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Water Street: Liverpool's new cultural frontier?

Take a 1970s office block in the city's increasingly vacant business district and colonise it with every kind of artist at affordable rates. Roger Hill is doing

Written by . Published on October 7th 2014.

Water Street: Liverpool's new cultural frontier?

IN the past fortnight two very different events have demonstrated the strange volatility of the world of Liverpool property. 

Few in the city have grasped how far property is the key to so much which affects Liverpool’s present and future prosperity. The arts and culture, housing, business, regeneration, tourism are all underpinned by issues of property management and development. If we can get property right the rest will be free to flourish. 

Raise your eyes above the shop-fronts and it’s clear that Liverpool’s historic business district is empty, a mere shell containing millions of square feet of unoccupied office space

The first event suggests we are getting property wrong:  the sudden, but not wholly unanticipated, closure of Mello Mello. 

This wasn’t simply the closure of a much-loved café-bar but of the whole building, and with it the base for a cluster of small but vital organisations and their studios and offices. 

The financial writing had been on the wall for many of the independent businesses in the Ropewalks area since the properties once owned by the defunct Frensons company were this year bought up by developers - and the inexorable conversion to flats, bars and retail is now under way. 

Today Mello Mello, tomorrow some established music venues and a host of artists’ studios - redeveloped and unaffordable. If Ropewalks was the most squattable area of Liverpool city centre that is all changing and within two years much will be unrecognisable to the free spirits who use the area now.

Broadcaster Roger Hill:You can always go... Downtown: Broadcaster Roger Hill, presenter of BBC's Popular Music Show, among many other things, leads the way for the culturally dispossessed as money does the talking in the Ropewalks and Baltic zones

A while back, the official remedy for such a forced evacuation was obvious – The Baltic Triangle. A bit further out of town but the same informal, affordable vibe, was the notion. But who would suggest that now? 

The Baltic zone, it could be said, is the victim of its own success or hype, but, increasingly, the affordable options there are few and far between. A ten-minute walk from the centre it may be, and connected by a small bus service, but its night-time ambience is not pedestrian-friendly. In between the music venues, there is almost nothing to generate a lively and sociable street-scene. 

For digital and media start-ups, the Baltic Triangle may have been a godsend, but not for the impoverished artists, the informal creative enterprises and the motley individuals needing space to work out ideas and try out new, or old, ways of making cultural gestures which pay the rent.

You will notice the lack of statistics in this article. Who has reported on these matters? Who has the figures for rents and occupancy? Who knows which developers are making money out of which properties? Liverpool Vision may know, and a few journalists have made inroads into publicising the world of deals and leases and policy-free-for-alls, but for most of the public the situation is far from transparent, and in the meantime it’s the hopeful culturals who are being victimised.


Which brings us to the city’s business district and the other significant event of recent times. If much of Liverpool’s central area is For Sale, most of the business district is To Let. You don’t have to wander far from Liverpool One to notice the number of To Let signs everywhere. We have become used, since even before the 2008 crash, to seeing empty shops in the city centre but raise your eyes above the shop-fronts and it’s clear that Liverpool’s historic business district is empty, a mere shell containing millions of square feet of unoccupied office space. 

Again, who has the statistics? It’s not a good advertisement for a city earnestly pursuing regeneration to publicise the vacancy at the heart of its collection of historic and listed commercial buildings. And why should we care? 

8 Water Street %2820%29Clockwatching on the 4th floorOne person prepared to care is Colin Sinclair Director of Property Marketing at Bruntwood the property company who, at a breakfast meeting during this summer’s International Festival of Business, declared an intention to confer with Joe Anderson about creating a working party to tackle the problem.

And the problem is that the kinds of businesses and headquarters organisations who once needed large office suites and a central space for 100+ employees have moved out of the city centre - and often the city altogether - to business parks where the car-parking is easy and free and where accommodation is ready and waiting in architecturally-neutral sheds built for 21st century office practice. 

It’s easier and more economical to do that than to convert a huge listed building, and who needs to be in a city centre for business purposes these days anyway? The result? Well, have you been caught up in Liverpool’s city centre rush-hour recently? Of course not – there isn’t one. Barcelona, Tokyo, Seattle – you have nothing to fear from Liverpool’s downtown. Water Street is almost deserted at five o’clock.

8 Water Street %2817%29-001Blank canvas: 8 Water Street, built in 1973, is about to get a radical new use

Ah, yes, Water Street. Next time you’re down that way cast your eyes over Number 8, formerly Norwich House, the headquarters of Norwich Union (now Aviva, and occupying a small frontal suite on the first floor of the building). It’s a 1973 building which made a fair go of fitting in amongst the older blocks and harmonising with the famously radical Oriel Chambers next door. 8 Water Street has been largely empty for a long time, housing just three firms in barely a tenth of its available space – but now the artists have arrived!

