The Customs House is a very important building in the history of Cardiff. This building (on left of the photograph) was built about 1845, with extensions from 1865 and 1980s and features in “The Buildings of Wales” series. It original stood alongside the Glamorganshire Canal (now filled in). The building on the right is the York Hotel dating to 1890.
Cardiff Civic Society was disappointed to read in the press of plans to demolish both the Customs House and former York Hotel, St Mary Street/Custom House Street, while retaining the Custom House façade – replacing these buildings with purpose built student accommodation.
Our concerns are twofold. First, we have previously made representations in the context of the LDP about the need for a policy on the conversion of existing buildings for student accommodation in the city centre. We note from the press reports on this case that this is a concern that others share. There is a real danger that provision for students – which clearly offers a substantial return for developers as student numbers in the City increase – will crowd out commercial and office uses. In a recession this may not present an immediate problem, but as we emerge from the downturn and as Cardiff promises to play an increasingly important role as the centre of its city region we may find that the lack of and/or the range of office space becomes an issue.
It is especially important that the provision of office space close to transport hubs, as will be the case with this development, should be a priority and not prejudiced by provision for students. If Cardiff is to meet the LDP’s ambitions for reducing car use then workplaces need to be near transport links.
We are naturally aware of the development in the Central Square that will increase available office and commercial space adjacent to rail and bus connections. However we don’t think that weakens the argument above. It is likely that Central Square will command a premium, being a prestige site, and alternatives should be available with similarly good transport connections.
Our second concern lies with the loss of part of the City’s Victorian heritage – the York Hotel – and the retention of only the façade of the Custom House. The City centre is becoming increasingly bland, losing it character as a quintessentially Victorian City. This is not helped by retaining a façade behind which looms an overpowering, modern development. A recent Guardian article highlighted this, citing in particular the Altolusso Tower – not a good advertisement for the City.
The retention of facades can be appropriate in the right circumstances, but all too often is a means by which developers can secure permission by assuaging planners’ concerns and getting round listing at little cost to themselves. At worst they represent an unimaginative and expedient solution to the problem of what to do with a listed building.
The Civic Society’s view is that there should be a strong presumption in favour of retaining the fabric and essential character of listed buildings, allowing that, where appropriate, internal works to make them capable of a beneficial use can be done. Similarly, extensions to the exterior should be sympathetic and, critically, in scale with the original, not overwhelming it.