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Architect's rendering of the latest plan for the Observer Building – 2 storeys lower than the original design.

Architect’s rendering of the latest plan for the Observer Building – 2 storeys lower than the original Flint Group design.

Making it all stack up

When Jeff Kirby came to Hastings for the first time last November to see the Observer Building ‘in order to help out a friend’, the rain was lashing horizontally and he stood opposite the building and shook his head. “My friend had bought the building and asked me to help him make it work. Nothing attracted me to the building – my first thought was to ring up my friend and tell him the best thing he could do was walk away.” HOT’s Erica Smith listens to how his attitude changed.

Architects’ impression of the Hastings Observer Building

The original HASSELL design was presented to the public in July. The feedback from both English Heritage and the community was that the proposal which doubled the height of the existing building – was too high.

As Hastings residents know, this place can have a strange effect on newcomers. Jeff Kirby fell under the spell of the town, and then set to work out how to solve the problem of the Observer Building – a big concrete shed which props up the surrounding buildings and is loved by the residents despite being empty for the last 30 years.

“Hastings economy is unusual in that it is cheaper to buy old buildings than to develop new build.” Kirby thought about all the possible uses for the Observer Building from art storage through to workspace to sheltered accommodation to hotel. He claimed that no business plan would work except developing the majority of the building into student accommodation.

00ObsRockHouse2

The final design, submitted to HBC today is lower, but it still has two recessed top floors.

There is a growing demand for affordable student accommodation of reasonable quality. A vertical student village would fulfill a need for language students on summer courses as well as students of eighteen plus on full-time courses. The Observer Building is close to Sussex Coast College and the University of Brighton sites. Dedicated student housing would free up local houses for families, rather than inflating rental prices with buy-to-let mortgages. Student budgets, and the proximity to the town centre transport links means that cars will not be necessary – just as well, since there isn’t anywhere to park a car in the town centre.

Jeff Kirby of Flint Group addresses visitors to the Wet & Dry private view on the ground floor of the Observer Building in July 2015. The invited audience included the local arts community, former employees of the Hastings Observer and Allan’s Army who cleaned up the building and took people on guided tours throughout the evening.

Kirby is a Buddhist as well as a real estate developer – an unusual combination. He was born in Canada, worked in the Canadian Navy before studying architecture, and has spent time as a developer in Eastern Europe where he became very aware of the impact of poverty. “If you fall off the tightrope in the Ukraine, it’s a long drop and a hard hit when you reach the bottom.” He decided that the Observer Building project had to be driven by love – “the actual product is ‘doing good’ – the development is a by-product”. His company, Flint Group, has been extremely thoughtful about engaging with the different communities that make up Hastings and St Leonards.

As Lauris Morgan-Griffiths writes in a separate article, Flint Group have appointed Dawn Dublin and Erika Holland to create a family-friendly space including a gallery, a street food market and cinema. Allan’s Army from nearby Holy Trinity Church – a team of homeless and recently homed people –  have worked tirelessly to clean the building from 30 years of pigeon droppings, Special Brew cans and drug paraphernalia.

00TrawlerCover

Hastings Trawler cover © Chris Watson – showing community concerns about the 2005 plan to demolish the Observer Building.

The last plans for the Observer Building, back in 2005, involved total demolition and a low value new-build Holiday Inn style hotel of significant elevation. The local community was strongly hostile to the plans – a group called STOMP (Stop the Observer Madness, Please) was formed and there were several protests including hanging banners on the building and organising a ‘hold hands around The Observer Building’ protest. The pleas fell on deaf ears and Hastings Borough Council approved the plans. Once permission was granted, the owner tried to sell the plot on for more money and fell foul of the recession and the law.

In contrast there are a lot of positives about Flint’s plans – the old building is saved and the community use of the ground floor has already brought life back to the town centre. The graffiti is seen as a feature as important as the feance tiles on the facade and the historical use of the building. Jeff Kirby saw the only way to save the building was to use it as elevated foundations for a building of equal size on top – the old building acting as a plinth for a shimmering ‘ghost building’. He believes that the height and blocky design of the building is as important an aesthetic decision as it is an economic decision. His background is in urban design (graduating from UCL’s revered Bartlett School of Architecture) and the appointed architects, HASSELL, are no lightweights.

26 public meetings, 3,843 architect hours and four months on from seeing the original design proposals, Flint have finally submitted their plans to the Council for consideration. The feedback from consultation with both English Heritage and the local community expressed concern about the height and suggested moving away from a monolithic block – exploring a ‘stepped and staggered’ layout. The final designs have responded to that feedback. In order to compensate for the reduced height, the second floor is now student accommodation rather than shared/gallery/work space, and the total number of student rooms has been reduced from 250 to 232. The building is still tall – which is obviously of concern to local residents – but there appears to be a strong feeling of support for a plan which will breathe new life back into an awkward but well-loved town centre building.

