The inability to make Princes Street a business hub

The Princes Street office corridor is a prime example of poor planning, lack of imagination and complete inability to redevelop a ‘prime’ location.

The street, home to a number of largely vacant office blocks, a fire station, a closed pub and rundown car showroom is the first thing people see when walking from the train station into the town centre. Despite the extremely close proximity to the train station (within 5 minutes walking distance), the council and the various Ipswich Vision groups are finding the development a tough sale, the build and they will come mentality is not working. The problem, an emphasis on cheap office space, poor planning and lack of joined up thinking. The idea for this ‘office corridor’ is to attract relocating London businesses, yet, only two local firms have new offices on the road. Why would a London firm choose to relocate to Ipswich over Cambridge given the state of our infrastructure, the fact Princes Street is in the centre of the town and Cambridge’s connectivity to London and beyond far exceeds that of Ipswich?

The Princes Street office corridor does not include the whole length of the road. It only encompasses the road from the Grafton Way junction to the Civic Drive junction, a length of 0.2 miles.

CONNEXIONS 159
– FORMERLY HARVEST HOUSE – FISON’S HQ

The first office building you will see on Princes Street. The original building was designed by architect Birkin Haward in the 1960’s and was the headquarters for Fisons. Its modernist design reflected the optimism of the era, however, by today’s standard, this building, once a beacon of the towns booming industry soon became an outdated eyesore.

 

Since Fisons was acquired by United States-based Rhone-Poulenc Rorer, Inc. the building fell empty and gradually fell into a state of disrepair. Since 1995 it remained largely vacant. Until! A proposal to develop it into a high quality office space… with no occupant signing up. Plans were drawn up and various estate agents began marketing the yet uncompleted building as Connexions 159 in 2010. It was not until 2015 when £9 million was spent transforming the building. Upon completion in late 2015 the building had no tenants. Every week there was ‘interest’ and as of now, the Summer of 2017, not a single tenant.

Despite it being having a Grade A specification, being extremely energy efficient and having Enterprise Zone Status, it is now a drab, dull, empty building sitting in a prime location. It quickly became a metaphor of Ipswich. Recently the Council have become optimistic/desperate, they are relying on businesses relocating from London, however, there is competition in other towns such as Cambridge, Colchester and Chelmsford, both of which are closer to London and have better transport links. Long story short, a build it and will come mentality will not work in an area full of vacant offices.

153 OFFICES

Next door to the empty Connexions 159 is the 153 offices and was home to Suffolk Life, an Ipswich-based pension firm who established their home in Princes Street in 1971. The company was acquired by Curtis Banks Group plc of Legal & General Group for £45 million in 2016, despite this, the building has a 100% occupancy rate.

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PORTMAN HOUSE

Portman house, located on the junction of Princess Street and Portman Road was part of a larger complex of buildings once occupied by the Churchman and John Players cigar and cigarette company. However, when the owner, Imperial Tobacco, switched manufacturing to Bristol, production came to an end and the building become vacant in 1992. More recently CSV media occupied and converted the building into 40 small offices, they have since moved to the Old Crown Court building in Civic Drive.

In 2016, the Archant owned East Anglian Daily Times and Ipswich Star refurbished and moved into Portman House from their old office in Lower Brook Street, making it their Headquarters. The building underwent a transformation, converting the interior into a modern open plan arrangement. With a 100% occupancy rate, the building houses 100 Archant employees. Their former offices are to be sold to developers. Lower Brook Street holds the key to linking the town centre to the waterfront. Plans, later scrapped, consisted of a a shopping plaza and offices. However, that was too optimistic for the council, instead, retirement apartments are to be constructed on the site. Not quite the waterfront link we were hoping for.

BIRKETTS HEADQUARTERS

Considering the vacant office space, it may be surprising that a brand new, five storey, 55,000sq ft office building is being constructed. The large East Anglian law company Birketts, are relocating from their, now cramped, offices in Museum Street into a £12 million building that will house approximately 260 highly skilled lawyers and business support staff.

 

Set for completion in early 2018, this will mark the construction of the first office building in the Street for over 30 years. The Old offices will be converted into apartments upon completion. One reason for the fact this building has gone up so quick is that Ipswich Borough Council invested the money, and Birketts will pay rent.

ST CLARE HOUSE

Part of the Greyfriars complex, St Clare House was constructed in 1968 and consisted of 12 storeys of office space. It was however a concrete monstrosity. The entire building was re-clad and modernised in the late 1980’s. Despite this, the building never had an occupancy rate over 50%. As of 2017, the building has only one occupant, HMRC who employ a workforce of 166 occupying 3 of the 12 floors. The rest are are ‘cheap’ offices awaiting occupancy.

 

The buildings future may be in doubt, HMRC, the only occupant are set to close all regional offices to relocate to five office national offices in Stratford, the Ipswich office is set to close in 2023-2024. If this comes to fruition, one of the largest and most prominent buildings in Ipswich will be completely vacant.

This demonstrates the short slightness of the Government, not just the council. They are closing all regional office in the country to ‘save’ costs, by relocating to Stratford where it will most likely be extremely expensive. Even the government admitted it may not save as much money as they’d hoped. Even so, this will have an adverse impact on the town and will leave a completely empty building.

FRIARS BRIDGE ROAD OFFICES 

Despite having its main entrance on the adjacent Friars Bridge Road, the building is very much a part of the Princes Street office corridor. For years, the office building was home to the offices of the insurance firm Legal and General. However, in early 2015, Legal and General began relocating its offices to Birmingham and Hove resulting in the closure of its Ipswich office causing the loss of 140 jobs.

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The building remained completely vacant until a local firm planned to relocate here. Concertus Design & Property Consultants, one of the largest architectural firms in the region have planned to relocate from Endeavour House. The move will see the office building refurbished and over 100 people relocating from the Suffolk County Council Headquarters. They expect to move into the building by the end of 2017.

FUTURE OFFICE DEVELOPMENT

This leaves the former Landspeed garage and former Drum and Monkey pub. This large area that backs onto the car park for Portman Road sits between Portman House and Friars Bridge Road Offices on the opposite side to Birketts and 153 offices. Plans have been submitted to construct a five storey 50,000sq ft office building because Council leader David Ellesmere thinks there is a lack of offices in Ipswich.

We are submitting this application because there is a shortage of modern good quality office accommodation in Ipswich.

There are a number of Ipswich firms who have been looking for quality office accommodation for some time and being unable to move to find suitable accommodation limits their ability to grow and recruit and retain staff.

Plans have been drawn up, and the design is finalised, just one problem. Construction will not start until a tenant has been found. This building, if constructed, will be the first block of the proposed Portman Road office masterplan, that will see a number of office buildings and multi-storey car parks constructed. Yet, tenants cant be found for the empty buildings, not only in Princes Street, but throughout Ipswich.

CONCLUSION

The Princes Street office corridor is meant to be hub for businesses, 5 minute walk to the town centre, train station in close proximity and… fairly, adequate parking. It has not quite achieved that.

In total:

  • £9 million refurbished building lays empty
  • St Clare House, occupancy rate of 25% could be 0% in 10 years
  • By 2024, 306 could have been lost since 2015.
  • No significant number of jobs have been created.
  • Two local companies have relocated to Princes Street, although it is a good move for these companies it has failed to attract larger companies such as Axa and Willis that are located just above the office corridor

Only time can tell if the council can make it an attractive location to relocate to, or this plan will be dead in the water in a few years time before the council turn their attention to a new vanity project. At the moment – its the Upper Orwell Crossings.

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