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WHICH WAY NOW FOR PARK HILL?

AGENDA

'On the day it opened, Park Hill was as close to perfect as it could be.' On a dull October morning nearly 50 years later it is not. And Christophe Egret knows it.

The brutal concrete behemoth overlooking Sheffield city centre may be Europe's largest listed building but it is not the easiest to love.

If you believe the local press, most people in the Steel City want the massive cliff-top blocks torn down. The flats were even ridiculed in the film The Full Monty.

But Egret and Urban Splash have a dream for Park Hill. The developers, who have recruited Studio Egret West, Hawkins\Brown and landscape architects Grant Associates to their scheme, want to transform the 'flawed' giant into the city's coolest address.

It's a vision based on knitting the estate into the rest of Sheffield.

'The weakness of Park Hill is a lack of connection with the rest of the city. It has lost its sense of place, ' Egret said.

The French architect admits the flats, designed by Ivor Smith and Jack Lynn at the end of the 1950s, can come across as a bit brutish. Even so, he believes Park Hill still has a lot to offer.

'It's not an immediately beautiful building and I wasn't a fan of it before, but I've warmed to it, ' he said.

'It's a gentle monster that is extremely resilient and the intelligence of the 'streets in the sky' is extraordinary.' One big challenge is how to breathe life into a Grade II*-listed building without wholesale changes to its fabric.

Demolition has never been an option for Urban Splash. Instead, it wants to open up the public spaces, bring in new pubs, restaurants and shops and make the area a 'proper place', in a scheme costing an estimated £163 million.

'We need to romance Park Hill, ' said Egret. 'The main task is to make all the public park spaces more specific so when you enter the area there is a sense of arrival.

'Why can't we open up the vistas so it feels like London's Primrose Hill? Why do there have to be seedy pubs, when they could be opened up?' The bigger task, however, is winning the hearts and minds of those opposing the redevelopment. And there are some big hitters among them.

One of those leading the calls for Park Hill to be flattened is the deputy leader of Sheffield's Liberal Democrats, councillor David Baker.

He believes there is no option but demolition. 'The general feeling on the streets of Sheffield is that the building should have been pulled down yonks ago, ' he says.

'Just tinkering with the structure will not make a difference. It's no good hanging on to it just because the building was once seen as iconic.' Baker is understandably worried that Urban Splash's latest move is just another false dawn for the building - and another massive waste of taxpayers' money.

'The developers need £10 million to preserve an eyesore. It is not a viable concern and the land could be put to better use.

'It may be pioneering but it couldn't be built in a worse place. Unfortunately, it is on a key gateway site. And it's an embarrassment, ' he says.

Contrary to the feeling among most architects, Baker is also dubious about claims the flats are loved by most of the building's residents.

He said: 'It was a social experiment that failed. The dream was to create villages in the sky, with people standing on their doorstep chatting; an identifiable community. But that didn't work. People ended up barricading themselves in.' Baker feels so strongly that he has made a bid to get the flats de-listed so they can be bulldozed.

According to Jeremy Till, who lived in the blocks for two years, demolition would be a mistake. The head of architecture at Sheffield University believes the building has been unjustifiably maligned and criticised over recent years.

He said: 'The local media has run an endless campaign against Park Hill. Whatever is done, [the press] say it's wrong.

Basically they want to see it demolished.' Till added: 'There's a lot of misinformation, based on really bad Alice Coleman-style sensationalism.

'It's the old spectre of 1960s architecture equalling tower blocks, equalling architects with penis complexes, equalling deprivation, equalling drugs, equalling the end of the world.

The flats only started to fail when the council's housing policy failed.' Till maintains that the residents of Park Hill are 'ferociously' loyal to the building - some 20 per cent of the current tenants have been there from the start.

That doesn't surprise Simon Gedye, from local practice Allen Tod Architecture.

He said: 'I visited a couple of months ago and my impression of the place was transformed.

In the future, with a full refurbishment and a mix of tenants and residents, this could become Sheffield's equivalent of the Barbican.' No doubt these comments will please Urban Splash, which is well aware that winning over public support is going to be a tough nut to crack.

The people of Sheffield have been let down before and those behind this latest brave effort will need more than pretty pictures and the words of architecture's finest to make this plan work.

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