Hastings has always suffered from ‘Cheap and Nasty’ redevelopment, and there is a degree of cynicism and lack of trust shown towards any major building proposal. Flint Group deserve credit for being the first developer to have taken community consultation in Hastings seriously. The new building will not appeal to everyone – but the revised designs show that they have listened and responded.

Find out more about the consultation here – or visit the exhibition in the Observer Building.

The planning application has not yet been uploaded to the planning website, but will be soon. If you follow this link and type in ‘53 Cambridge Road’ you should be taken to the latest registered planning application for the site, and will be able to make comments of objection or support for the scheme as soon as the files have been uploaded.

Read Bernard McGinley’s and Lauris Morgan Griffith’s articles from July 2015.

Posted 21:00 Tuesday, Dec 8, 2015 In: Home Ground

9 Comments

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  1. Monkey Magic

    Good comment Michale Upted – you say what many would not dare say – “good old Sharks” – yes indeedy that is a thought which is going the rounds. As this planning application stands there is no way it will get approval – far too many no no-s – contravenes planning legislation, contravenes HBC Policies as set out in the recently adopted Local Plan. Student accommodation below acceptable (legal?) standards – back to the drawing board – and take that ridiculous structure off the top of this iconic building. I guess these people thought they could hoodwink us all with their jolly little knees up activities over the past few months but we need to rememeber that what has been going on in this building bears no resemblance to what is intended. Just look at the planning application.

    Comment by Monkey Magic — Sunday, Feb 21, 2016 @ 10:21

  2. Michael Upted

    People of Hastings are we so easily had? A property developer who had previously worked in Eastern Europe and Russia comes along, opens up the doors of the Observer building, rents it out as a community space creating a groovy, hip hotspot . We go along have a good time and then he says “heh if you want this to continue, show your support for my planning application”. Except the planning application is not for more of the same community and arts activity but a hideous money making carbuncle comprising student accommodation. Who would have thought you could make money from students? But charge them £120 a week for space the size of rabbit hutches and the speculators will make their cash and dash. So wake up Hasting don’t but the wish washy zen born again new age nonsense, these are a bunch of good old sharks.

    Comment by Michael Upted — Friday, Feb 19, 2016 @ 13:21

  3. Tobi

    I love the modern addition sitting on top of the old Observer Building concept! I also absolutely LOVE the height! I think that the additional height in this corner of town will add to the feeling of urban vibrancy and activity. I love the way this town fluctuates between quiet old village, vibrant old village, Victorian suburbia, and almost city like vibrant density in certain corners – I think this will add to that range! I hope that it will be executed as slickly and as beautifully as the artists impressions and photographs of similar high quality architecture imply – this I believe is key.

    In terms of the usage of the building and the general angle of the venture I love it! I love its vision for the town! I love that it is clearly taking part in the NEW, “regenerating”, “up-and-coming” version of Hastings/St Leonards! (The version that is actually the exciting reality of this town!) I think that the majority of the upper floors being used for student accommodation is brilliant; I think it seems like the best option weighing up all other considerations at this point in time for Hastings. I think that the ground floor usage for high quality publicly accessibly space (restaurant/gallery/cinema) is vital and essential. Personally I would love to see that also be the first floor aswell, and maybe some mixed studio space worked in there too! I absolutely love the public roof garden idea! A brilliant, brilliant idea! Please keep this in! I also think this would be key to winning public hearts to the project! But please commit to it being impressive; not just a flat roof with a few miserable potted plants around a bad cafe. I love the general arty edge to the design – the visible industrial feel retained along with graffiti – I hope that this approach stays and it doesn’t become over sanitized, cleaned up, and ultimately bland! Keep the arty edge!

    It goes without saying that the restoration of the original Observer Building for the lower floors is an absolute winner. But to only have done that would’ve been a bit boring. Your proposals are fantastic! Good luck!

    Comment by Tobi — Wednesday, Dec 16, 2015 @ 12:11

  4. Kay

    I find there are a couple of quite wild inaccuracies in my original post here. I’ll find out on Friday, hopefully and will report back if it makes any difference to my views.

    Comment by Kay — Tuesday, Dec 15, 2015 @ 20:30

  5. Kay

    What does ‘value engineered’ mean?

    Comment by Kay — Monday, Dec 14, 2015 @ 12:55

  6. Neil

    I do not think this is in any way a successful concept, it is just another tall building, repeating earlier town planning mistakes. What they are proposing lacks architectural coherence or order, it is defined primarily by its height and bulk, both of which are at odds with the surrounding townscape.