In a rent-free arrangement, sponsored by the national artist-led disability organisation SHAPE Arts, a group of local artists have taken on the responsibility of filling the building’s empty spaces with cultural, arts and charitable activities. The If Only… collective of performing artists, of which I am a member, is seeking to re-populate the spaces of 8 Water Street with painters, dancers, musicians and organisations which support marginal and minority groups through cultural activity - and the “hopeful culturals”. 

None of this use will be entirely free, but nor will it be at commercial rates. Costs will be covered, that is all. If Only… have been most noticeable in the last few years for their unconventional events at The Bluecoat climaxing last year in “Occupy” which took over the arts centre’s Gallery 3 for a short season of debate and performance, improvisation, interaction and exhibition. Now, however, the much bigger task is to turn a largely-empty office-block into a thriving focus for as many of the culturally dispossessed and the enterprisingly creative as possible.

We held our first open nght recently. In every sense, watch this space.   

Want to get involved?


OUR vision is for 8 Water St is to enliven the cultural ecology of the city by providing performance opportunities, rehearsal space, dance studios, a hot-desking area, meeting spaces, exhibition space, treatment rooms, artists’ studios, performance laboratories, craft activities, photographic studios, equipment storage and filming opportunities at low cost as well as providing local charities with free access to the facilities.

To find out more about If Only… and its plans for 8 Water Street please E-Mail ifonlyperformance@gmail.com and we will put you on our mailing list. Use that address to find out when the building’s spaces can be viewed and for proposals for use of the spaces or occupancy of one of the smaller office areas. 

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30 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Dale StreetOctober 7th 2014.

This is a great idea and especially good for those who live on the northern or Wirral lines as the public transport inks are terrific. As are the views.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.

I approve. A lot.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.

Well done Roger for taking the lead on this

Clive MayOctober 7th 2014.

I think it is a great idea. Can someone tell me something? Why is so much space going begging in the business district and why is that ACL are creating an HQ buildings from scratch when there is apparently so much good quality space available? It was only 20 years ago that I worked in India Buildings and then the whole area had near enough full occupancy in the adjacent buildings. What went wrong?

9 Responses: Reply To This...
John BradleyOctober 7th 2014.

It is no longer up to scratch fitting the IT in, is almost impossible.

AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.


AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.


AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.


AnonymousOctober 7th 2014.


AnonymousOctober 9th 2014.

I don't buy that argument about the IT. Other cities, Manchester and London, say, have miles of similar buildings and they are thriving. The commercial district is in ruin and no one will face up to that fact.

John BradleyOctober 9th 2014.

In other places there is nowhere to go so they have to make the best, in Liverpool they just moved to Old Hall Street.

AnonymousOctober 9th 2014.

Well they shouldn't be allowed to!

the old old StoreyOctober 11th 2014.

The Council sold off its properties cheap to make short-term savings, developers and property speculators - many of them foreign - bought them for a song in the early 1990s and raised the rents so that what businesses that are still trading in the centre of Liverpool cannot afford to rent these offices. So they stand empty.

Clive MayOctober 10th 2014.

I agree, I don't buy that IT argument either. 10 years after I was forced to leave Liverpool to work in Manchester, there were plenty of buildings on the Portland street side of town that were all doing well and continue to thrive. This is more about the refusal of firms to take the offering of Liverpool seriously and make a commitment. Stems all the way back to the bad old days of militant labour and the still pre-conceived idea that the city is a bit of a joke. 5 years of militant behaviour and it will take at least 20 + years to change the mind set of business and investors. I've noticed as well that Hatton like the war criminal Blair is starting to get airplay for his opinion. How about the former explaining what he actually did for the city of Liverpool except send 20,000.00 + jobs up the M62 into the grateful hands of Manchester. That's where my job went.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousOctober 11th 2014.

Completely agree Clive, and while the leaders of Liverpool continue to buy into the bullshit of Peel and their drawing, nothing will change.

AnonymousOctober 11th 2014.

The Echo buy into it, too..

the old old StoreyOctober 11th 2014.

And the taxpayer pays through the nose for what developments Peel actually build.

Castle StreetOctober 12th 2014.

Has anyone been in the India Buildings lately? It is 90 percent empty. There is patently no need to build Liverpool Waters when millions of square feet of office space lies begging in stunning listed buildings like this and Martins Bank. If international companies are not queuing up to occupy these buildings why would they queue up to occupy their very dull blocks on the north docks. Complete idiocy.

1 Response: Reply To This...
the old old StoreyOctober 12th 2014.

Hear hear!

Urban BlightOctober 12th 2014.

"defunct Frensons company"? The company to which the Council 'sold' half the freeholds in Bold Street for a tiny amount when it was called 'Charterhouse'? Then one day it closed for business and re-opened the next day as 'Frenson'? How can such a cynically profiteering developer become "defunct"?

