ELECTRIC WHARF - private site, public funding
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Interview with developer Ian Harrabin of Complex Development Projects Ltd
Electric Wharf is a private sector led live/work mixed-use development at Foleshill in Coventry. It aims to provide 65 loft apartments for live/work use, 18 environmentally friendly eco-houses on the canal bank and over 2000 square metres of new technology office space. The public sector has helped fund this scheme as part of its contribution to cleaning up brown field sites by the canal. The RDA's single pot money (incorporating English Partnerships budgets) has been secured for the site. Electric Wharf is targeting ICT based creative industry businesses. It will include attractive street art to make its environment distinctive. The developer, Ian Harrabin, is Coventry born but lives in London and is passionate to put something back into the area he comes from.
Harrabin's company, Complex Development Projects, brands the site as 'a new European‑style urban village with a mix of offices and homes built to the latest design and environmental standards on a landmark canal bridge site and old power station in Coventry'.
Why was live/work considered for the site?
Harrabin: 'This was partly a result of funding streams. Government Office told us that we couldn't get RDA money through ERDF without a strong work element on the site. There is no EU funding available for residential‑only developments like this, due to state aid rules. I was receptive to this idea because I had been involved in urban renewal projects in various cities for many years and was relaxed about mixed-use development. The whole point of Electric Wharf is to deliberately blur the boundaries between living and working. We will not be doing what some developers do and using live/work as a bogus branding for what is essentially a residential site. We will be designing properties with work in mind and we will be vetting people as real businesses, ideally in the ICT and creative industries sectors, for the first phase.
'If we don't get this first phase right we will suffer later. It's important we sell to the right people from the outset. In my view live/work will work here. There is a natural tendency for people at a certain point in their business to want to keep overheads down, but what is essential the creation of a community of businesses. If we get that right early on, the properties themselves will be more sellable and will have higher value. So it is in our interests as a developer to help create a real thriving business cluster here.'
Is the scheme addressing an existing cluster or will it be difficult to create that kind of atmosphere here in Coventry? 'We believe there are hidden businesses in this area working in IT and the creative sectors. one of the ways we can uncover them and link them together is by marketing the scheme. I don't personally believe that doing surveys is going to find our potential customers for us. I would recommend that you talk to people in the right trendy places. So for example we've asked people like our graphic designers who are based in Coventry what they think. The key is to develop a buzz that goes round by word of mouth in the right places. Then when it comes to marketing the scheme we don't believe that the kind of people we're looking for will be wading through ads in the local papers for homes. We will be using our website and possibly prominent banner advertising to promote the scheme.'
What if these hunches fail to turn into real demand for the units? 'We have an informal agreement with Advantage West Midlands that this is a â€œsuck‑it‑and‑seeâ€ situation. That doesn't mean that we will revert to residential, but it does mean that we are flexible enough to move back towards a mix of business let and separate residential units if the combined live/work properties don't sell well. However, we are confident. If there was lots of live/work in this area it might be more difficult to sell these. But we feel that this is an ideal site and we are very hopeful that we will attract a cluster of IT‑type businesses to take the units.'
Dianne Williams of Business Link believes that a key aim is to link Electric Wharf and Broadheath, Touchstone Housing Association's scheme nearby. 'Broadheath will inevitably be targeted more at start up businesses who will be more fragile. We want potentially to be able to grow them into potential residents at Electric Wharf.'
Liz Griffiths of Touchstone agrees: 'We don't just want to ensure that the young people who get the live/work units at Broadheath get mentoring but also contacts with people who are more successful so they can more rapidly get work. We also hope that the people who would provide these contacts would see a benefit in using talented younger people who may be less expensive to subcontract work to than more established businesses.'