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'Something different with no parallel': How £20m Park Hill student housing will boost Sheffield's estate's revival

How the Park Hill student housing will look.
How the Park Hill student housing will look.

In two years' time 350 Sheffield students will move in to Park Hill - the largest listed structure in Europe and an address that should make them the envy of their coursemates.

Accommodation provider Alumno, working alongside regeneration company Urban Splash and the city council, is leading phase three of the estate's overhaul - a £20 million project that involves turning a large empty block into 70 'townhouses' arranged in a unique, three-storey format.

Tim Bottrill and Nick Riley at Park Hill. Picture: Dean Atkins

Tim Bottrill and Nick Riley at Park Hill. Picture: Dean Atkins

Students in their second and third year at university will be targeted as well as postgraduates. Planning permission has been secured and work is expected to start before 2019, creating 100 jobs.

But the deal would not have been struck without the efforts of the Sheffield Property Association.

"I know Urban Splash, and I know Alumno, and facilitated the introduction of those two companies," says Nick Riley, board director at Whittam Cox, the architectural practice that has drawn up the designs for the student building and is one of the association's 46 members.

"That's the value we can bring. Yes, I've got a business interest. But - not to blow my own trumpet - that deal wouldn't have happened if we hadn't made that link-up. I was able to recognise Alumno are a very good cultural fit - they've done some really interesting schemes all over the country, and this is going to be their absolute flagship."

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 group including developers, both city universities, planning consultants, solicitors and commercial agents - are making a contribution in a professional capacity.

"There's been no other representation in the city that brings all of that thinking and those companies together to try and promote the very best outcomes in every aspect - inward investment, what's being built, who's doing what," says Nick. "What we want to do is work with the council in pushing that agenda as well, to support them as a critical friend."

He has been joined over coffee in South Street Kitchen, Park Hill's first café, by Tim Bottrill, founder of the Colloco agency, who is handling enquiries for business space at the complex. A current offering is the former Scottish Queen pub, advertised as a prime site for a new bar or restaurant.

"Phase one was always the hard yards up here," says Tim of the redevelopment's initial, completed stage, comprising 260 homes, 10 workspaces and a children's nursery.

"We literally dragged people up to the offices. But now I think we are at that tipping point. It's received so much better in the city."

Park Hill's fortunes have waxed and waned. Built in 1961 in the austere, Brutalist style as a grand social housing experiment famous for its 'streets in the sky', it fell into decline as crime and neglect took its toll, but escaped demolition when English Heritage granted the site Grade II* listed status in 1998.

Now there is a feeling of optimism about the place. The section earmarked to become student accommodation - a roughly 'J'-shaped block - sits between a flank along South Street that has planning permission to become 200 apartments, and the Duke Street wing, which is to be transformed into a cultural centre occupied by S1 Artspace.

"At least 50-60 per cent of Park Hill is going to be done over the next couple of years," says Nick, stepping outside with Tim to look at the buildings up close.

Whittam Cox, which has offices in Chesterfield, is the first firm of architects in the Sheffield City Region to have a hand in planning the Park Hill revival. The others - Studio Egret West, Hawkins\Brown, Mikhail Riches and Carmody Groarke - have all been London-based.

Nick accepts there are 'negative noises' about the proliferation of student flats in Sheffield, but stresses Alumno will be bringing 'something different' that has no parallel locally or nationally. "It's a very special opportunity to create something students are naturally drawn to. It gives the whole estate so much more credibility."

It is thought the student population will boost the local economy by £2 million a year.

While phase one entailed stripping the structure back to the bare concrete frame, more of the original fabric will be kept this time. The bold exterior colours have also been swapped for more muted tones - the student houses will be clad with panels in shades of teal and gold, matching a mosaic on the estate's old Parkway Tavern. This palette was used on the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles, a template for Park Hill completed in 1952 to a blueprint by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

The 70 units, divided into groups of four and eight bedrooms with shared living space, will cater for 356 students. Commercial space could be used for shops, cafés or a gym.

"Our approach is about retaining as much as possible, making it look clean, tidy and smart - really sustaining it for the future but adding some subtle layers of new identity as well," says Nick.

Today's mixed community - residents spanning generations, artists and modern businesses such as Warp Films - will help to avoid the problems of the past, he thinks.

"One of the big challenges with Park Hill was its single tenure," says Nick.

Tim says: "Park Hill is becoming what it originally set out to be. It was revolutionary. Urban Splash has the ability to deliver these kinds of schemes - they have the brand, brains, ingenuity and innovation."

This week arsonists started a fire in a spot earmarked for part of phase two. Nick agrees it is a sign the refurbishment needs to be completed as quickly as possible.

"We know this is a magnet for people. What we don't want to see is more decay and damage. It's really important we get people back up here, get that activity going and try and make this a more secure environment again."