6 Responses: Reply To This...
Urban BlightOctober 12th 2014.

Frenson immediately bought Charterhouse's assets for a fraction of their true value and wrote off debts worth millions.

John BradleyOctober 12th 2014.

Frensons owned/own 9 Gambier terrace, they where incredibly bad neighbours they had a security company that used collect cash from their various car parks and bring them it to the terrace, they knew there was no speed limit on the terrace so they would just drive down as fast as they good in big 4WD block the terrace and threaten anyone who complained.

John BradleyOctober 12th 2014.

Some of the winging in here is as ludicrous as that over Sefton non meadows. The reason a company would not want to be in a listed building on castle street but would prefer to be in a boring block on Liverpool Waters is that the boring block is designed for modern business and will, one way or another be of greater benefit than sitting in a building that was design to be heated by coal fires all over the place, has no real air conditioning to take away the heat from all the computers, and is one way or another a warren of stairs. Companies like Weightman's moved out of Indian Buildings to nice new efficient buildings on Old Hall Street as did the passport office, because one way or another it was far far better for them. You may whine about militant but the arguments being put forward here are another prime reason companies avoid Liverpool. Some of the city centre buildings are going to remain in there original use because of good fortune they are adaptable others aren't. If we want to keep them then other uses haft to be found for them. It may be that the uses are providing services to the new shiny business district to the north of Hall Street. The other dumb bit is that some how companies acquired castle street buildings then priced themselves out of the market, completely senseless.

scouse690October 16th 2014.

Oh dear, JB, the facts are plain for all to see. Sefton Meadows were never created with the word "non" in the middle. Would you say "Woolton NON Woods?" ...or "Walton NON Park?" ...or "Stanley NON Park?" or Otterspool NON Promenade?" But to make things worse, you then try and use lack of air conditioning for computers as an excuse as to why the likes of India Buildings, 4 Water Street etc, cannot be used.YES they can and they can be updated! We can save this fantastic heritage of ours, and our wonderful buildings. If we all listened to your argument re technology, then The Town Hall would have been closed as would have The World Museum and Library on William Brown Street!! The dumb bits...Mayor Joe, and the dumb so called Liverpool council. We need a council with a voice for Liverpool....not a dictatorship!!

AnonymousOctober 16th 2014.

Hear hear!

John BradleyOctober 16th 2014.

The difference is Woolton Woods is a Woods, sefton meadows is not a Meadows it is a field. As soon as it used to grow grass for fodder, it will be a meadow, because that is what a meadow is. If they can be upgraded why are they being left? You seem intent on denying reality. The town hall has not been updated in the slightest and is a time capsule, it was never an office, the world Museum was completely gutted for the new but and the actual library was destroyed during WW2 and the rebuilt and recently knocked down and rebuilt. The rotunda is kept largely as it was. I can't help thinking if you do not know these things you cannot have actually been in to town recently.

John DaviesOctober 23rd 2014.

Actually the bit of Woolton Woods the mayor wants to build over is not a wood it's a field and also a park. Call Sefton Park Meadows what you want: it is 2 fields surrounded by magnificent mature trees and was 'un-parked' by the mayor. The mayor and Redrow Homes sing from the same hymn sheet: saying there's too much undeveloped green space in the city, undermine & belittle the importance and value of green open space and then generate income from highly profitable green field sites by building over them. I bet Hatton wished he had a partner like Redrow. www.ourground.net…

John DaviesOctober 23rd 2014.

Congratulations 'if Only' for taking this building on and hope your lease continues to be renewed so you can fully develop into the future. But beware - it's an old trick to make un-used buildings in run-down areas cheaply available for creatives & artist studios to help create a buzz of creative energy and social activity in an area. It's happened in the Antcoates area of Manchester and other parts of Liverpool already. Once an area is up-lifted with sustained attractive social activity then the developers become excited and move back in. Btw Liverpool Confidential your Facebook login is not set up properly and don't work.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
John BradleyOctober 23rd 2014.

If the developers come back it is great for Liverpool. It is not like there is a shortage of buildings that could be moved into, if the lease is ended.

Phil HargreavesNovember 4th 2014.

Several of the If Only team (meself included) have been round the block a couple of times, so yes, we're aware of the thang about using artists to regenerate duff areas. We can be booted out at short notice, but such is life. We don't got the budget to pay the rent. I don't see how you can still be blaming Militant for the state of the business district. That was 30 years ago. 8 Water St was fully let 10 years ago. With call centres. No prizes for guessing why it's virtually empty now, and it's nothing at all to do with Trotskyist headbangers. But it's not alone - the business district is hollowed out, and without prospect of that changing. So what do we do with that empty space???

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