Monday, February 19, 2007

Heart of the city

When you've written lots of features on the countless grand projects, plans and proposals that fall under the urban and regional regeneration banners, it's interesting to actually experience the ones that make it off the masterplan and into concrete reality. So it is with Sheffield's 'Heart of the City' project (discussed, in its earlier stages, here and here - there's also an uncritical update by the current Yorkshire Business Insider team in this month's issue).

The new Barcelona-style Peace Gardens and the enclosed Winter Garden are now well established as a feature of Sheffield life. They're great public spaces. Unfortunately, some of the surrounding development seems a little less successful.

The St Paul's Place office block occupied by lawyers DLA can hardly be described, as Sheffield regen supremo Alison Nimmo did back in 2003, as "the best office building Sheffield has ever seen". It's a bit of an eyesore, frankly - arguably less attractive than the old eggbox town hall (so memorably destroyed in Threads) which it partly replaces. I recall Paul Firth, then DLA's top man in Sheffield, saying it'd be a landmark building to match Prince's Exchange in Leeds, which DLA features heavily in its own marketing in the region. Ah well.

The other big addition is the four-star Macdonald hotel, occupying the space between the Peace and Winter Gardens. We stayed there Friday night, the first time I'd been in since its completion. Ironically enough for the city without an airport, it's all very redolent of an airport hotel - JG Ballard, who has rhapsodised about the affectless beauty of the Heathrow Hilton, would love it. It's a little bit of Singapore in Sheffield - except it all falls rather short of Singaporean standards in the efficiency stakes. Lots of little things - the toilet not flushing, rubbish left in the room, cocktails made wrongly, a severely under-staffed reception - made our stay less than entirely satisfying. Still, it preserves the honorable Sheffield tradition of aiming for great things but not quite getting it right.

The reason we were staying over in Sheff was to see the ever lovely Jarvis Cocker in concert. His little chats between the songs were as charming as ever, with many concerning the disappearing bits of his old home town, from Castle Market to the Brincliffe Oaks. The gig finished with a ramshackle cover of the Human League's 'Being Boiled'. That, I reckon, is close to the real heart of the city.

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