Will first major office building in years spark a revival in Derby developments?
People who travel into Derby along a certain route cannot fail to have noticed a new office building that has risen out of the ground. The development is Friar Gate Square – the first major office block to be built in the city centre for more than 20 years. Business editor Robin Johnson was given an exclusive tour of the building.
THE artist's impressions promised much – now we can start to see why city leaders were so excited at the prospect of Friar Gate Square.
Almost 10 months on from the start of construction work, the main structure is complete and the glass has been fitted, along with the copper plating, which gives the building a distinctive look.
The focus has now switched to fitting out the interior of the building, which is due for completion next month.
Just from walking around Friar Gate Square in its current state, you get the feeling that this is a very special building.
It is special for a number of reasons.
First of all, it is the first major office development to built in Derby city centre for 22 years. The last building on such a scale was constructed in Stuart Street.
Secondly, it is being built speculatively. This means that, when building work began, a tenant had not been lined up to occupy the development.
This is widely considered as something of a rarity in the current economic climate.
Weakened business confidence has meant that fewer firms are relocating and the spectre of empty property rates, which is a tax on empty commercial buildings, has deterred developers from sinking spades into the ground.
And, finally, and perhaps most importantly for Derby as a whole, once Friar Gate Square starts to sign up tenants, it will hopefully persuade other developers, who are sitting on plots with permission for offices, to start work on their own schemes.
But it is clear that if and when those developers decide to start work, they will find Friar Gate Square is a very tough act to follow.
The development sits on the corner of Agard Street and Ford Street and has just over 32,000sq ft of office space, spread over six storeys.
The first and second floors have the largest amount of office space, in excess of 7,000sq ft. Floors three and four have more than 5,000sq ft. The ground floor has 4,000sq ft.
The fifth floor at the top of the building has the smallest floor space at 3,433sq ft. It has a penthouse feel, commanding stunning panoramic views of Derby thanks to windows that run from floor to ceiling.
In fact, every level has decent views for one reason. Hundreds of pieces of coloured glass have been used in the development, complemented by the copper cladding.
John Forkin, managing director of Marketing Derby, which promotes the city as a place to invest, believes Friar Gate Square represents a real statement of intent.
He said: "This is a stunning building, which is being built to an incredibly high specification.
"It's the kind of office building you would expect to see in somewhere like London or Copenhagen.
"It was important that the first new office building in Derby for more than 20 years would set the benchmark.
"I believe this has been achieved -– and, once the first occupiers move in, I believe it will set the ball rolling in terms of other schemes.
"Perhaps one of the criticisms of Pride Park is the type of buildings on there.
"With developments like the Roundhouse aside, the buildings are very functional.
"But here in the city centre we have a chance to create buildings which reflect 21st-century Derby. Places like Quad and Riverlights show what new Derby is all about.
"Friar Gate Square is yet another addition to this family."
But, like any new addition to a family, there is a long gestation period – and Friar Gate Square was no exception.
Lowbridge, the firm behind the scheme, first revealed its plans back in April, 2009.
It was presented as a 100,000 sq ft scheme, consisting of two large office building and additional public open space looking out on to the inner ring road.
It also included plans to bring the redundant Friar Gate Railway Bridge back into use as a pedestrian link.
Overall, the development would cost £20 million, with the potential to bring up to 700 jobs to Derby.
At the time, Lowbridge said once the project had been granted planning permission, work would start in early 2010, with the buildings completed by early 2012.
But almost three years ticked by before activity started on the first phase of the development, which is what Derby is seeing now.
Lowbridge needed an incentive to start building – and it came in the form of Derby City Council's £10 million Regeneration Fund, which was set up to stimulate office developments in the city centre by helping with construction costs.
The company was granted an undisclosed amount of cash from the fund towards the development and, in February this year, a ground-breaking ceremony was held to mark the beginning of work.
Ten months later, building contractor Clegg Construction has made good progress and Friar Gate Square will be delivered ahead of schedule.
John Needleman, of Jensco Properties, which is managing the development on behalf of Lowbridge, said: "The building is due to be finished by mid-January, which is at least a month ahead of schedule. Clegg has done a wonderful job.
"I'm absolutely delighted with the building. It's an often overused phrase but I believe that we have created a truly iconic building for Derby that does not detract from the historic architecture which already exists in the Friar Gate Conservation Area.
"I'm very hopeful that Friar Gate Square will attract tenants as it is the first Grade A office space to be built in the city centre for more than 20 years and I think there is a pent up demand."
Once occupied, it will be able to accommodate up to 350 people.
Great success that Pride Park has been, one thing it has done is concentrate many Derby businesses in an area that is just outside the main city centre.
Mr Forkin hopes that Friar Gate Square will herald a change and lead to more business people being seen in the city centre.
Mr Forkin said: "There are not only direct economic benefits in terms of having more people working in the city centre. The phrase 'more suits on streets' is nice – but the reality is that these workers will want to eat, drink and shop in Derby.
"With these facilities just yards away, surrounding businesses stand to benefit."
As Derby eagerly awaits news of the first occupants, thoughts are already turning to Friar Gate Square's legacy.
At present, Derby has about a million square feet of city centre office projects waiting to be built.
Such schemes include Cedar House Investments' City Gate House and Bolsterstone's Central Square development, both in Cathedral Road.
Wilson Bowden's Number One Cathedral Green scheme, in Full Street, is also yet to be built.
Mr Forkin said: "I believe we are at the beginning of something special. Take something like Pride Park – 15 years ago there were people who felt it was never going to take off. Today, Pride Park is full.
"I'm hopeful that, once the developers see the success of Friar Gate Square, those schemes will begin."