules. The size, the iron fences and the imposing Victorian design worked to isolate the building from its neighbours. Note the perimeter and wall around the back of the building (below).
For years, developers could not understand how to make this building work with anything other than flats. I think this is at the crux of a problem with property development — it lacks, in the main, the vision to create the remarkable. Sure, lots of developers can create lovely spaces to look at for a specific audience — but, it’s what people do inside, around and how they perceive a building which brings it to life, unlocking its potential and making it remarkable.
When we were raising the capital, we talked about the impact of a renovated building on the existing neighbourhood. We told a story of how it would be remarkable to have local people engaging productively with people from outside the neighbourhood. In my mind, that’s nirvana — networks meshing together in a way that expands everyone’s thinking.
I think this approach helped us. With no experience, we raised £5M to purchase and renovate the building within 18 months. Surprisingly, investors bought into a people centric vision.
But, this isn’t a story of a developer who had a vision when so many did not. We weren’t that clever. It’s a story about the questions that aren’t asked because developers don’t value the people giving the answers and don’t see them as part of a potential vision.
The unasked questions lead to gentrification and worse.
The questions are simple.
How do we increase the value of an area, and by default our building, by using the existing resources and working with people who already inhabit the space?
This is much easier than taking a hoover to the existing colour palette of a place, but stil — it’s a foreign concept. This is what stops 99% of all development in non-white neighbourhoods before it even starts. After it starts, well, you know what happens.
How could we design our development in a way that invites the existing neighbourhood to enjoy, support and promote it?
So many developers look at diverse areas as risky. Why? Probably, because they don’t see non-white people as important to their journey to make money. There is one colour that dominates most development money: white. Inviting the existing neighbourhood to enjoy the development would make it less white and therefore less money — in their minds.
Two questions. That’s all we need to flip the perspective when developing culturally rich, diverse, economically challenging or rather bluntly —areas where most residents aren’t white anglo-saxons.
I asked these two questions and still the answers surprised me. My surprise was mainly due to the fact that I had been living inside a bubble of white privilege after working for one of the biggest corporations in the world. I thought everyone liked what I liked or at least aspired to my tastes.
If I had not asked the questions, the building would have been kitted out like some funky dot-com circa 2005 with exposed brick, worn sofas and a rustic feel. I know, sounds horrible now. But, our neighbours wanted a high tech building with slick surfaces, lots of glass and an overall modern feel.
The importance of listening to this answer was validated during our open house in 2008. I walked dozens of neighbours around the new building and I kept hearing from local people versions of this statement:
“Thanks for making this space really nice, so many people come into this area and develop rubbish spaces”
After years of yellow cinder block spaces with bars on the windows, here was a space that told a story of respect and trust. This remains today as we are probably one of the nicest buildings in Leeds that you can simply walk into (no buzzers or sign in sheets), doesn’t have a bar on any of the over 200+ windows and provides free meeting space and WiFi to anyone in the building or in the surrounding houses.
I wish we weren’t an anomaly.
Unfortunately, the developers keep making money — so, this idea of asking a few good questions never really gains any traction. We never get to quantify both the money developers leave on the table by taking a narrow view or the cost of wiping the cultural chalkboard clean when they implement their version of regeneration.
The size of the problem and how far we have to go is illustrated by a comment — not from a developer, but from a highly educated white person who works with and in neighbourhoods like Harehills. About half way through a tour of the building, they paused after admiring the original artwork on the walls and asked,
“Isn’t this space too nice for people around here?”
Shine Space is an integrated impact company which attempts to raise aspirations and create real opportunities. We opened in 2008 just as Lehman Brothers crashed — but, it is a thriving space today playing host to organisations and businesses from the charity, corporate and government sectors along with a cafe, gym and community gardens. Shine is a 100% commercial operation supporting ex-offenders, children, artists and entrepreneurs through its integrated impact business model.