From Eversheds to Gabriel Square - the transformation of St Albans’ last major city centre housing site

The Eversheds site on London Road

The Eversheds site on London Road - Credit: Archant

The name of Eversheds, once ubiquitous with a massive printworks in the centre of St Albans, is finally laid to rest this week with the launch of the new Gabriel Square development.

Spen Hill's Mark Witham, Higgins Construction project director Alan Vaux, Cllr Alun Davies, DLA Town

Spen Hill's Mark Witham, Higgins Construction project director Alan Vaux, Cllr Alun Davies, DLA Town Planning David Lane and director of Higgins Construction Paul Cooke at the London Road site as work commences - Credit: Archant

The print factory was originally opened by Frederick Dangerfield in 1896, at which time it was the most modern lithographic plant in the country, specialising in printing large colour advertising posters for public transport. The company was bought by Eversheds in 1940, who had been bombed out of their site in Bow.

Eversheds added an extension to the factory from the wreckage of their former site and later built a larger modern premises. They continued printing there until the late 1990s.

The three acre site was one of the last big development areas left in the city centre, and the opportunities it presented were unrivalled for the area, leading to some controversial planning applications over the years.

Supermarket giant Tesco initially submitted plans for a 6,480 square-metre store plus parking for 477 cars and other retail outlets, which would have involved the demolition of three locally-listed homes in Inkerman Road as part of the scheme.

Old site of Eversheds, London Road, St Albans.

Old site of Eversheds, London Road, St Albans. - Credit: Archant

Their proposal prompted a bitter battle with local residents horrified at the thought of this massive development on their doorsteps, and the Stop Tesco St Albans campaign proved to be one of the most extensive and successful in the city’s long history.

District council planners unanimously rejected the plans in July 2008 at a packed meeting at the Alban Arena, siting an increase in traffic, associated noise and disturbance, the impact on the Conservation Area, and the effect the store would have on air quality and the vitality of the city centre as reasons for their refusal.

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Tesco eventually confirmed that it was no longer intending to build a superstore on the site in February 2010, and St Albans MP Anne Main said at the time: “The issue now becomes what happens to the Eversheds site... We have a great opportunity to put something worthwhile on the site which could enhance the city.”

The county council initially considered it as a possible site for a new primary school but this was not pursued when a decision was made to transform Francis Bacon into an all-through school for children from three to 18, now known as Samuel Ryder Academy.

New images of the London Road project

New images of the London Road project - Credit: Archant

Spen Hill Developments’ initial proposal for housing on the site was rejected as it did not meet the council’s affordable housing quota of 35 per cent but was eventually given the thumbs up in February 2013, despite some district councillors still raising concerns.

The project also came under scrutiny for the height of some of the properties, the use of balconies and roof gardens potentially intruding on neighbours in Inkerman and Alma Roads, though the initial designs were modified to tackle these concerns.

The Eversheds works and office buildings were finally torn down over the summer of 2013, but work did not get underway on building what would become Gabriel Square until March 2015.

In total the scheme incorporates nine affordable houses and developers agreed to make a £65,000 contribution to the district council housing department for redistribution on other provisions elsewhere in the city.

New images of the London Road project

New images of the London Road project - Credit: Archant

Officially launched this week, Gabriel Square - the name comes from one of the bells in the Clock Tower - is an iconic mix of townhouses, apartments and duplexes bordered by London Road, Alma Road and Victoria Street.

There’s still a lot of work to be done on the site, including the centrepiece garden square, and it’s not expected to be finally completed until next spring, but representatives from estate agents Collinson Hall are now taking deposits for the first properties to be released in September.

It completes the transformation of this part of the city in recent years, which includes the refurbishment of The Odyssey cinema and the opening of popular local amenities such as Charlie’s coffee shop, Prime steak house and Kimaya sushi bar.

But St Peter’s ward councillor Alun Davies gave a cautious reaction to the development: “There is already a problem with lack of primary school places in this area of the city centre. I would like to know how much the developers paid in Section 106 money for schools and how county officers and councillors are going to ensure that money is spent on a new local primary school to support the increased demand.

“What is extremely concerning to me is that it would be highly likely that if the current school place situation remains then children living at Gabriel Square will not get into a primary school within walking distance.

“On a positive note, I asked the building company Meyer Homes whether they were willing to contribute something to the community, and an employee joined me on a volunteer day at the local foodbank and donated £500.”

Thanks to St Albans Civic Society and St Albans Architectural and Archaeological Society for historical detail.