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Regenerating a town waterfront

Hirst Landscape Architects were brought on to work on a waterfront regeneration programme for Gourock, near Glasgow. Overcoming obstacles of complex land ownership, different levels and traffic management were key to the success of this project. Now that the snag list and defect period has been resolved and completed, we spoke to PAUL MILLER to learn more about his team’s work.

What’s the background of the project?

What we had at Gourock was a town that was nestled in a coastline, it’s on the firth of Clyde, and it is to a certain extent disconnected from its waterfront. The main road that runs through Gourock runs through quite a nice street, but behind the street there’s what we call backland – the rear of business units. In the same spot there was a car park that was built in the 1970s, there was a disconnected section where there was no real link, it was just a very rough and ready beach area. Finally, there was the railway station which has just been refurbed, but which sits on an open space on its own completely disconnected from the town

Part of the project was to look at how we could reconnect all of this. There had been some existing master planning work done, but only to an outline level, so we came on the back of that and started looking at first principles, and what would be possible within the budget figures that were being spoken about.

Part of the project was complicated because there were lots of different land ownerships over the site. We wanted to try and make the site more of a frontage and create a footfall zone – as you can imagine the car park was higgledy piggledy, it was sort of arranged but people were just parking everywhere and it was a bit chaotic. Our aim was to bring some structure and order, making it more pedestrian-friendly and provide some sort of basis for people to want to invest in their shops and units.

The whole site is about three hectares, but the project morphed into a bit of land reclamation, forcing a connection along the waterfront or along the backs of these houses and onto the pier heads. In the end we actually created a continuous waterfront,  and I think when the council saw our initial designs taking shape they saw the possibility of the scheme being more comprehensive in terms of traffic management. It’s a classic small town traffic situation where traffic is a problem, so they thought actually with a bit more investment and a bit more thinking we could improve the traffic problem, and actually start looking at fundamentally maybe increasing car park capacity which was also a problem. So there’s the very rough background!

How much autonomy did they give you, creatively, to make your mark on the project?

When we started we had a clear budget, so one of the first things we had to do was test that. We need to start putting some layouts and ideas down and test what’s doable for the money. We knew that we wanted to do a land reclamation and create the waterfront link. It was all pretty shabby at the back, so within reason and the confines of the budget, it was really down to us to look at it creatively and say how could we do this, what are the options, what could you get for the money.

The client was pretty hands-on all the way through, they wanted to know what we were thinking of, and we had good contact with the local planning authority all the way through. I guess because it was a public investment, it was a public project, there was a desire for us to have these consultations and get to the bones of things. I think control is important because what happened in Gourock 10 or so years previously during the boom time, was that various developers had come along suggesting that if they were allowed to build ludicrous amounts of waterfront flats, they could invest X amount, move the railway station and so on. It was all pie in the sky because nothing ever came of it.

The budget stayed tight. it’s one of these jobs where as a designer I could’ve always done with another million pounds, but we didn’t have it so we had to be very careful, and that meant working very closely with the client, with our cost consultants, and just making sure that we were testing things out and we knew what was deliverable before promising people what we might or might not be able to do.

Were there any specific technical challenges?

From the main road through the town from the little high street to the car park and the waterfront level down below, there’s a 4 or 5 metre change of level. So it’s essentially a storey of difference in height. So if you imagine all these traditional houses on the high street, those are a like a basement-and-a-half deeper by the time you’ve got down to the carpark at either end. As the levels change, we had to physically deal with restrictions so in terms of where the backs of these units were on the carpark.

We’ve got an absolute fixed level we couldn’t budge with, but we knew we also had to make some improvements to what effectively started off as an access ramp down to the carpark. Ultimately, when we took the road down, it got completely remodelled. We also had to bend the rules slightly because as you can imagine the engineers’ first pass at doing a standard road scheme was pretty horrific because it was that big road. So you’ve got all sorts of technical challenges: we had to do an environmental impact assessment, we had to liaise with marine Scotland for the relevant consent for working around this high waterline. We also discovered part way through the project that the beach, such as it was, was being used by people to walk along part of the old shoreline to do a bit of fishing. It’s also used informally by a lot of local kayak and canoe club members.

There were lots of difference parcels of land and lots of land swap agreements with Railtrack because they owned the station, plus ScotRail had the concession at the time so they’re the operators. There were lots of complex negotiations and designing the whole thing to make it work. We had to increase the bus capacity on the station – it was previously two small buses – and the road guys wanted us to get space for three or four buses. Challenges of physical space and trying to keep the whole thing contained without it all becoming overwhelmingly traffic orientated.

We didn’t have any real contamination issues to speak of, it was more about the difficulty of actually getting all these bits and pieces to come together and then looking at it as a set of works for the contractor. It was a nightmare to build, because its in a small town so we were trying to maintain car parking provision, access to the shops, deliveries – the whole task you normally get in towns when you’re mitigating everyone’s concerns about the impact on their businesses.

