Exclusive by Richard Wheeler
Friday, February 8, 2013
Insurance giant Aviva has drawn up its own proposals for a city centre revamp – challenging city council designs for the future of a major shopping street.
Norwich City Council’s vision for the St Stephens area includes creating a walkway to the bus station by demolishing the two St Stephens Towers and eight Aviva-owned shops, including BHS, CEX and WH Smith.
The aim is to provide better pedestrian access between St Stephens Street and Queens Road/Surrey Street and provide new shops and homes.
But Evening News research shows Aviva believes the city council’s plan for St Stephens Towers – which could cost Aviva at least £22.7m – is unsound and is urging a rethink, saying: “We would strongly recommend that the draft masterplan is reconsidered.”
Council officials are planning to submit a list of sites earmarked for new houses to the government in April, with a public inquiry due to start in July or September.
Aviva has asked the council to confirm that demolition of the St Stephens Towers, which have been vacant since 2009, is “not an essential element of any redevelopment proposal”.
The firm wants the number of properties for the site to be reduced from 250 to a minimum of 150. Aviva designs outline how the towers could provide 149 apartments, with 119 classed as affordable housing and the remainder used as student accommodation and/or an apartment hotel.
The company has also suggested including the pedestrian link to the bus station - but only if it can be shown to be viable.
Paul Doughty, director of property services company DTZ, writing on behalf of Aviva, told the council: “We believe that the creation of a new pedestrian link between the bus station and St Stephens Street is unlikely to prove financially viable and in addition is likely to adversely affect significant remaining parts of the retail element at St Stephens.
“Furthermore, securing early vacant possession would prove very difficult under L&T [Landlord-Tenant] legislation particularly as a number of tenants have recently committed to new 10-year leases.
“We would therefore strongly recommend that the  draft masterplan is reconsidered and the layout plans altered so that, as far as the retail element is concerned, the accommodation is left in-situ and thus the retail businesses can continue to trade as they do today.”
Aviva has warned it could cost between £2.75m and £3m to demolish the towers and the shop units.
The overall cost of the project to Aviva, including building new retail units, is estimated at between £20.5m to £22.7m. The estimates do not include VAT, inflation and other potential costs.
Aviva added it would immediately lose £1.2m in rent per year, not including service charges, if it had to demolish eight shops.
It estimated the replacement shops mooted by the council would generate approximately £880,000 per year in rent - a loss of £358,000.
A city council spokeswoman said: “The outline St Stephens masterplan was drafted based on a sound knowledge of planning policy, the needs and the history of the area, as well as extensive consultation.
“While it was designed to give a clear vision, or aspiration, for the area, it is also, to some extent, a guide and not designed to rigidly set specific development restrictions in stone, especially when market needs may shift and change.
“The council will continue to listen to changing needs or development ideas, making sure it gets the right balance that will bring the widest benefits to the community and area.”
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