Swindon town centre is entering its largest and most exciting period of regeneration for more than half a century with a new commercial district, cultural quarter and leisure and entertainment area planned for the next few years.
As a result the central area will become a vibrant heart for the town – attracting new businesses, residents and visitors and helping transform its image, according to those behind the schemes.
Forward Swindon, the council-owned economic development company, says the town centre is about to break free of the ‘concrete collar’ introduced by planners in the 1960s and 1970s which means it is dominated by roads which take motorists through the town but discourage shoppers and workers.
Pictured: Aerial view of the Kimmerfields site with the new apartment block in the foreground
Last week Forward Swindon and developer Muse unveiled the latest phase of the £350m Kimmerfields development, which is bringing a new commercial and residential quarter to the town centre.
Put alongside Regent Circus – the former Swindon College site where a multi-screen cinema, supermarket and restaurants are now under construction – and plans for a new cultural quarter including showpiece art gallery and museum in Princes Street, the Kimmerfields scheme will help regenerate the whole town centre.
The scheme’s first phase – a £15m 850 space multi-storey car park and 45-apartment residential building – is already complete. The second phase will involve levelling Fleming Way and transforming it from a four-lane through-road which divides the town centre in two, into a buses and bicycles-only single-lane bordered by a ‘linear park’ offering open and relaxing space for shoppers and office workers.
The new-look Fleming Way is expected to open in 2016. Returning it to its original level will remove the unwelcoming subway between The Parade and the Tri-Centre which, according to Forward Swindon chief executive Ian Piper, will make it far easier for visitors arriving by train to reach the town centre and give the area a more welcoming look.
Pictured: Artist's impression of Fleming Way after the regeneration work
“We know from conversations with the businesses in the town centre that the subway is viewed as a barrier between the offices north of it and the shops south of it,” he said.
“By levelling Fleming Way people will find it much more pleasant to walk into the town centre. It will also make it easier for people arriving at the railway station to walk to the town centre.
“The station concourse is now far more attractive following the work carried out their last year but there is still a feeling when you come out of the station that you don’t know how to reach the town centre.”
Kimmerfields will also bring more than 500,000 sq ft of high-quality offices to the town centre – which Forward Swindon and Muse hope will revitalise the area and make it attractive to major businesses.
The town centre has seen an exodus of office-based businesses over recent decades as they have been attracted to new showpiece business parks on the town’s fringes. Mr Piper said making the town centre more pedestrian-friendly and would also help attract businesses, which in turn would bring in more quality cafes, bars and restaurants.
Pictured: Fleming Way, showing the planned linear park
Muse has already received interest from three major potential occupiers for around 200,000 sq ft of office space. Of these, two are existing Swindon firms while one is interested in moving to the town, according to Muse director Doug Finlay.
He said the age profile of many town centre office buildings meant large occupiers were coming up to lease renewals over the next couple of years. Kimmerfields would ensure these businesses stayed in the town centre, he said.
Plans for the cultural quarter are also progressing with the £15m art gallery and museum project likely to be the first building on the site, the area around the Wyvern Theatre.
Swindon Council has pledged £5m and has applied to the Lottery Heritage Fund for a further £5m. The remaining £5m is being sought from private individuals and supporters.
The gallery and museum, planned for the site of the Wyvern car park, has the backing of Influence, the town’s leading business organisation. It is also supported by Robert Hiscox, honorary president of insurance giant Hiscox and a substantial art collector. He is now seeking sponsors and supporters from the art world for what he hopes will be a showpiece building in the heart of a new cultural quarter.
Discussions are underway to stage a competition to attract a big-name architect to design the building and put Swindon on the cultural map. The building would also include restaurants and bars, creating a new destination within the town centre. The Wyvern Theatre, now more than 40 years old, is also likely to be replaced within the next decade – allowing regeneration of the entire area.
While the town has a renowned collection of 20th century British art – one of the best in the UK outside of private hands – its current museum and art gallery in Old Town can display just a fraction of works at any one time.
Last week the council received £95,000 from the Arts Council’s Strategic Support Fund to pay for further consultation and planning work on the scheme.
Swindon Borough Council cabinet member for economy, regeneration and culture, Garry Perkins, said: “This will bring people into Swindon who may not think of visiting the town now. Combined with the other projects like Kimmerfields and Regent Circus, the face of the town centre is changing. We’ve got to attract new people to the town centre.”
With redevelopment north of the railway line at North Star, including a major facelift of the Oasis Leisure Centre and a new ski dome and hotel, and further expansion of the Great Western Designer Village at Churchward, it was vital that the schemes worked together and visitors could move between them, he said.