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Oct 2015

School Yard a shining example of high street renaissance

The School Yard development in Harborne has received a highly prized 2014 Renaissance Award from the Birmingham Civic Society. 

Every year the Civic Society asks for nominations from the public and its members for examples of buildings or open spaces that have been brought back into life from a vacant or derelict state and facing an unknown future.

Gavin Orton, the Civic Society’s chairman elect, said 2014 had been a very strong year and two awards had been made – to EDG Property’s The School Yard development and to the Coffin Works in the Jewellery Quarter.

When EDG Property acquired the Grade II listed Clock Tower building, a former Victorian Board School, it was in a very poor condition inside and out. However, said Mr Orton, Neil Edginton and the team at EDG Property had worked closely with Birmingham City Council conservation officers during the work to ensure the heritage of the building was retained and any new work sensitively incorporated.

“The buildings have been brought back into modern and vibrant use and the bars and restaurants have enlivened Harborne High Street and given the area a new lease of life,” said Mr Orton. “It is also encouraging to see that education will still be a part of the development with the incorporation of a new kitchen school, the Harborne Food School.”

Michael Whitby, Lord Whitby of Harborne, officially unveiled the Civic Society plaque. The former leader of Birmingham City Council and former councillor for Harborne was on the planning committee involved in the original application.

He praised the developers and architects for being true to their word and delivering the vision they had promised from the outset.

He said: “One of the dilemmas when you are actually sitting in a planning committee when you’re selling land to builders and developers is that they will say ‘this is what we going to do.’ But often, dare I say it, the original artist’s impressions transforms itself into one desk, one tree and one table.

“You only have to look outside and see this beautiful square, which I know because I visit regularly, to see that this is an area people use and walk and enjoy and meet, which is what the Birmingham Civic Society has recognised.

“The developers and the architects were true to their promise. They came to me with a vision and they said this is what we’re going to do to a Grade II listed building in a dilapidated and sorry state and the city didn’t have the wherewithal to invest.

“This could have been a mass of very ordinary flats – and it isn’t, it’s a catalyst; it’s part of the revival of the great village feel that Harborne is.”

Mr Edginton thanked the Birmingham Civic Society for the Renaissance Award. The building had been bought in the worst possible economic climate and he praised the important support role played by Birmingham City Council, then under the leadership of Mike Whitby, and Birmingham Property Services.

He is convinced the development is a catalyst for the redevelopment of Harborne, with major steelworks going up at the nearby Home Bargains high street store and the purchase of the derelict Gala Bingo Hall site.

“We didn’t want to lose this school building for the community of Harborne – we wanted to bring it back so that it could be used by the community again. We’ve done that, it’s been brought it back to life by the people that eat here, drink here and relax here every day.”

The School Yard was also commercially successful, becoming a brand that had attracted major national operators Boston Tea Party and Prezzo.

Mr Edginton added that another important part of the story was the Harborne Food School.

“I was shocked to learn that by 2030, 60 per cent of kids in the country will be clinically obese because of lack of food awareness, on the basis that schools have now removed from the National Curriculum lots of skills that we used to learn at school.

“We asked how do we link this building that was a school back into something that can help solve this problem, and that’s how the food school was born.”

He said it was a concept that was unique to the city and deserved to be rolled out across the country.

Phase Two of the School Yard project, a complex of luxury apartments adjoining the courtyard, will be completed and handed over to residents in November this year.

The building is clad in black zinc – a design concept meant to represent a blackboard, a play on the building’s heritage as a school.

Former winners of the Birmingham Civic Society Renaissance Awards include the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s Histories Gallery, Fort Dunlop, Birmingham Town Hall, Handsworth Park and Moor Street Station.

(Many thanks to Phil Brown of HEM Life for words)