Manor Place Student Housing Development

Comments on the developers' initial proposals

30 January 2014

McLaren Construction Group plc organised an exhibition of their proposals to build student accommodation at Manor Place (behind Holywell cemetery). Representatives of OCS visited the exhibition on 25 January and wrote a letter with these comments the following day.Observations on the proposals:

The proposals appear to conform to Sites & Housing DPD requirements and other policies.

Key issues are:

  1. What the development will look like
  2. Quality of accommodation
  3. Management arrangements
  4. Assessment of traffic (all traffic, including bicycles and pedestrians) and provisions therefore
  5. Flood risk and contribution to flood risk of other properties
  6. Energy and sustainability

1. What it looks like:

The consideration of various layout options is applauded, but that adopted can be criticised on the grounds that Building C is orientated and positioned such that it will be most overbearing and destructive of the character of the Holywell cemetery, since its flank lies only about 3m away from the cemetery boundary wall, immediately to the south. The peace and tranquillity of the cemetery, to which the public have access, will be destroyed, and there will be serious shadowing from sunlight.

This orientation of Building C thus shows little respect to the character or use of Holywell cemetery; in fact, the proposed layout of buildings B and C shows greater respect to the undistinguished buildings (including squash courts) to the west and south of the site, rather than to the historically important, publicly-accessible, and very characterful cemetery. Whilst the deer park to the south also deserves respect, it is separated from the site by a private access road, and a historic and interesting stone wall. Furthermore it is not publicly accessible, and views across it are remote, and only from the private areas of Magdalen College. Whist sensitive, respect for its character and the views across it does not justify the destruction of the atmosphere of peace and contemplative tranquillity of the cemetery, and the exclusion of sunlight. Likewise, the privacy of residents of Block C is likely to be seriously compromised. This issue could perhaps best be addressed by re-orientation of Building C. Whilst this might remove the symmetry of the disposition of Buildings B and C, there appears no particular justification for this symmetry, which in any case tends to suggest a formality which is not necessarily appropriate to this naturalistic setting. Likewise, we would question the appropriateness of the apparently rather formal proposals for the planting and landscaping of the site.

Though two buildings are fairly high, the top (3rd floor) is set back and only 20 rooms are at this level; the site is also low-lying so the buildings should not be too dominating, except as described above, in respect of the Holywell cemetery. The building nearest Manor Place entrance is lower, at 3 stories, whilst the back section of it is only single storey, with a ‘green’ roof, to allow views over from Holywell cemetery. These principles seem reasonable, but photomontages should be produced showing realistic views from critical locations (e.g. Holywell cemetery, Manor Place, Magdalen Deer Park and college buildings complex, St Catherine’s College, South Park, St Mary’s Church tower).

Consideration should also be given to night-time views of the proposed buildings.

It is not immediately evident that the low building in front of Holywell cemetery can be kept sufficiently low to afford views over it. The characteristics of its green roof could have a significant effect on the appearance, so the implications for design, plant species, colours, seasonal effects and maintenance are important – more details are needed.

The massing and proportions of the buildings look reasonable, and the proposed materials (natural stone walls, slate roofs) are high quality and appropriate. Notably, all the current adjacent buildings are of brick and clay tile construction. The acceptability of PPC aluminium-framed windows and doors will depend on colour and design details. The walls of the buildings are fairly bland; although the influence of other typical historic college buildings is quoted, these usually have rather more relief and/or more ‘interesting’ window designs. The proposed plain elevations will produce little in the way of shadow effects to add interest or variation according to weather and sun position. Illustrations show some plain gable walls ‘decorated’ with climbing vegetation, but no specific planting scheme was shown, so this may not materialise. The introduction of more detail to the plain elevations could be beneficial.

There seems to be uncertainty of the ownership or maintenance responsibility for the perimeter walls of the site, including the ancient castellated wall to the south and the retaining wall supporting the Holywell cemetery land. The restoration of these walls, and the arrangements for future maintenance should be resolved, since these are important historic elements, which will also contribute significantly to the amenity of the new development.

2. Accommodation:

The proposal to provide full restaurant facilities should help alleviate the concept of another ‘student silo’, and the provision of limited additional kitchen facilities in each building, on each floor enhances this aspect.

All rooms appear to have en suite bathrooms. The smallest rooms provide 13m2 of accommodation, but there are only 13 of these; the majority of rooms are of about 14m2 floor area. These areas appear to include the bathroom, so the usable floor area is likely to be nearer 9/10m2 – small, but there appears to be reasonable provision of kitchens, kitchen/lounges and common areas to provide internal amenity space. The plans provided do show window positions, so these have had to be deduced from the indicative elevations.

