Bildurn's Reflections on Cobden Chambers

Bildurn has a track record in developing spaces and places for well-known organisations with the budget to negotiate their own bespoke deals and in letting retail units to smaller occupiers on more standard terms. In the past we have relied on agents to go out and find occupiers for our units, finding organisations to fill what we have, rather than creating spaces for the market.We are changing the ways in which we operate, putting more emphasis on researching what people want, and providing them with it.
Cobden Chambers was the first development where we chose to do things differently. But why did we do things differently there? Why not just put in a number of offices or, in fact, why do anything there at all? The buildings would need an investment of both time and money to get them to a ‘lettable’ standard, and after this investment there were no guaranties that it would even be a success.
Let me answer that question first; why convert Cobden Chambers? Quite simply, because we had a vision for it. We could see over the mass of overgrown brambles and weeds, and through the broken windows and rotten floorboards. The space had potential, and we wanted to make the most of it. The location had many strengths; a reasonable retail location, a large, usable courtyard space, attractive period buildings, but it also had weaknesses; in particular, its lack of frontage and direct footfall. For this reason, we had to be creative with our plans in order to draw some attention to the space.
Following reports such as the Portas Review it seemed that cities were crying out for something to bring their high streets back to life. People were tired of seeing the same thing on every high-street across the country, with nothing to give each place its own identity. This is where we saw Cobden Chambers making a difference. The location was perfect for it – right in-between the city centre and Hockley, which was beginning to have its own revival.
Cobden’s location, being set off from the street and through a passageway, inspired thoughts of a secret destination which people could discover; a hidden gem within the city centre. We were inspired by places such as Birmingham’s Custard Factory, London’s Box Park, and Manchester’s Affleck’s Palace. All of these places bring something really positive to the area, and people travel to the cities specifically to visit them. They create diversity, interest and forums for young brands to get their products out onto the high-street. And that is what we wanted – to create a positive, vibrant space for Nottingham, where people could experience something new and unique. Our strict pay-back timeline was put on the backseat, and, instead, our focus was on what benefit the project could bring to independent retailers and designers, and to Nottingham city as a whole.
And so it was decided; we would bring Cobden Chambers back to life, and create a new destination in the heart of Nottingham, harnessing the power of a cluster effect of placing a number of creative businesses in a defined area. With a number of other projects ongoing at the time, we gave ourselves a tight but not unrealistic budget. After all, this project was a bit of risk, a foray into the unknown. With this in mind what we needed was research, and plenty of it.
We looked at what we already knew; that Nottingham has affordable, city-centre retail and studio space, but that it is either not available on easily accessible, flexible terms or it’s in the wrong place and in a poor state. We knew there was demand for this affordable retail space, and we knew first-time-renters want things to be as simple and straightforward as possible. From this starting point the hard work really started. We used no fancy research agencies, no complicated research methods; just simple networking, face to face communication, conversation… We spoke with tenants of places we viewed as our strongest potential competition and asked what they thought of their premises; what could we learn from them? Quite a lot, as it turns out. They found the premises too expensive for what they were, they had no support from landlords and in many cases no direct contact with landlords. Many tenants commented that there was very poor general maintenance and general upkeep which, when combined with a high service charge, was a serious cause for concern. Mainly, we learned, tenants were wary of getting tied into long leases; our target market consisted of start-up businesses, so expecting them to sign up to five year contracts was entirely unrealistic, and adds far too much pressure on businesses when they are just starting out.
So with this information we were able to form a sharper image of what it was that we were going to offer: short-term, straightforward leases, minimal deposit requirement, an all-inclusive rent and approachable landlords. In terms of the building, we found that people were after something with character (handy, as Cobden was full of that!) and somewhere that they could put their own stamp on – not surprising really, as we were looking for creatives to fill the space.
And so the search began for tenants. We knew people wanted this, but would they actually sign up? It was important that an integral feature of Cobden Chambers was the ‘curation’ of the space. We wanted to create a community cluster, where the tenants would work together and support one another in growing the space. We researched design collectives, craft blogs, knitting groups, farmers markets, local photographers, dress-makers, chocolatiers… A Slideshare was created to try and convey our hopes for the area, and to elicit the same passion we had for the project in others. We sent this out to as many people in our target market as we could, and it seemed to do the trick. People were beginning to get really interested in the space. We set up a twitter account to enable us to document the progress of the development. Seeing the transformation of the space was something that people were really interested in.
Not long after the project began, we started to get requests for viewings. We made a conscious decision to show as many people around as we physically could, often staying late and waiting for people in the snow or pouring rain. Of course not everyone would end up renting a unit, but everyone who looked round, started to get more and more excited about the project. For us this was a project of passion, and that was clear to the people we showed round. And they shared that passion! What this meant, naturally, was that they would then go on to tell their friends, or the people they shared a studio with, or the person they always bump into at the coffee shop about the project which would result in more viewings, and so the cycle would continue.
Projects such as the Creative Quarter were supportive by helping to publicise what we were doing within their huge networks, and the odd article in local papers helped to raise the profile of the project. Nottingham City Council were also very supportive of the project and were clearly keen to see it become a success.
The building works were completed without a hitch, on budget and (pretty much) on time and the building looked even better than we had hoped. In March 2013, as we officially opened the gate to the public for the first time, we were thrilled with what we saw before us; the ice-cream shades of the exterior woodwork contrasting with the dappled grey of the newly laid cobblestone courtyard, bespoke graffiti created by a local artist on the walls, and nine newly created units waiting to welcome people through their thresholds. Our thoughts originally were that we would use this opening day as an opportunity to celebrate the end of the building works, and to allow people to look at the finished units to see if they were interested in renting one. What we hadn’t expected was that all of the units were already let. Every unit had been let off-plan, many of them before they even had any floors!
Six months on, and Cobden Chambers is going from strength to strength. Footfall was slow to start, but word is spreading, and with regular events in the courtyard, along with a collaboration with a local café, Cobden Chambers looks set to be a real destination for visitors to Nottingham city centre, just as we had hoped. All of the original tenants are still in situ, and are being to make a name for themselves. In a couple of months’ time the second part of the development, Cobden Place, will open its doors, and this will really serve to add to the success and excitement of Cobden Chambers.
Looking back over the project, would we do anything differently? Honestly, I don’t think that we would. We employed a labour-intensive method of research and networking that at times, admittedly, became rather all-consuming. But I think that was part of what made it a successful project; we believed in it and we wanted it to succeed. It is certainly not how we would approach every project, but this project was different – the people we were dealing with were not ‘suits’ from head-office looking to get a deal on some prime real estate; they were individuals who were considering a potentially life-changing decision, and they deserved our time.
Is Cobden Chambers how we imagined it all those months ago, as we discussed our vision? In some ways yes, and in others, not quite. The day to day running of it has taken time to get just right, and there will continue to be things we need to change and adjust. We have learnt that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, and there are some people who you will simply struggle to ever please. It could be fair to say that we started the project with rather rose-tinted glasses, thinking that the tenants would all buy in to the chocolate box picture of a small community all pitching in together to create a destination. In reality, people have their own businesses to think about, and maybe they don’t need the added pressure of promoting the space. As time has gone on a balance has been found, and as tenants focus more on promoting themselves, the Chambers itself is promoted by proxy.
Cobden Chambers is, after all, only as strong as the sum of its parts. 

04 September 2014

Keywords: Cobden chambers, cluster effect, development, Portas Review, creative, small business, independents, retail


Bildurn (Properties) Ltd.
St Marys School
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