Nottingham’s Dilemma: Robin Hood or High Tech?

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NOTTINGHAM, England — Hilary Silvester still recalls the moment she first saw the Broadmarsh Center, a bleak 1970s shopping mall that symbolized Nottingham’s modernization in a scorned architectural era but is now being consigned to history.

“To be honest, I started to cry,” said Ms. Silvester, executive chairwoman of the Nottingham Civic Society, describing how the center created a giant wall across the city, obliterating the familiar skyline behind. “I couldn’t see one building that I recognized.”

Main streets and malls across Europe are in retreat, with retail stores closing right and left, and when it is bulldozed completely, this aging, unloved edifice will become a symbol of that decline. While retailers were already fighting a losing battle against online competition, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated the trend, scuppering any chance of replacing the Broadmarsh with another mall.

So in a preview, perhaps, of what many cities throughout the world may soon face, Nottingham is mulling what to do with this soon-to-be gaping hole at its core. And at the heart of that debate lies an intriguing question: Should the city of the future look more like the past?

One thing is certain. Almost anything the city comes up with would represent an improvement on the Broadmarsh.

“It’s always been a real shame that the first thing people see when they come off the train to Nottingham is the Broadmarsh,” said Avarni Bilan, a member of a high-powered advisory committee examining possible alternatives to the old shopping space.

One somewhat familiar suggestion is to create attractive housing, offices for new technology businesses and spaces for stores, cafes and a performing arts center.

Yet, this sometimes overlooked city in the middle of England is famed for its association with the tale of Robin Hood, and the idea of going back to the future has gained momentum after consultants found that its residents prize green spaces and heritage.

One proposal is to create a green space that can act as a symbolic nod toward Sherwood Forest, in legend the redoubt of Robin Hood and his merry men, who robbed the rich to give to the poor. Another, supported by Ms. Silvester, is to return to the street map that evolved over centuries until it was obliterated by the Broadmarsh.

On a walking tour of the city, Peter Rogan, a conservation architect who has proposed just such a plan, laments the loss of one of the country’s narrowest shopping streets, Drury Hill, which was torn up to make way for the Broadmarsh — a structure he describes as “dead whale slumped across the historic street pattern.”

Mr. Rogan insists he is no fan of the jingoistic nostalgia that has occasionally characterized Britain’s march toward Brexit (in fact he opposed quitting the European Union, he says). But he sees the return of the old street plan as something that would avert another architectural error like the Broadmarsh.

“I don’t want to go back to medieval buildings, fakery or Disney World,” he said. “I don’t want to go back to syphilis and tuberculosis. But I do want to go to a city where you can wander around and spot things, and be excited by things not knowing what’s around the corner.”

His idea is to use traditional materials creatively to construct smaller, longer-lasting buildings with character, rather than returning to cobbled streets. (Over coffee he does, however, admit he might countenance the odd faux medieval building so long as it was an imitation tavern.)

But Robin Hood is not the only historical asset in Nottingham’s quiver. It was a center of the 17th-century English civil war, has a centuries-old hilltop castle, elegant Georgian streets and a hidden maze of around 500 sandstone caves, some dating to the Middle Ages.

That means there is considerable commercial potential in exploiting the past, says Sara Blair-Manning, chief executive officer of the Nottingham Castle Trust, who is overseeing a 30 million pound ($42 million) renovation of the site (actually a grand ducal palace built on the site of an ancient fortification).

“Look at Bath, look at York, you look at the visitor traffic they are getting,” said Ms. Blair-Manning, referring to English cities that have long been tourist magnets. She added that Mr. Rogan’s ideas “would make complete and utter sense if you were building something that actually was focused on heritage tourism.”

Others are not so sure. David Mellen, the leader of Nottingham City Council, favors a blend of living space and green areas, with cafes and some shops. The lease on the Broadmarsh was handed back to the council when plans for a new mall collapsed, but the site will still have to generate income.

Mr. Mellen favors drawing more tourists to the city’s unusual network of caves, which include Britain’s only medieval underground tannery and were often carved into the sandstone as cellars and used over the centuries for everything from store rooms and dwellings to factories and air raid shelters. But he isn’t convinced about readopting the old street pattern.

“Cobbles were there for a purpose at that particular time,” he said. “You can’t go back to the past unless you are in some kind of theme park, and we are not a theme park, we are a core city of the U.K.”

Greg Nugent, who leads an advisory committee on the redevelopment, likes the idea of creating a symbolic link to Sherwood Forest but is also cautious about readopting the old street plan.

“I like it but I’d want it to be based on more than ‘Let’s bring those streets back,’” he said. “I think there’s a bigger idea in there.”

With so much empty space concentrated in the center of Nottingham, he sees an unrivaled opportunity for the city to steal a march on rivals coping with the decline of central malls and main streets. One option might be to devote part of it to businesses working on the green technologies of the future, said Mr. Nugent, who was the director of the organizing committee of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

“I think there is a beginning of a renaissance for Nottingham,” he said. “It’s a really interesting city, very creative — it has a bit of an attitude. It’s not London, it’s not Manchester, it’s got a certain bravery about it.”

Perhaps that was not best reflected in the Broadmarsh, which — never mind the architecture — always had to play second fiddle to the Victoria Center, a more upmarket competitor nearby.

Inside the demolition zone, the Broadmarsh feels like a time capsule. Movie posters still hang on the wall of one empty store that sold videos, music and books. “Open for shoppin’” reads the mural not far from a disconnected A.T.M. surrounded by building debris.

Beneath this area builders have discovered one ancient burial site, and Georgian and Victorian brickwork can be seen in an area close to some of the city’s caves.

Mr. Nugent’s committee should have completed its work by the summer, and at least everyone agrees what should not replace the Broadmarsh. “In our consultation with the public we have had over 3,000 individual responses and there’s nobody who’s come and said, ‘We’d like another shopping center please,’” Mr. Mellen said.

Finding an alternative that will satisfy a sometimes rebellious city like Nottingham might prove harder, however. Mr. Nugent muses that in the 1970s, at a time when going shopping became a sort of British religion, the Broadmarsh was a sort of cathedral.

“What we all need to do now is work out what we will worship next, into this new decade and century,” he said. “That is the code that we have to crack, and it’s exciting that Nottingham gets to start this.”

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