Learn a lesson from London when building a better Leeds

An artist impression of the John Lewis store at Victoria Gate.
An artist impression of the John Lewis store at Victoria Gate.
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If you’ve taken a stroll around Leeds city centre recently, you can’t have failed to notice the cranes, lorries and dust-covered workmen in high-vis vests queuing outside Greggs on a lunchtime.

There’s a lot of hustle and bustle going on right now – and it’s not from the usual shoppers or diners buzzing around Briggate enjoying an afternoon stroll.

It’s the start of yet another exciting chapter in Leeds’ history, as run-down old buildings are ripped down and replaced with shiny new structures.

You only have to wander down The Headrow and onto Eastgate to see what I mean, and set eyes on the crater where the old row of shops and Hoagy’s pub used to be, and where Victoria Gate will soon stand proudly in its place.

The old Leeds is being swept away to make room for more modern ventures, and by and large, that’s a good thing.

No doubt there’ll be some people mourning the loss of these historic buildings (there always is), but the truth is they were under-used and out of date.

Whilst there is a balance to be struck between old and new, we should welcome schemes like Victoria Gate with open arms.

And luckily for Leeds, it’s not uncommon to see projects like this popping up – last year it was the First Direct Arena and Trinity Leeds, this year it’s Victoria Gate and Central Square, and next year it will be the state-of-the-art Maggie’s cancer centre.

The £5m centre is being designed by award-winning architect Thomas Heatherwick – the man behind the London 2012 Olympic cauldron design.

It’s a huge compliment that Leeds can attract an architect of Heatherwick’s calibre, especially after he’s worked on such an iconic London project.

But the buzz of these big developments can sometimes come with a sting in the tail.

Take what’s going on with the world-famous Gherkin building, for example. When the London landmark was built in 2004, it was hailed as a new jewel in the crown of the city’s skyline.

But less than a decade later, it’s now being sold (for £650m, in case you’ve got some spare change lying around).

On a recent visit down south I had a chance to visit the building for myself.

It’s something I’ve seen on the opening credits of The Apprentice countless times before, but standing in its shadow makes you feel incredibly insignificant, and for men, probably quite inadequate.

Yes, the Gherkin is pretty impressive. But Leeds has its own share of sky-high buildings too, albeit on a smaller scale.

For instance, Sky Lounge and Bridgewater Place both tower over the city.

But bigger obviously isn’t always better, and the problems the Big Smoke is facing are also issues we face too.

In the past few years, the city’s suffered from the Bridgewater Place wind tunnel effect, the failed Lumiere scheme, the yet-to-be rented Majestic building, almost empty Clarence Dock site and even the West Point apartment block and its various water issues.

Whilst it’s great to get excited about major investment in the city, we also need to take a step back and realise the real bedrock of Leeds’ economy isn’t just about big buildings.

For something to be a success, it takes more than money.

What we build for the future also needs to build on the past, and we have to keep the city’s people at the forefront of any big plans.

We should be proud that Leeds has so many schemes that are giving London a run for its money.

But if we really want to try and keep up with the capital, we have to bear in mind that all that glitters isn’t always gold.

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