Following 20 years of ambitious plans, recession-hit schemes and unmet goals, south Leeds residents are bidding to bring an industrial giant back to life. Jonathan Brown reports.
Decades have passed since a vital industrial pathway into Leeds became a redundant memento of the city’s early growth.
Holbeck Viaduct, which runs from Gelderd Road to Globe Road, has been unused for more than a third of its 145-year history but now residents are trying to reclaim it.
Around 20 south Leeds locals want to turn the 1.7km stone structure into a park and walkway, which would revive a £5m pre-recession Leeds City Council plan through a scaled down community-led initiative.
The ambitious scheme has a conservative £10,000 budget aimed to fund two stairwells on to the viaduct, while residents plan to volunteer labour and source cheap materials.
And having secured a small Community First grant this week, the group is hoping to fund £1,500 of structural survey and clearance work to see if the project will be viable.
Nevertheless officials at viaduct owner Network Rail claim it is not aware of the project, while the structure could need investment to be made safe and may be needed for future rail expansion.
Undeterred, project leader Ed Carlisle is “cautiously optimistic” that the conversations he has been having could breathe new life into the structure.
The 35-year-old said: “I’m really interested in the way it could be a novelty and bring some profile to south Leeds.
“Just in itself it will embody an innovative approach to community development because the aspiration is that a bunch of people will come together around a vision and create and sustain a cool and quirky outcome that has a practical use as a walkway.
“I think for Holbeck it could hopefully be a valuable resource and an interesting walk into the city.”
The idea involves the community mucking in to clear the viaduct and then make it accessible from Domestic Street and Holbeck Urban Village, while paying nominal rent on a temporary lease to Network Rail.
It would be cleared by volunteers to feature flower beds, lighting and art – potentially celebrating Holbeck’s locomotive links to the likes of pioneering figures such as Matthew Murray.
“I continue to be intrigued by the level of interest and enthusiasm about it but that will only get you so far. If it needs £200,000 of work done to it that might change – we are just waiting on Network Rail.” he said.
As the project motors on, the group has a website and promotional video in production, while Ed and the rest of the group are investigating the idea of launching a crowdfunding campaign to try and raise money to help take it forward.
The transformation of Holbeck Viaduct has been an ambition of Leeds architects for over 20 years, with Bauman Lyons Architects producing a report to Leeds City Council on its feasibility shortly before the recession in the early 2000s.
Within the report, the potential development was described as “an exceptional opportunity to create a facility of national and international interest, since many cities are currently considering the use of their redundant transport infrastructure.”
It detailed that a pedestrian skywalk could be created on top of the viaduct that may be the site for a small market, greenhouses or cafes, while many of the 92 railway arches beneath it could be utilised by small businesses as retail units.
The viaduct would have been accessed by staircases and a newly constructed bridge over the Leeds-Liverpool Canal to connect it to the city centre at Granary Wharf.
Dr Kevin Grady, director of Leeds Civic Trust, said: “There has been long term interest in it and certainly if it was achieved it would be a wonderful facility for Leeds because the views from it would be spectacular. In effect the concept is a really good one.
“At the minute only Leeds Sustainable Development Group are promoting ideas for the regeneration of coherent development in the area south of the river and potentially if Leeds is to bid to be European Capital of Culture in 2023 projects like this would capture people’s imaginations.”
He said that Holbeck Viaduct is a “real industrial landmark” and a part of the city’s heritage that should be made use of but he has concerns over how in reality there could be issues around maintenance, safety for walkers on the viaduct and surveillance.
And in spite of all the mooted plans and talk of discussions, senior Network Rail officials claim they are not aware of the project, while warning that it may need considerable investment and could be needed for possible rail developments.
A spokesman said: “We are happy to work with stakeholders to investigate the viability of this project and look forward to learning more about the scheme.
“Any project must be balanced with the need to protect the railway to meet future growth in rail demand.”
So the future of Holbeck Viaduct remains very much in the balance, although residents remain hopeful progress can be made to such an extent that if negotiations are successful a new skywalk through Holbeck could be open in 2015.
The council also consider the development as something with “great potential”, particularly at a time when the nearby area dubbed the Leeds South Bank is considered a priority.
But having failed to gain access to the viaduct through Network Rail, the idea’s progress as far as the council is concerned has been stunted.
Determined residents are keen to get this off the ground however and are appealing for surveyors willing to donate their time, as the group prepares to schedule more regular meetings.
For information on the Holbeck Viaduct project visit www.facebook.com/groups/190849144426363.
FUTURE OF VIADUCT PROJECT UNCLEAR
Questions remain over another stalled viaduct transformation in Leeds.
A second disused viaduct south of the city centre, which runs parallel to Whitehall Road and Wellington Road, was granted planning permission to be turned into a temporary art exhibition space in February last year.
The Living Wild project was designed to see a collection of deer sculptures stationed on the viaduct as the first of a number of temporary displays.
But the low budget scheme, which had funding in place from Concourse and the Royal Institute of British Architects Yorkshire, has been beset with delays.
Simon Baker, the Leeds-based architect who designed Living Wild, claims the reason for the delays is down to a disagreement with the viaduct’s owner Lend Lease that stems back to August last year. He said: “It’s not definitely going to go ahead, we are at a stalemate at the minute – we are struggling to resolve issues around health and safety.”
The viaduct was planned to become a pedestrian link from New Wortley to the MEPC site at Wellington Place, when Lend Lease issued plans for a nearby residential development.
Mr Baker said: “The art installation would raise awareness of the viaduct but also ensure, through raising its profile, it would be more difficult for developers to ignore it in future.”
The initial deer installation was an artist’s response to the redundant viaduct and it naturally becoming an inaccessible oasis in the city.
A Lend Lease spokesman said: “Due to the nature of the site, we have concerns around integrating an exhibition into an area where we do not currently have a presence as it is a health and safety matter.”
GLOBAL VIADUCT SUCCESS STORIES
The High Line, New York: An example of a disused viaduct that has been transformed by a community is the High Line, in New York, USA, which was converted into a public walkway and park by residents in 1999.
The Promenade Plantée, Paris: An abandoned rail structure in Paris, now called the Promenade Plantée, was turned into a linear park during the 1980s.
The Bloomingdale Trail, Chicago: A 2.7mile converted rail line is currently being turned into a linear park in Chicago, USA.