AVAST area of landlocked space has been sitting at the heart of York for decades. Every now and then, something vaguely close to excitement mounts about what is going to happen there.
This vacuum or black hole is sometimes referred to as the “teardrop site” thanks to its shape. More prosaically it is also known as the York Central site.
Less officially, it is that bit of York no one ever gets round to doing anything with – mostly a barren wasteland of railway sidings and abandoned industrial buildings.
For those who do not know York, the area lies roughly behind York Station and covers 35 hectares – a metric measurement I can’t really get my head round. Apparently one hectare equals 2.47 acres.
This massive bit of nothing was last month given Enterprise Zone status, a measure that will allow the council to keep business rates paid by firms which set up on the site.
City of York Council is getting excited about the potential, and its leaders have dubbed the land “the King’s Cross of the North” – a label no one would once have sought, if you recall what King’s Cross used to be like.
Where the now smart King’s Cross was once a den of drugs, prostitution and crime, York’s version has just been an abandoned and awkward bit of the city no one has known what to do with.
Now the council has said the land has the potential to bring 7,000 new jobs into York and provide up to 2,500 new homes.
Labour suggests that family housing and office space should be the top priority for the land, with the group’s planning spokesman Cllr David Levene reportedly saying: “The proposals need to be deliverable and they need to be sustainable – that means a fair balance between flats, family homes and office space.”
All of which is important and yet uninspiring. Yes, we do need family homes – decent homes with some outside space; homes that people can afford or even council homes for families.
No doubt the world needs a few more office blocks too – although some empty office blocks in the city are already being converted into housing, so maybe we should hold fire there.
Surely what this area truly deserves is to become is an exciting and interesting green space, a combination of public park and a green corridor, an approach suggested some years ago by Professor Alan Simpson’s report York New City Beautiful – Towards An Economic Vision.
That report contained much that was interesting and yet was promptly ignored. It also had what was almost a great title: they should have stuck to the York New City Beautiful part.
York is a crowded city but it does have many open spaces, from Museum Gardens in the centre to the various strays around the city, and the ings around the River Ouse.
Yet no new green space has been created for a long time. Just imagine if the space that may at last be freed up was turned into a mixture of housing, workspace and new parkland – just imagine if something akin to Museum Gardens sat at the heart of this space, linked by green walkways.
This isn’t so far-fetched if you consider the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London, which has 111 acres of open space including gardens, meadows and wetlands. Monty Don was traipsing round the park on TV the other day, looking as ever like a refugee from a forgotten Thomas Hardy novel. But never mind Monty’s peasant outfit. Look instead at those lovely gardens and open spaces.
All too often in this country we have an opportunity and end up wasting it – or end up killing it with dullness, smothering it in the limited ambitions of councillors and the like, sacrificing everything on the altar of commercial development.
York should free up this space and create something of lasting value. Let’s not squander it on dull housing and boring office blocks – let’s think big, let’s think green spaces and openness, and let’s give the people something worth having for once.
Just think how much of our present open space and our parks are down to the vision of the Victorians. They might have been uptight in some respects, but those Victorians knew the value of communal open spaces.
It’s time we left something for future generations rather than more uninspiring acres – or hectares, if you wish. Build squares and proper streets with gardens, modern ecological versions of what the Victorians and Edwardians did.
But please don’t go and balls it all up. That’s happened too many times in the past already.