It would take a generous soul – the architect’s mother, perhaps – to describe Commercial Union House as anything other than ugly.
Straddling Pilgrim Street close to the former Odeon site, the 1970s office block would count on most passers-by list of top eyesores in Newcastle city centre.
Step inside and the building is just as unattractive, but you might also get an insight into why the building’s impending closure and subsequent demolition is being lamented in some quarters.
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For much of the last decade, eight floors of Commercial Union House have been rented by artists’ collective Orbis, taking advantage of a ruling that empty commercial buildings must pay full council tax, but get a significant discount if let to charities. Dubbed ‘meanwhile spaces’ to recognise their often temporary nature, a number of such buildings existed around the Pilgrim Street and New Bridge Street area as the area was steadily acquired by development companies linked to the billionaire Reuben Brothers.
As development of the area has got under way with demolition on what is now the Stack site and on the former Bank of England plot, Commercial Union House is also in line for the wrecking ball: good news for architecture fans but not-so-good for the creative and cultural businesses that have made it their home.
That has sparked a debate that burns in many cities: artistic organisations make an area hip but as a result drive up rents, pushing out the groups that have created the neighbourhood buzz in the first place.
Leading that debate in Newcastle has been Louisa Rogers, whose Studio Courtenay and Trendlistr businesses – the last of which was one of The Journal’s companies to watch in 2019 – have been based in Commercial Union House for three-and-a-half years.
On a blog entitled ‘Newcastle doesn’t need another bar’, she argued that the demolition of Commercial Union House would rob Newcastle city centre of a thriving artistic hub in return for a ‘monolithic retail space’ dominated by national and international brands.
“Newcastle doesn’t need another bar,” she wrote. “Newcastle needs to nurture, appreciate and mobilise the talent and creative activity that is already happening here if it wants to reap those benefits. We have a huge amount of talent coming out of both urban universities, and yet we lose so many to the brain drain because we have failed to do this.
“Newcastle is going the way of every other regional market town. We will have a high street full of chain shops that cater to the sale of cheap and convenient goods. There will be little reason to come into town and stick around unless dinner and drinks are on the cards.”
Speaking to The Journal, she said: “The building was let to different people across all the floors that were working in different sectors. It was like a network – if you needed something doing, some photos or filming, you could always find someone in the building who could do it.
“It was a bit of a community. A lot of the people had links to the universities and there was a cross-pollination of ideas.
“We had a really good run because we thought we’d only have a few years there. But what I’m most disappointed about is that there hasn’t been much effort to re-home people and the council doesn’t seem to want to work with us to find an alternative. We bring a lot of footfall for the city centre with the Late Shows and things like that – it’s such a shame that that will go.”
Newcastle City Council refutes the suggestion that it has abandoned the organisations that were based in Commercial Union House.
But like authorities up and down the UK, it is facing huge questions on how city and town centres, already struggling before the pandemic and now facing existential questions on their future, can survive as the retail sector declines and few people work in offices. Reviving those areas is often key to how people feel about where they lived, while councils, hard pressed after years of cuts, also want to replace run down areas with thriving businesses paying business rates and council tax.
Earlier this year, the council’s director of place Michelle Percy admitted that it was in discussions with the Pilgrim Street developers over the area around Commercial Union House, saying that the original plans for shops (among other uses) were now ‘not justifiable’.
Coun Ged Bell, the council’s cabinet member for development, neighbourhoods and transport, insists that the regeneration of Pilgrim Street brings the benefits of replacing dilapidated buildings and also thousands of “much needed jobs” into the city centre.
But he added: “However, we also know how important the cultural and creative sectors are to the ‘heartbeat’ of our city and, while none of this land belongs to the council and it is not our responsibility to rehouse anyone, we have worked with the developers and landlords of the existing buildings to try and facilitate the relocation of businesses and professionals that currently call the area home.
“So far, a study to identify appropriate spaces has been completed and shared with the relevant groups and numerous guided tours of alternative accommodation have taken place. This has helped find new locations for the organisations that account for almost two-thirds of the current space, with very good options available to the final major tenant.
“While working with building leaders we have asked them to keep their smaller tenants informed about the support we are providing, though appreciate unfortunately this may not always have happened. We will continue to support all of these businesses, both big and small, to mitigate any issues they face as a result of this move.”
For Louisa Rogers, the immediate solution to the loss of Commercial Union House is another ‘meanwhile space’ close by that retains her businesses place in a city centre artistic and creative community.
But the debate around the place of such organisations in the UK’s fast changing town and city centres is not likely to be solved any time soon.