Why the TK Maxx store plan for Jackson Square is not a good fit with East Herts Council's Old River Lane scheme
Yvonne Estop-Wood, a member of the cross-party working group on Old River Lane (ORL), is a planner and urban designer with experience in local government. Here she outlines her objections to a revamp of Jackson Square to accommodate a new TK Maxx store. The plans are currently being considered by East Herts Council.
What have the changes to Jackson Square got to do with the future development of Old River Lane?
The new TK Maxx scheme will cut off the link between Wilko and Waitrose. Future residents and businesses of Old River Lane will not have a direct route to the shopping mall and Potter Street.
The library will become even more isolated – in future, if you are in Claire's Accessories with your pushchair and kids, saying 'let's just pop to the library', you will go in the opposite direction into Potter Street, clatter down the Devoils Lane steps into Bridge Street and beyond, or struggle if you are disabled.
The current lift and up-escalator enable going between the mall, Bridge Street shops and the library, and – in future – homes and businesses at Old River Lane.
The scheme demolishes the northern corner of Jackson Square – removing Sports Direct, the table tennis place, mirror shop and the escalator and stairs. This makes space for TK Maxx, which covers this area and half of the square inside the mall by H&M. The building facing Bridge Street is straightened, with a completely new frontage with big signs.
Under the proposed plan, the lift, escalator and stairs from Bridge Street would be removed. There would be no way in or out to Bridge Street.
What would this mean? If you live in the Rye Street area or if you park in the new Northgate End multi-storey car park, you cannot make a beeline for TK Maxx; nor Next or H&M.
A direct link into Jackson Square will be important to the integration and commercial success of the ORL development. Housing will be at the heart of this; the sketch plans for ORL are all based on a strong north-south pathway from Northgate End and the new public square. A connection with Jackson Square will give vigour to this idea.
The architect's 'context analysis' plan shamefully excludes the ORL site, Coopers and the new multi-storey, as if they don't exist; there is no foresight in the documents.
But more than this, the TK Maxx scheme does not reflect how we shop. There would be no easy route between Coopers and Jackson Square shops, nor between the Photosound camera shop, Muse fashion shop, Scope, Prontaprint etc and Jackson Square. This connection allows shopping choice – for example, between Wilko and Coopers; Next and Muse. It is part of how competition between shops works and how to dash from one to the other.
Removing this link undermines Jackson Square's shopping offer, by detaching its shopping parade from the main mall. It will make the new Bridge Street shops harder to let. It is cutting off your nose to spite your face.
As comments on the planning application show, access for all would be worsened – the existing lift enables step-free access into Jackson Square. Without an entrance here, the only route is Bridge Street – narrow pavements, with lorries and fast cars; a steep turn at the traffic lights into Potter Street. Or the Devoils Lane steps.
I love Rickmores Electrical and the Isabel Hospice shop on Bridge Street, and the lovely buildings, but I do not want this to be the only possible route between Coopers and Claire's.
A choice of routes around town is really important for the enjoyment, variety and safety of shopping. Waitrose, Sainsbury's and M&S are shopping generators for the town centre, animating the shops in between, with different routes depending on what you fancy today. Removing the Bridge Street entrance severs the most direct link between shops and the library.
Have you ever realised the library is directly underneath Wilko? You can browse for kitchen roll above romantic fiction. So in future, you would leave Wilko and go on a circular route to the library to essentially arrive back where you started. If Jackson Square is making radical changes, why not solve the existing problems like access to the library?
The scheme can be amended to include a new entrance: shop unit number 4 could be modified to accommodate an entrance lobby, lift, escalator, stair. Or the proposed means of escape stairs could be modified into an entrance atrium with lift, escalator and stairs.
Are there any other issues with this scheme? The Bridge Street entrance was designed to evoke the former mill and mark the original line of the river – this rich local reference will be lost.
The architects arrogantly call this 'dated'. The proposed shopping parade on Bridge Street is accessed up and down steps – completely unacceptable for ease of access and appearance. Oh, and the carbon cost of demolition and rebuilding shops – opposite Coopers, in a building that has adapted to changing needs for a couple of hundred years.
Legal and General Assurance, the owner of Jackson Square, is preoccupied with investment value, floorspace and footfall numbers, and forgets they are part of a real town centre with real people, with a direct connection with ORL and Northgate End car park.
East Herts Council will be unwise to support this and lose properly planned integration of its future ORL development.