Financial Times – 28th August 2018
Container park in Newcastle helps to revitalise city centre site
In the centre of Newcastle, next to some of the UK’s finest neoclassical buildings, several dozen small food outlets, bars and shops have begun trading out of 54 former shipping containers.
The £1.5m development, called The Stack, stands on Pilgrim Street on the site of the old Odeon cinema. Aimed partly at millennials, it offers an “enchanted garden” with artificial flowers and outdoor furniture under a marquee in which to drink gin and eat vegan, Mexican, Lebanese and Italian food.
It is the second development built out of shipping containers to open in Tyneside in recent weeks. By the River Brew Co, on the Gateshead side of the Tyne river, is a “creative container community” that houses a microbrewery and a “hawker market” selling streetfood.
Container parks are proliferating elsewhere after the first UK scheme, Boxpark Shoreditch, opened in 2011, followed by Boxpark Croydon in 2016. Roger Wade, Boxpark’s chief executive, said he was planning nine more sites, using steel-framed buildings as well as refurbished containers, in London and Brighton, and possibly Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Nottingham. He estimates there are a hundred such parks worldwide. “In an increasingly digital age people are crying out for special places, places they feel they can come together as a community,” he says. Boxpark is, he adds, “built around the concept of eat, drink and play”.
For small retailers, shipping container schemes offer a city centre location without an onerous or lengthy lease. “This is an ideal place, it’s up and coming and hip,” says Vicky Tate, co-owner of the Hungry Vegan, which has taken a Stack unit. She likes being among other independent businesses. “It gives you a real community vibe.” Tenants say the cheapest containers cost £10,000 per year plus VAT and service changes; a middle-sized unit’s rent is £25,000 a year on a three-year lease. They do not have to pay business rates.
According to the latest Local Data Company data, 11.3 per cent of retail and leisure space in Britain’s towns and cities is now vacant. UK consumer spending growth is weak — down 0.9 per cent in July— and many shops and pubs are hard pressed to keep their premises open. Shipping container schemes offer an alternative location for small businesses unable to afford conventional city centre overheads.
For councils, the containers are a way to revitalise vacant plots relatively quickly. The Stack, granted planning permission until April 2021, is part of a 12-acre site owned by a subsidiary of developers the Reuben Brothers. Regeneration plans for this area have been discussed for two decades, resulting in some parts becoming blighted. The Stack offers a “meanwhile use”, says Tom Warburton, Newcastle city council’s director of place. “It’s a temporary use which will add activity to the city.”
For developers, they are low-cost. Simon Rawlinson, the head of research at Arcadis, a consultancy, estimates they cost 50 per cent to 60 per cent of a conventional build. Neill Winch, chief executive of Danieli Holdings, which developed The Stack, said a conventional development is “at least three to four times the cost of a container system”.
Opponents of The Stack’s planning application included Intu Properties plc, which has recently greatly expanded the food and drink offer at its Eldon square development, Newcastle City centre, and entrepreneur Joe Robertson. Once a major force in Newcastle’s bar sector, Mr Robertson is a shareholder in Endless Stretch Ltd, which spent £3.5m fitting out premises occupied by Harry’s Bar in elegant Grey St, a one-minute walk from The Stack. Mr Robertson pursued an appeal against The Stack’s planning permission, arguing that the council had not fully considered its impact. “It will be successful at the expense of other units,” he said. But the appeal was rejected by a district judge.
“It’s a market place out there,” said Mr Winch. “Everybody has to up their game.”