The regeneration of Sheffield city centre is making the leap across the River Don - marking an important moment, says Nick Riley.
A board director of Whittam Cox Architects, his company has drawn up the designs for a £30 million development of 268 apartments to be built off Nursery Street, replacing old industrial premises and a car park beside the river, over the water from the Home Office's base at Vulcan House.
"There's a few other schemes bubbling around here at the moment, but making that step across the river is a significant one for the city," says Nick.
The site, close to the Grade II-listed Aizlewood's Mill and the New Testament Church, is in an area referred to in the submitted plans as Wicker Island, cut through by the main Wicker thoroughfare and bounded by the A61. Developer Brickland wants to put up three interconnected blocks of flats - two reaching 12 storeys, and one of seven storeys - with two commercial units and parking.
"They're constructing two major schemes at the moment," says Whittam Cox director Ian Lowson. "One in Liverpool, one in Manchester, and Sheffield was their third port of call. Which is good."
The architecture firm is a member of the Sheffield Property Association. The Star is focusing on the mission of the SPA, which aims to be the 'collective voice of property in Sheffield', through a series of features looking at major schemes. In each case, members - a diverse, 53-strong group including developers, both city universities, planning consultants, solicitors and commercial agents - are making a contribution in a professional capacity.
The Wicker Island project is one of the first major schemes in the city centre specifically designed as a build-to-rent venture, Nick says. "It's probably the key thing about it. It's owned by one entity, and operated by one entity."
The build-to-rent principle is 'relatively new in lots of cities', says Ian, and is distinct from PRS - private rented sector - which involves people simply buying apartments and leasing them out.
"There are schemes all over the UK that have been badged over the last couple of years as build-to-rent," says Nick. "In aspects they are, but traditionally they've been designed as normal 'for sale' apartments and then repositioned midway through the development process."
The design - geared towards providing good amenities for tenants and achieving a 'sense of community' - sets the riverside proposal apart, he thinks.
"The critical thing is that schemes in Sheffield are attracting investment - external, institutional investment. They're not speculating on this, these are very well-considered decisions based around city metrics, the connectivity to transport, all of those key things."
The council's planning department has been 'supportive and collaborative', Ian says.
"The planners' view of this site was that this is the foothold on this side of the river. They viewed this scheme as the statement, and then that will trigger further development. It was actually designed in a way that other schemes could be developed in and around it in a nice composition, rather than us just going straight up in the sky and everybody falling into line after us. They asked us to lower the back of the building so the heights of further development to the north would be more appropriate."
A footbridge spans the Don opposite the land earmarked for the apartments. "This is a key connection from the city centre side," Nick says, adding that build-to-rent propositions have a wider impact.
"You're bringing more people living in the city centre who want to use the restaurants, bars, shops - all of that broader economic benefit that we've seen with student accommodation. It's a much bigger demographic of people, and it just adds more layers to that city centre regeneration story as well."
Major employers like the Home Office want to know there are 'good, safe, well-managed' homes for their staff too, he says.
"The city has a rental proposition to attract young and older people alike - look at Park Hill, the diversity there."
And, says Ian, purpose-built rental schemes need to last. "You'll see certain buildings that were historically built to sell and the quality of them is not quite there. It's not in the build-to-rent developer's interests - it's not a quick hit, it's a long-term investment, so that's why we're getting top materials, really well-considered details. It makes it a lot easier to maintain, which is a plus."
A verdict on planning permission is expected early next year and construction will probably take 18-24 months.
"The developer is cracking on at a rate of knots," says Ian. "They want it up and they want it rented."