Festival Gardens: Fresh plans & images of council’s ambitious vision
After years of uncertainty, ambitious plans to transform the former International Festival Gardens site into a thriving residential and leisure destination on the banks of the Mersey are taking shape.
As Liverpool City Council searches for a developer to realise its vision of up to 2,500 homes sitting proudly beside retail and cultural attractions, Your Move explores the potential of the project and asks how it can help address the city’s housing needs.
Words by Mark Langshaw
Between May and October of 1984, the International Garden Festival came to Liverpool and helped the city’s flagging tourism industry blossom once again.
The event, which took place on a derelict industrial space south of Herculaneum Dock, attracted more than three million visitors to Otterspool and has left a lasting legacy there.
Festival Gardens, a 25-acre public green space which underwent a £3.7m revamp in 2011, and two nearby housing estates are permanent reminders of the success of ‘84, but these features are merely part of a wider site with untapped promise.
To the north lies a 27-acre development zone earmarked for housing-led regeneration as part of site owner Liverpool City Council’s Festival Park masterplan, which would see the gardens retained along with 37 acres of grasslands to the south to form a picturesque green suburb within three miles of the city centre.
Proposals for new homes on the vacant land have fallen through on more than one occasion – most recently in 2015 when Langtree severed a development partnership with the council – but one Liverpool property expert believes the site has too much potential to be left derelict.
“The site has huge potential because residents there would be close enough to the city centre to enjoy the lifestyle city living offers, but at the same time, they wouldn’t be in the thick of things,” says Alan Bevan, managing director of estate agent City Residential.
“It would suit tenants or buyers who want that lifestyle but don’t want to commit to living right in the centre of Liverpool. I think it could be a very important site for the city going forward.”
Not only could future residents at the riverside location take advantage of strong transport links, they would also have green space on their doorstep – complete with pagodas, play areas, waterfalls and a woodland trail – a highly sought-after bonus among renters and house buyers.
“We believe that the existing park is integral to the residential redevelopment of the site,” says Helen Norris, head of communications at The Land Trust, which manages Festival Gardens. “Green space is what makes residential sites more attractive. There’s a lot of research about this.
“We know Festival Gardens is a loved attraction. We have nearly 200 volunteers looking after the site and tens of thousands of visitors have used it. The gardens add enormous value to the local community and could be an integral way of gelling the housing aspects of the scheme together.”
It seems widely agreed that the former International Festival Gardens site is a prime location for a residential scheme, but what type of properties should be built there to address the housing needs of a city with a growing population?
“The site has huge potential because residents there would be close enough to the city centre to enjoy the lifestyle city living offers, but at the same time, they wouldn’t be in the thick of things.”
According to Alan, a broad mix of homes to cater for the city’s diverse demographic is the ideal scenario, but the most financially viable fit would be high density apartments, in line with the council’s provisional proposals.
“Given the size of the site and the amount of homes it could potentially host I think it needs to offer a broad selection of property types to cater for first-time buyers, empty-nesters, young professionals and even families if possible,” he says. “That isn’t always easy to achieve in a scheme like this.
“To make the project viable it will need to be a particularly high density scheme which would logically mean a development with apartments on there, and that could limit the type of buyer or tenant that will be drawn to the site.”
Furthermore, a traditional new build housing scheme is the last thing Alan expects to see spring up on the development site, which was once a landfill.
“It just wouldn’t work because of the former ground conditions and the amount of infrastructure that would have to go in,” he explains. “Logically, it’s going to be a collection of apartments but maybe there could be some townhouses in parts.
“The site will dictate what will go on there, rather than the market necessarily, but there’s no reason why these two factors won’t line up.”
Festival Park is one of numerous regeneration projects in Liverpool as the city’s resurgence continues, and the consensus is that it will complement other initiatives in the surrounding area.
For instance, Colin Sinclair, chief executive of Knowledge Quarter Liverpool – a £1 billion urban innovation district in the city centre spanning 450 acres – believes Festival Park could provide homes for the new talent the scheme is attracting.
“Festival Park is a unique opportunity to provide the kind of homes that Liverpool’s talented future workforce will need as we drive forward in science, health and innovation,” he tells Your Move.
“If we are to attract and retain the best and the brightest people we need to develop places where people are proud to live and can enjoy their leisure time and Festival Park’s waterfront location is ideal to achieving this.”
The council shed light on its vision for Festival Park at the International Festival for Business 2016 and the recent global property expo MIPIM, revealing colourful designs drawn up by K2 Architects.
The imagery highlighted the scope of the project, which includes the creation of a nearby Mersey Ferry landing stage, improved connectivity with St Michaels train station, docks and a waterpark.
Although Alan firmly believes Festival Park can be a key piece in the jigsaw of a regenerated Liverpool, he expresses concerns that the plans in their current form may be overly ambitious.
“When planning a project like this it’s important to ensure the vision is achievable,” he says. “There is always a danger it could become too aspirational when they’re trying to get a developer on board.
“We know there is a demand for people to live in that area, but if the ambition is for it to be ground-breaking, one of the best residential developments in Western Europe, there could be a danger of it falling through. Maybe it needs to be softened with more traditional residential elements.
“Having said that, I have no doubt the site can be a big part of Liverpool’s future. It’s important that these homes are built to house the growing population and Festival Park is a great location.”
Based on feedback from a public consultation, the council is due to submit a revised Festival Park masterplan after conferring with its development partners and present it to the cabinet this spring, with a recommendation that the project is taken forward as a matter of priority.