Rapid change always causes tensions, and it can easily end up destroying neighbourhoods. Gentrification is notoriously guilty of erasing the very local peculiarities that drew people to the area in the first place.
According to James, sensible developers need not pose a risk. ‘We all know how change can bring value for some people, and stress for others, and we know there is a lot of responsibility. We see Digbeth as an antidote to the city centre – it is absolutely the antithesis of everything you find on Broad Street and at Brindleyplace. It is a very different part of the city. As landlord to 500 tenants in Digbeth, ranging from international design agencies through to someone who makes sculptures out of old taxis, we’re very conscious of that eclectic tenant mix, and it brings a grain to what we do and will inform how we work in Digbeth over the next 10-15 years.’
James is refurbishing the Digbeth portfolio step by step. The latest project is the office conversion of the 13,000 sq ft Portland House, Floodgate Street. It comes as work nears completion at the Wilds, an 11,000 sq ft warehouse now ready as workspace or collaborative floorspace, which is due this summer, and the 8,000 sq ft Floodgate Factories, currently being ‘reactivated’ as studios.
James insists that going with the grain is the only way to make sense of the neighbourhood and the buildings. The sense that Oval is a custodian, rather than a mere landlord, is very powerful and reminiscent of the landed estates that control so much of central London. This brings the stability needed if changing a building’s purpose is to be sustainable.
‘Gentrification should not be at the expense of locals, and we shouldn’t get too expensive so it threatens tenants who have been there for a long time,’ James concludes. ‘I feel those responsibilities very acutely in Digbeth. Some of our business tenants have been there for 25 years, since the days when most people wouldn’t go to Digbeth for love nor money.’
Cherish the past, but look to the future? With more office developers like Oval entering the market, this could soon be the motto of the UK workspace scene.