    The article fails to pick apart the assertions of the developer. The statement that it is viable to refurbish old buildings in Hastings rather than rebuild them warrants particular scrutiny: if this is really the case, why do they need all these additional storeys? Why can’t they just refurbish the building, possibly putting on a couple of additional recessed mansard storeys with roof terraces?

    It may well be that they really believe in this concept and the building – certainly though they have pursued an elaborate PR campaign that may actually be successful.

    If they get planning permission it will simply to be to build a block of student accommodation to the height specified, all the environmental initiatives etc are optional things that the current developer says they want to do. But planning permission is sold with the land, and the building could be value engineered.

    In the end I am afraid the decision rests on a judgement as to whether a building of this height and design fits in well in to its setting, and that of the surrounding townscape and conservation areas. I do not think it does, and I think the planners are smart enough to realise this.

    Comment by Neil — Thursday, Dec 10, 2015 @ 23:29

  7. chris watsn

    If you’d like to see the full 2 page spread of the Trawler cover it’s here
    https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/260173970
    I lived and worked in Hastings for several years, sharing studios near the fine looking Observer building. I’m so glad to hear it’s being used for community events. The print is a run on of the magazine cover for the short lived but great quality Hastings Trawler, a controversial independent local paper, cover artists included Rob Sample, Tim Marrs and others.

    See how many local references you can spot in the picture, Priory Meadow, Cricketer Statue, Pedalo Swans, Big Apple rollercoaster, Jack in the Green, the East Hill, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist, affectionate caricatures of local councillors, Jack in the Green, net huts, Landcorp – hardnosed corporate developers registered in the Isle of Man, Seaspace, white elephants , a vanished landmark of an elevated putting green, a sharp wink to King Harold, and our toffee coloured cavalier spaniel Barney who loved his walks on the West Hill.

    Comment by chris watsn — Thursday, Dec 10, 2015 @ 22:15

  8. John Crosby

    For me, the Observer Building has a structural exterior that is perfect in its own right. Modernising the interior is not a problem as this was originally an industrial space to suit the era of old-fashioned publishing, typesetting, newspaper printing and the like. The latter is now gone so the inner space should be today as innovative as the community desires.

    The proposals for the external additions are just hideous, no matter which option is viewed. They are simply about making more money out of the available land space by building upwards regardless of the aesthetic cost to the town.

    ‘An architectural landmark’? Yes, it will be that! (Please note: I am a great fan of contemporary architecture but with vision.)

    Comment by John Crosby — Thursday, Dec 10, 2015 @ 10:39

  9. Kay

    I live and work in this area and enjoy the light and sea air walking down from Cornwallis Gardens every day. I am depressed by the idea of another chunk of outsize building even worse and even higher than the rock house frontage. I know the community is in desperate need of common space which is managed and focused the way the Observer Building space has been, and the constant buzz of activity currently to be experienced in there proves that need is answerable. But I feel railroaded and confused by the way a planning application came and went and was apparently replaced by a ‘survey’ in the community space with leading questions and a strong bias towards “if you want a community space you have to agree to this.”

    I’ve just read the Hastings Online Times report and agree that the new design is slightly less horrible, and that We are lucky that the previous plan fell through because it was worse still.

    “Dedicated student housing would free up local houses for families, rather than inflating rental prices with buy-to-let mortgages” – Distraction. I don’t see how making more student accommodation would prevent buy-to-let businesses from ruining local housing opportunities. Sorting out the horrendous local housing situation is a wider political issue and this building is not an answer to it.

    I think it’s fine to use more space for accommodation rather than work space. Priory Quarter ended up pointlessly being rented to out-of-town, not-community-friendly companies whose employees we see coming into town by train every day. They benefit no-one but the Tesco Express also built into the structure which sells them their lunches.

    I’d feel better if the accommodation was to be cheap flats for Hastings people who need cheap flats.

    “Flint Group deserve credit for being the first developer to have taken community consultation in Hastings seriously.” This is true but it is a slick PR action designed to get what they want rather than be deeply involved in what Hastings needs.

    It’s probably the best we’re going to get and I’d go along with it if not for a tipping point last night when I was irritated by the gesture towards environmentalism I heard about – “solar strips that allow students to charge their mobile phones etc” – With a roof that size it should be possible to harness enough sun/wind to be energy-negative, which would be a HUGE boon for the residents of the cheap flats, if cheap flats were being made available for local people. I feel railroaded and PR-ed at.

    (PS the free glass of wine and mince pie as compensation for being kicked out by the developers last night DID influence the tone of my response. If they really cared about the local community they would not take what they want then offer somewhat irrelevant compensatory presents, they’d work around what the community was already doing.)

    Comment by Kay — Wednesday, Dec 9, 2015 @ 10:35

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