What about costs and timeframes?

The brief changed in response to what the possibilities were. Some extra money was found and it became a slightly bigger job – it doubled in size. It’s one of these jobs that started as £2.5m and became £5.2m. We were appointed in summer of 2010, and it was completed in March 2016.

How typical is this of the work you do?

It’s a large job for us. We’ve done plenty of town centres and streetscape works up here in Glasgow over the years but we hadn’t really done a major town centre project for a little while. It was an interesting one and a nice one. We’d done some smaller projects but it was a nice one for us to win the time we won it because it’s not something that was particularly typical.

Learning Curve – Paul Miller, Hirst Landscape Architects

Paul Miller

Gourock was a difficult and complex project in many respects and presented a significant array of challenges to both the Design Team and ultimately the Contractor.  Physically, there were significant changes in level between the Waterfront and the Town Centre which had to be overcome, in addition to dealing with large areas of derelict land and unmade ground not to mention the general challenges posed by a seafront location.

Overlaying all this was a complex pattern of diverse land ownership and title issues to be resolved in order for the project to work.   This involved a great deal of consultation with the likes of Caledonian Marine Assets Ltd who had Rights of Access to the Pierhead area, and also Network Rail with regard to land swaps to consolidate and improve the access to the station and the car park layout, freeing up the Waterfront for public access.  Dealing with Network Rail in particular opened up a whole series of complex Approval processes which had to be undertaken, particularly towards the latter stages of the project and through the construction period.  Not surprisingly, there was also a very strong local community interest in the project that demanded a wide ranging, long term and time intense level of engagement.  Fortunately, our client, Riverside Inverclyde proved to be superb at managing this, enabling the Design Team to focus on design issues and providing the necessary support at the various community meetings and events.

Budget, as always, was a major issue.  The project represented a substantial investment in the town by Inverclyde Council but it was by no means gold-plated. The necessary civil engineering work required to reclaim areas of land, construct new sea walls and provide all the other infrastructure to address the complex traffic management issues in the town made substantial demands on the finance available.  We also had to cope with fairly substantial changes to the brief once it became clear from the initial design proposals that further opportunities existed to make major and long-lasting improvements to the Waterfront and the Town Centre.

At over 3 hectares in area, the project was the subject of a major Planning Application with all the attendant pre-application and technical consultations involved.  In addition, an Environmental Impact Assessment was required together with Roads Construction Consent and a Marine Scotland License Application; everything having to be organised and managed step-by-step to enable the design to be developed and applications made at the correct time to allow all the relevant Consents to be obtained for the eventual site start.

This was a major project for the Practice and an exciting opportunity.  On the whole, I think the experience tended to reinforce our belief around what constitutes good practice.  From a design perspective, this meant engaging completely with the civil engineering elements of the project in order to fully understand the various issues, restrictions and opportunities in order to be able to pull everything together into a meaningful Public Realm proposal.  On a project of this scale and complexity, it was absolutely essential to be able to establish a rapport and a sense of mutual confidence and trust within the Design Team as well as with the Client and the array of different individuals from various technical departments that ultimately became heavily involved in the project.  The project represented a genuine collaboration which made dealing with difficult design issues and overcoming problems so much easier than it might otherwise have been.

Engagement and consultation with the local community also proved to be really useful.  Members of local business forums and access groups were able to provide a whole range of information about the site and some of the issues surrounding it which put the Design Team in a much better position to develop a meaningful design solution.  In particular, we became aware fairly early in the process that local canoeist and kayakers were using the existing beach area as a means of egress from the water to the shore.   Their advice was a direct benefit in terms of developing a practical solution that retained an element of beach and incorporated appropriate access arrangements within a fairly substantial infrastructural and levels changes that were needed.  Until they came forward at one of the access forum consultation meetings, nobody from the Client’s side or the Local Authority had any idea that the area was being used this way.  

One of the major successes was the way in which the leadership role was managed within the Team.  Hirst Landscape Architects acted as Design Lead through the design and planning stages of the project with Fairhurst as the Consulting Civil Engineer taking over the Contract Management and Lead Role whilst the works were on site.  An entirely appropriate arrangement given the degree of civil engineering and infrastructural works involved in the project.

Finally, since it was completed, there has been a great deal of positive feedback from Local Trades and on-going private investment in a number of businesses.  Knowing that the project has been successful in this way and is leading to further investment in the town is very satisfying.

About Michael Northcott

Michael is the editor of Landscape Insight magazine. He draws from experience at a wide range of B2B magazines, including Management Today, Legal Business, Retail Week, Hotel Owner and Jewellery Focus. Feel free to drop him a line with any stories or feature ideas.

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