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Sound-bite Ferguson's Bristol lacks focus

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Ruth Slavid's enthusiastic editorial (AJ 26.8.04) overlooks a number of side effects of X-listing, as does George Ferguson's initial proposition. Firstly, as Kevin Steer rightly says in his recent letter (AJ 2.9.04), how does one allow for the possibility of developing and improving buildings placed in this category?

Historically, many buildings of less than inspiring design quality have been transformed and given a new lease of life - this is particularly true of former offices similar to Tollgate House, which are enhanced by the addition of balconies and other features as part of residential conversion.

Secondly, what is to happen to the defamed buildings - is the intention that they be demolished? Giving them a design black mark would only add to the difficulties of those intending to restore and improve them and might cast a blight over already depressed areas.

Thirdly, and most significantly, how is this process to enter the planning and legal framework relating to planning inquiry and compulsory acquisition procedures? Inadvertently, Ferguson has already possibly interfered in the latter process, as Tollgate House is the subject of a compulsory purchase order by the Bristol Alliance, and the secretary of state's decision on the ensuing public inquiry is currently awaited. Will the president's comments now prejudice the outcome of that inquiry?

Tollgate House has now been vacant for a number of years and the owners had planned to convert it into 280 flats with an ancillary health club. The appearance of the building would be radically changed under this scheme by the removal of the upper floors and their replacement by a lightweight glazed structure with added balconies below.

This scheme provides valuable residential accommodation as well as making use of the important resource of the existing structure (whatever Ferguson thinks of its appearance). The alternative scheme, which the Alliance is proposing, is to build a massive linear multi-storey car park for 2,600 cars linked with the extension of the Broadmead shopping centre, which, in turn, requires extensive new road realignments.

Ferguson's reference to Bristol as a 'splendid city' surely also needs some qualification. It certainly was a very attractive city before wartime bombing and illadvised road schemes destroyed much of the central area, linked with bad planning (over 250 such buildings with gross area of nearly 1,000,000m 2 were built in the period 1953-90). Many of these are now being changed to residential use and business has gravitated towards the dock areas, where the new developments and conversions are to be applauded.

The Broadmead shopping centre itself hardly did much to enhance the city, and the central road network, with its highspeed dual carriageways and endless roundabouts, frustrates motorists and pedestrians alike.

All pretence at providing an improved public transport system has now been abandoned and the council is resigned to providing increased car usage in the very centre to compete with the Cribbs Causeway shopping centre on the perimeter.

The M32 pumps traffic directly into the centre of the national motorway network, and it is this large system that the new roadworks associated with the Broadmead expansion seek to enlarge, drawing in even more traffic right past St Paul's conservation area and Tollgate House.

It would be truer to say that Bristol is potentially a splendid city - as a native of the city, Ferguson must know the situation much better than I. But as president of the RIBA he should surely address the problems and issues of urban development in a more sophisticated way and leave the sound bites to the politicians.

Peter Smith, London NW3

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