Winter Gardens set for revamp to help revitalise town centre
PUBLISHED: 09:00 21 October 2014
A FOUR-STOREY extension to Weston-super-Mare's Winter Gardens is being planned to transform it into a university hub and kick-start a town centre regeneration.
The £10million seafront site has been the home of dances, weddings and charity events for the past 87 years, and now a major change could be in store - the biggest town centre revamp since the arrival of the Sovereign Shopping Centre in 1992.
High-quality student and residential accommodation, leisure facilities and a livelier town square are all pieces of the puzzle in North Somerset Council’s plan to encourage more retailers and people into the seafront resort.
Key to it all is a revolutionary plan to hand the Winter Gardens to Weston College for a phased development which will see an extra floor added above the main hall, a restoration of the building’s original frontage, and then a new four-storey extension facing onto a remodelled Town Square.
Council chief executive Mike Jackson said: “This is about turning the Winter Gardens into a 24/7 opportunity for the town and turning the Winter Gardens around, so it has a presence in the town centre and supports it.
“The future of the town centre is bringing activity into the town and retail will follow - we see that as the way forward.”
Last week the Mercury reported how college principal Dr Paul Phillips had revealed plans to create a £15million university centre for technology courses and professional services.
This week, we can reveal that new centre could be located in the Winter Gardens - and if the college’s funding bid to the West of England Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) is successful, and councillors agree to let it run the landmark, work could start as early as next year and be completed by 2018.
The bid must be in the hands of LEP chiefs in less than two weeks and so the proposal will go to North Somerset’s executive meeting on Tuesday for approval.
The plans include an initial three phases, which could be extended in the future, and North Somerset’s leader Nigel Ashton has promised community events will continue.
He said: “We will protect some of the uses for the Winter Gardens. Tea dances and catering facilities will be enhanced and protected.”
He also said the contract with Parkwood Leisure, the company which currently runs the venue as well as Hutton Moor Leisure Centre and The Playhouse, will end for the Winter Gardens only, and the council is currently working on resolving this issue.
The first refurbishment phase will start on the hall, to create lecture theatres, a court room, seminar room and café, and then another floor will be created on top, to include more seminar and tutor rooms and a gallery.
The second phase will focus on reinstating the seafront wings of the building’s original design.
Mr Jackson said: “We want to retain the original part of the building as a community facility. To begin with there will be little change and the existing entrance will be retained. The Winter Gardens is sometimes used very successfully for some major events, but for the large part of the year it’s not used very much at all.”
The venue has recently hosted the popular Weston Food Festival, and has regularly accommodated the college’s annual Celebration of Success Awards evening.
Facilities such as the conference hall and library will be open to Weston residents, in a bid to generate ‘a lot more life’ into the town.
Mr Jackson said: “The third phase will include creating a four-storey building, facing the town square, which will frame the town square also.
“Permanent retail outlets and cafés will be in front and community groups which want to use the libraries or ballroom or café would be encouraged to do so.”
The height of the new building will be broadly the same as the Sovereign Shopping Centre and will aim to improve links between High Street and seafront.
Mr Jackson said: “The college would be running this in a different way than Parkwood would be able to, and that is not a criticism.
“We feel this is the best site to breathe life into the town centre.”
Another piece of the regeneration project is creating high-quality student accommodation for the 2,500 students expected to attend the technology and professional service centres, as well as developing a major centre for urban living, as part of the council’s regeneration plan - all of which could become reality by 2024.
The authority is now looking for central sites for student accomodation, with a focus on utilising under-used or empty areas. Some sites under consideration remain under wraps as they are not council-owned, but leaders admit one option is Locking Road car park.
Cllr Ashton added: “Parents want high quality housing for their children and that is what we want to bring into Weston in terms of student accommodation.
“We are also looking at potential sites for high quality urban living.”
The council hopes these changes, and welcoming more residents and students into the town, will improve Weston’s retail trade offer.
North Somerset’s director of development and environment David Turner said the Dolphin Square development fits in well as ‘part of a wider strategy.’
Mr Jackson added: “All you can do is provide the punters and the retailers will follow. We have to give them a reason to come here.”