The exclusion of any accommodation suitable for couples suggests that the intended market is for younger undergraduates, which has implications for management and for travel, since less in-room study might be anticipated. Restriction to post-graduate students could alleviate potential problems in these areas.

We have some concerns regarding the provision for cooking and eating: we believe many students prefer self-catering, since eating in college is commonly regarded as expensive. The kitchens adjacent to student rooms appear inadequate for the number of student rooms they serve, especially if used for meal preparation. They are also too small to provide relaxing communal area where students can socialise. It was suggested that students could cook in the restaurant area, but the feasibility of sharing facilities here seems questionable, particularly since those central kitchens would be very distant from the students’ rooms.

3. Management:

Potentially, the proposal for Merton College to simply sell the site, and for the accommodation to be made available on the open student market is concerning; assurances that it was ‘90% certain’ that the residents would be university students was not entirely comforting.

The application of a condition by the Council that residents should be students of either of the two universities might be considered. In this way the development would contribute to the ability of those institutions to comply with the Council policy restricting students ‘living out’ to no more than 3000, and the risk of indiscipline and anti-social behaviour, arising from the occupation of the accommodation by possibly-immature students of the largely-unregulated non-university educational establishments would be diminished.

The proposal to have daytime professional caretaking, with designated student night ‘on call’ provision was suggested. This gives little assurance that proper managerial control will be available at times when it is perhaps most likely to be required. Controlled access by a secure gate is welcomed. It has been noted that the anecdotal evidence of the quality of management by the same developer of student accommodation elsewhere in Oxford has, to date, been favourable.

4. Traffic assessment:

Although a car-free development is proposed, there will still be service vehicles for laundry, food materials, building maintenance, waste disposal, and taxi services to be considered; the effect of these on the environment of Manor Place, the connecting roads, and the road junctions should be assessed, and mitigation measures proposed as appropriate.

The stated secure cycle storage provision (1 cycle space per 2 students) is based on Council minimum standards, and not on a realistic (or any) assessment of the likely travel mode choices of the intended residents. Monitoring of traffic associated with St Catherine’s College may be a more appropriate basis for assessing the necessary provision. Brief consideration of the likely destinations for residents’ journeys suggests that the vast majority, perhaps all of the residents will use bicycles, especially since this will be a car-free development, there are no bus services in adjacent streets, and the nearest bus stop is at least 800m away. In these circumstances it is clear that cycling is likely to be a very attractive proposition for most residents, and the current proposals for bicycle storage appear totally inadequate.

A proper assessment of the effects of bicycle traffic generation on Manor Place, Manor Road, Longwall Street, Jowett Walk and South Parks Road should be made, and the enhancement necessary to improve safety for cyclists travelling to and from this development on all these roads, and negotiating their crossings and junctions. Similarly, an assessment of pedestrian traffic needs and enhancements requirements should be considered.

These considerations should also include the effects on motor vehicle traffic of the increased crossings by pedestrians and cyclists of Longwall Street, and the current proposal to withdraw the exception for cyclists from the left-turn ban for travellers heading east on High Street, at the Longwall Street junction.

5. Flood risk and contribution to flood risk of other properties:

The site is low-lying and located directly on the bank of one of the courses of the River Cherwell, so the propensity to flood is apparent. Despite this, there appears to be little evidence of flooding in recent times, and water levels in the adjacent river channel are probably better controlled than in the main channel further east. Nevertheless, careful design to mitigate flood risk is necessary, and may be difficult for the single-storey building whose roof line must be low enough to allow views over.

Although part of the site is currently covered with derelict asphalt tennis courts, the design of surface and rain water drainage systems should incorporate discharge attenuation to diminish the risk of flooding downstream. A contribution to such attenuation could be made by incorporating rainwater harvesting for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation.

6. Energy and sustainability:

The proposed designs appear to offer a reasonable compromise between thermal performance of the building fabric and natural lighting of occupied spaces, though the precise disposition of windows is not clear.

It is understood that a CHP (combined heat and power) installation is the preferred option for energy supply. It would be interesting to see an environmental assessment for such a solution, together with consideration of alternative or supplementary options, such as PV and solar thermal panels (for water heating), and/or ground-, river-, or air-source heat pumps.

In view of the very high ratio of bathrooms to bed spaces (1:1), and number of kitchens proposed, water consumption and water heating are issues which would merit careful consideration. Rainwater harvesting, and possibly grey water recycling could contribute to the minimising of water consumption, and all options for water heating should be considered.

Ventilation systems will also have to be highly effective, with high rates of extract, and corresponding fresh air supply. In these circumstances the incorporation of heat recovery equipment in the heating and ventilation systems would make good sense.

Peter Thompson

Chairman, Oxford Civic Society

For more information about the proposed development, a joint initiative between McLaren and Merton College (the landowners), see these links: