Council Design & Conservation Panel Meeting Report

Cambridge City Council’s Design & Conservation Panel met on Wednesday 4th July 2012, following the Development Control Forum that morning. The latest terms of reference and constitution of the panel is shown here but in summary, its roles are to provide a forum for pre-application presentation of development proposals, to provide formal comments on applications and to contribute to Conservation Area Designations and Appraisals. The Panel’s work should “to complement and support in-house officer expertise”.

The full minutes of the meeting are here in Microsoft Word format, but the relevant sections for the EF Language School development proposal are reproduced below. The members present appear to have been Terry Gilbert, RTPI (acting Chair); Kevin Myers, RIBA; Kieran Perkins, RIBA; Tony Nix, RICS; Carolin Gohler, Cambridge PPF; Russell Davies, RTPI; Ian Steen and Jon Harris, co-opted members; Matthew Paul and Sophie Pain, City Council.

Presentation – EF Language School, 221 Hills Road (12/0616/FUL)

Demolition of the existing non-residential language school (Use Class D1 – Non-residential Education and Training Centres) and replacement with a new purpose built language school with on site accommodation for students (Use Class C2 – Residential Schools and Colleges).

Presentation by Richard Owers of NRAP Architects with Jamie Buchanan (Landscape Architect). In his introduction, Mr Owers mentioned that the scheme had been in development for two years.

Carolin Gohler declared an interest and did not participate in the vote.

The Panel’s comments are as follows:

Existing building. The Panel would request that an assessment of the architectural and historical merit of the building be undertaken. No. 221 was described by a member of the Panel as the best remaining Victorian villa on Hills Road and highlighted some of its features, evidently as built, such as the Bellcote and bell on the rear elevation. Although not mentioned in detail in the City Council’s Suburbs & Approaches Study, the Panel heard that the building may have been designed by Richard Reynolds Rowe, and appears, from an external survey to have remained largely unaltered since the late 19th Century. Even If the outcome of an assessment of the building’s merit was to conclude that it was not worthy of national or local Listing status, the Panel recommends that the building’s history and architectural details are thoroughly documented.

Hills Road elevation. The Panel observed that the site on the eastern side of Hills Road has a greener, more suburban character than that depicted in the presentation material. It was noted that the substantial modern buildings in the vicinity, and to the west, were generally set back from Hills Road. Some reservations were expressed regarding the height, positioning and site coverage of the proposed building which would be visible from a considerable distance. However, the Panel felt that the Hills Road – west elevation would be exposed to only minimal evening sunlight given the proximity to the established trees.

The proposed Language School and student accommodation building. The proposed building is substantial, and would be a confident and assertive introduction to the streetscene. The contemporary design and integration of the school and accommodation wings were commended by all members of the Panel. The Panel also welcomed the proposed use and arrangement of a restrained and simple palette of quality materials. Notwithstanding, the general admiration towards the proposed building’s aesthetic, some doubt was expressed regarding its scale and bulk. Specifically, the need for the amount of on-site student accommodation was questioned. It was argued that a reduction in floorspace (through a substantial reduction in/or the deletion of student accommodation on-site) should result in a scheme which would sit more comfortably on the site given the need to protect trees, provide adequate servicing arrangements from Cavendish Avenue and Hills Road and for the provision of sufficient cycle parking on-site.

Trees. The consensus view of the Panel was that it must be demonstrated beyond doubt that a building of the scale and footprint proposed could be constructed without any adverse and lasting impact on the existing trees. Some doubts were expressed as to the effectiveness of the root protection plan given that the extensive foundations and the creation of a basement could materially affect drainage and root structure.

St John’s The Evangelist. The Panel noted that the objections from the church had been based on issues of neighbourliness as opposed to the built form.

The architects were thanked for the quality of the presentation and the accompanying material.

Conclusion
The character of this side of Hills Road is predominantly residential and suburban, with the church and the existing building as the only exceptions. To have a building of this scale and massing would be a significant intervention. The Panel felt that a move towards a more urban and contemporary design could be successful if built to a high standard with the quality of elevational treatment and materials as proposed, It could be argued however, that the residential element of this scheme tips the balance towards overdevelopment, and a reduction in the number of units would provide scope to safeguard the existing tree belt and improve the servicing, access and parking arrangements.

Given the limited information available on the existing school building, the Panel would urge the applicant’s advisers and the City Council to re-examine in detail its architectural and historical merit. The Panel hope that such an assessment will inform the site’s redevelopment potential.

VERDICT
RED (“the scheme is fundamentally flawed and a fresh start is needed”): 1
AMBER (“in need of significant improvements to make it acceptable, but not a matter of starting from scratch”): 1
GREEN (“a good scheme, or one that is acceptable subject to minor improvements”): 3
…with 1 abstention.

All members who participated in the formal vote gave their verdict subject to re-assurances that the viability and health of the protected trees would not be adversely affected; and to the outcome of a re-assessment of No.221 Hills Road’s architectural and historical merit. Two members had to leave the meeting prior to the Panel’s discussion and vote. Both expressed a preference to vote GREEN, subject to the above conditionality.

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