'Risky' new plans to transform St Albans city centre for a post-pandemic world

A CGI of the new CCOS concept for St Albans city centre.

A CGI of the new CCOS concept. - Credit: SADC

Ambitious plans for a new theatre and piazza could completely transform St Albans city centre.

The proposals call for more green space while enabling St Albans to develop a “cultural and performing arts identity”.

The district council's plans revolve around the redevelopment of buildings neighbouring the current Civic Centre, including the demolition of the two-storey car park and the Alban Arena.

Original proposals included two separate City Centre Opportunity Sites, Culture and North, but these will be merged under the current thinking.

Following work by a stakeholder group, the plans were confirmed publicly at the district council’s regeneration and business committee last night.

The revised plans also include improvements to the rose garden, new commercial space, an underground car park for around 150 vehicles, a new council chamber and community hub, and 39 flats.

There is also an intention to include 35 per cent social or affordable housing on the site.

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The news follows the progress of the City Centre Opportunity Site South earlier this year, which will include 93 apartments and retail units.

The two projects will be join together with a new open boulevard providing more open space for the city centre.

Introducing the new plans, the committee’s chair Cllr Robert Donald said they take into account what the city should look like in a post-pandemic world, including the need for more green space and to move away from a reliance on offices.

Cllr Donald said the plans would also see St Albans move away from a retail-focus, after hearing advice from experts saying the days of people coming to the high street for shops alone were gone.

He added: “[The reasons for coming into cities] could be for events, it could be for cultural reasons, it could be for hospitality, food and drink, but it’s not going to be primarily for retail – that will be a secondary issue. Yes, people will still shop but they won’t come in the first instance for that.

“We, as a city, have to think about what our unique selling point is going to be in the future. If it’s not shops, what is it that we are inviting people into the city to do and to enjoy?”

It’s hoped plans for the replaced Alban Arena would attract an international standard of art and culture to the city, and events would be able to take advantage of the green space to allow for expansion of beer or music festivals.

Cllr Julian Daly warned that the new plans were “much more risky than anything we’ve seen before” for the site, and asked for assurances a risk assessment on the costs of the project had been carried out. Officers confirmed this will be brought to a future meeting of the committee.

Cllr Daly also questioned the justification of replacing the Alban Arena with a new theatre of a similar size, but the theatre was described as “really not fit for purpose” by consultant Chris McIntyre, who was previously involved with the city’s museums and galleries.

Mr McIntyre added crews working on theatre and live music events have had problems with using the venue in the past, and a refurbishment would not go far enough.

Officers added that the council had commissioned a report to examine what facilities the city would need, and this study will need to be completed before any more detail can be provided on whether the new venue will have an increased capacity.

Councillors unanimously agreed to the officer’s recommendations of agreeing to the concept design layout for the site, but requested a full carbon assessment of the scheme.

The committee’s approval allow the council to begin organising a competition for architects to come forward with their designs for the site.

No timeframe has been set on the plans, and a report on the next stages of the process will be presented to the committee following the completion of the architectural competition.

At this stage the committee will also provide an updated business case and budget.