Northgate House, Cornmarket
Our comments on the planning application by Jesus College
14 March 2018
Northgate House is the building on the corner of Cornmarket and Market Street. It is owned by Jesus College and forms the back of the College whose entrance is on Turl Street. The block currently houses Carphone Warehouse, Fat Face and a pop-up tourist souvenir shop in part of what used to be Next. In Market Street it includes a Ladbrokes betting shop and Superdrug.
Planning application reference 18/00258/FUL involves the demolition of the existing building and the erection of a new building to provide replacement commercial units on the basement, ground and first floors, and new teaching facilities, ancillary accommodation and student fellows rooms on the upper floors for Jesus College. Oxford Civic Society’s Planning Group has submitted these comments on the application to the City Council.
If it is still available, this pdf document which is part of the planning appplication is an interesting use of digital technology. It presents a set of ‘verified views’ showing the effect of the new building as it will be seen from various viewpoints in the city centre. To appreciate it at its best, download the pdf file and save it to your computer. Open it, set the zoom level to ‘Fit Page’, then tab through the pages one by one. You’ll see the proposed new building pop up in the landscape. The set of pictures was produced by Hectic Electric. [Note: the pictures used here have been cropped from the original verified views. Refer to the original document for the definitive versions.]
This is a bold proposal to replace Northgate House and create a new quad for Jesus College. It would provide the college with more residential, meeting, teaching and social facilities. It would additionally reinvigorate the retail facilities facing Cornmarket and Market Streets.
A section of the Oxford Civic Society’s Planning Group was among those consulted before this application was submitted and gave it a general welcome, subject as usual to further consideration (reflected in this letter) at the formal application stage.
The elements of the proposal that will have most impact on the general public are the developments facing Cornmarket Street and Market Street: namely, the facades facing these streets, the creation of a “tower” element, and a new entrance to the college from Market Street. These are dealt with below.
The proposed new form for the Cornmarket Street frontage would reflect the historic vertical emphasis of the street which originated from a long period when the street was occupied by buildings on long narrow plots following their establishment in the middle ages as merchants’ houses and inns. The design also provides welcome variety along the frontage by providing a “bookend” structure at each end. These “bookends” and the vertical emphasis provide visual interest. Some doubts exist about the pairings of windows for the study bedrooms on the second and third floors which bear no relationship to any historical precedent on the street. Other questions include: are floor to ceiling windows on student rooms facing a major thoroughfare aesthetically desirable; and could the ‘desk view’ windows be resolved in a manner less disruptive or busy? These are points which merit consideration in relation to the impact on the public realm.
Market Street elevation
The street serves as a route connecting Cornmarket to Turl Street: it struggles to appear as a destination, even for the Covered Market. The proposed changes would introduce a “tower” element to mark a new principal entrance to Jesus College, would lower the high wall, and provide new and welcome views into the college. These changes would provide a more visually interesting streetscape as well as more street activity. This presents an opportunity to invigorate retail activity not only in the street but also in the Covered Market which would become a more obvious attraction. The “tower” is of modest height and would not detract from the importance of St Mary’s church or any other of Oxford’s spires.
It is encouraging that the proposal recognises, as was urged by the Oxford Design Review Panel (ODRP), that a “flexible and resilient approach to retail is needed to respond to the unpredictable and shifting demand and location of retail activity in Oxford … including accommodating different sizes of retail uses within the building.” Given the relative inflexibility of large retail space, and the requirement for sustainability in designs, the question arises as to whether all the retail areas, and particularly the deep-plan retail use at first floor level, are likely to remain viable in the longer term. It is therefore important that the proposed spatial configurations are capable of meeting changing demands and uses over time.
It is reassuring to note that the issue of cycle parking provision, so often little regarded in big developments, received mention in this proposal: 38 new cycle spaces would be provided and 26 spaces for Fellows’ cycles in the replacement for Northgate House.