Can a neglected area of Liverpool become a ‘creative biosphere’? Alistair Houghton reports
IT’S hard not to warm to a project that proudly hails itself as a “bonfire of old-school regeneration mantras”.
And that’s how the latest manifesto for Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle area was launched to a crowd of creatives eager to hear how the overlooked semi-industrial landscape could be transformed into a creative “biosphere” to rival Salford’s MediaCity.
A group of businesspeople who already work in the Triangle have joined forces to write a manifesto for the area. They believe it has the potential to become a buzzing hub for the creative and digital sector, and could become a Merseyside equivalent to London’s Shoreditch or New York’s Meatpacking District.
The Baltic Triangle stretches from Wapping to Parliament Street, Park Road and St James Street.
Several creative enterprises have already set up in the area. The Elevator Studios complex, in Parliament Street, for example, houses dozens of creative firms from designers to video game developers.
Meanwhile, plans have been unveiled for the second phase of Baltic Creative, the public sector-backed initiative to transform disused warehouse space into homes for small firms.
The manifesto’s creators want the Baltic Triangle to become a “creative biosphere”. They want to see the area filled with creative and digital firms, large and small, all working with each other.
But, for it to become a real attraction for visitors, it needs more businesses to invest there. There may be many exciting businesses operating behind the scenes, but at street level the area still has many derelict sites and few obvious attractions for visitors.
Those behind the manifesto believe it needs more shops, bars or restaurants to open at street level, filling some of the gaps in the landscape and making it a more welcoming place.
Miles Falkingham, director of architecture practice Union North, is one of the team behind the manifesto.
For the area’s regeneration to succeed, Falkingham believes, then it needs to be led by the private sector and by the creative firms that will define the Baltic Triangle’s identity.
He describes the Baltic approach as: “A bonfire of old-school regeneration mantras; a celebration of everything marginal, curious and inspired; a private sector led, bottom-up, grassroots, networking, matchmaking and freewheelin’ revolutionary manifesto for change.”
For Falkingham, the strategy for the area is simple – get the creative companies in first, by offering them high-quality yet low-cost space, and regeneration will happen organically.
“Fill the area with people and the rest will follow,” he said. “Fill the area with creative, industrious and pioneering people and the rest will follow sooner.”
The manifesto team includes Chris Lee, of fashion firm Microbrands One, and Tim Speed, one of the brothers behind the £2m-plus Elevator Studios complex, in Parliament Street.
Lee came up with the biosphere concept, inspired by the changes he has seen in the Shoreditch, Hoxton and Spitalfields areas of London. Those East London areas were some of London’s forgotten districts, but have been reborn as trendy areas housing shops, restaurants, artists and creatives.
Lee, whose company owns the Slazenger Heritage brand, is passionate about the Baltic Triangle.
“People say Liverpool One is the jewel in the crown of Liverpool,” he said. “I would say the Baltic Triangle is the jewel in the crown.”
His ideas for the area include “pop-up cafes” serving the area, a range of “easy-in, easy-out” workshops for fledgling firms, and for Blundell Street to become home to restaurants, bars and cafes.
“Some people say it’s not happening,” he said. “Well, I’m very sorry, but it’s already happening.”
Not too far away from Liverpool, in Salford Quays, Peel is investing hundreds of millions of pounds in developing a creative campus of its own.
The MediaCity complex, whose first phase is nearing completion, will house five BBC departments and ITV’s Manchester operations. It will house thousands of workers, and is sure to attract many more media companies to Greater Manchester.
The Baltic Triangle project is on an altogether smaller scale. But Merseyside’s creative and digital firms are themselves generally small or micro firms.
The city’s regeneration bodies believe the creative sector is key to Merseyside’s future. Liverpool may not have a MediaCity but, they believe, it still needs its own creative quarter where those small enterprises can feel at home.
And so Liverpool Vision is among the backers of Baltic Creative, the community interest company that has converted warehouse space in Jordan Street into space for creative firms.
The company is about to embark on its second phase of warehouse conversion, designed by Falkingham’s Union North.
“It’s not good enough to deliver some white boxes in a conventional format and expect people to arrive there from other parts of the city,” said Falkingham. “We need to find solutions that are unique to the Baltic.”
The dividing walls between the existing tin sheds will come down – “We keep the roof on, smiled Falkingham, “it might be useful” – and then smaller buildings will be put inside. He said: “It’s a simple aesthetic – almost glorified garden sheds all the way through.”
Baltic Creative manager Mark Lawler sees his complex as a campus where firms can work together as envisaged in Lee’s biosphere.
Lawler said: “It will be a creative campus with a variety of different types of building and spaces, occupied by different types of creative business. We might have an architect next to a model maker next to an interior designer, and so on.
“The sector will benefit from these close links. We cannot stipulate that businesses work together, but we can create the environment for them to do it”
Just across the road from Baltic Creative, the Elevator Studios complex stands as living proof that the creative biosphere idea can work.
Tim and Paul Speed, who ran the original Elevator recording studios in the city centre, have converted a block of four Victorian warehouses in Parliament Street into a warren of offices and rehearsal spaces.
As well as housing bands including The Wombats, Elevator is home to design agencies such as Milky Tea and several of the young video games firms that have sprung up in the wake of job losses at Sony and Bizarre Creations, including Setgo Games.
Building work is continuing on Elevator. This week, a bar will open downstairs to replace Leaf tea shop, which closed several weeks ago.
Meanwhile, a store, called Baltic Chandlers, will be opened in the basement to sell anything from office stationery to guitar strings for the musicians who rehearse above.
Speed is proud that his privately-funded project has become a cornerstone of the Baltic Triangle community. And he is also proud that several of his tenants have started collaborating with each other to win contracts and grow their businesses.
“These were key warehouses,” he said. “They would have been full of exotic goods, and things like tobacco, cotton, and coffee. Now they’re full of ideas. We’ve brought them back into operation in a really interesting way.
“What we provide is an excellent and a cheap space. It’s a creative space.
“I’m finding that while music is still important to us, games are now, too. It’s interesting that we’re becoming a hub for the games industry.
“It’s a catalyst for the regeneration of this area. And it’s commercially driven – we’ve never had grants.”
There is one fear, however, that haunts many of the people backing the Baltic initiative – the fear that the area could become a victim of its own success.
It seems hard today to imagine The Beatles – and booze-soaked Mathew Street – as a creative quarter. But that is what it became in the late 1970s as artists and musicians turned it from a derelict and forgotten corner of the city into a hub of creative activity – including the music scene around its most famous venue, Eric’s.
But that fame soon attracted developers keen to cash in on the transformed street
Jayne Casey, the artistic director for the European Capital of Culture opening event in 2008 and one of the best-known figures on Liverpool’s music scene, is a board member at Baltic Creative.
Casey, who sang with punk band Big in Japan, told last week’s launch of the Baltic manifesto: “We had a fantastic time. It was our street.
“Then developers moved in because of the profile of the street. Rents went up. “The culture changed. We all moved on.”
The same, said Casey, happened with the area now known as the Ropewalks.
When Cream opened, followed by Baa Bar, it saved the area from demolition and brought it back to life. But, again, the developers moved in soon afterwards.
She said: “It’s always been a bugbear that artists go and create an area, but developers create the rewards.”
For Casey, the Baltic Triangle was the obvious next stop for the city’s creatives. And she is particularly pleased that Baltic Creative will plough its profits back into the area.
“We know our rent is supporting the future of the city,” she said. “It’s supporting this area. That’s so much more satisfying than paying your rent to some business guy.
“This area has got so much potential.”
Back at Baltic Creative, Mark Lawler is convinced that the Baltic Triangle is on the up – and believes that will boost the economy of the whole city.
“There’s a lot to be excited about,” he said. “Our second phase will be great. But it’s not just that – there are other projects happening here as well.
“Two or three years down the line, we’ll see it as a place which is more obviously supporting the growth of the creative and digital sectors.”