From eyesore to Tunbridge Wells hotspot?

    COULD the 17 year saga surrounding the old cinema site soon be over? Residents will be forgiven for having a healthy dose of scepticism when posed the question, but there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel.

    Altitude UK, which purchased the 1.3 acre Tunbridge Wells plot in April last year, submitted an application for planning permission on Friday (July 7) for a new development. They believe it will ‘completely transform’ that part of town.

    In a move that is likely to be praised by stakeholder groups and societies, numerous issues raised in the public consultation that took place last year have been addressed in the latest proposals published.

    Named ‘The Belvedere’ the planned development will include more than 60,000 sq.ft of street level shops, podium level cafés and restaurants and a ‘boutique’ style cinema.

    In addition there will also be a medical centre or offices and 108 contemporary apartments with dedicated parking and communal, landscaped garden area.

    In response to feedback, some of the height of the building has been scaled back, a water feature has been added and building materials have been selected for the facade which the developers believe will be ‘complementary’ to its surroundings.

    A statement released by Altitude UK confirming an application for the ‘exciting development’ had been submitted, claims: “Subject to planning permission, the new development will completely transform this area of the town – which has been unused since the turn of the century – and will attract visitors, new residents, retailers and restaurateurs to Royal Tunbridge Wells.”

    Tempering too much excitement for those who have witnessed the chronic inertia that has come to define attempts to build on the site, is the fact the planning stage has been reached before.

    However, Altitude UK’s wide-ranging public consultation, the fact it has incorporated some of the responses, and has submitted the application only slightly later then their originally intended date of late May, early June, bodes well.

    Stephen Tillman, Director of Altitude UK, said: “We were very pleased with the turn out at a workshop and public consultation we held last year and thrilled to get such a positive response to our plans.

    “Since then, our development team has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in considering all the very valuable feedback we received and integrating many of the suggestions into our proposals.

    “These included incorporating a water feature, a reduction in height and changes to the proposed building at the corner of Mount Pleasant Road and Church Road, the addition of a cinema and the use of complementary materials on the facades of the buildings.

    “This is a good time to be investing in Tunbridge Wells as it has so much to offer. The town is a very impressive backdrop to a vibrant cultural scene with a strong retail and food offering. With the prospect of new office space, a new theatre and cultural hub we are pleased to be part of the growth that’s taking place.”

    Tunbridge Wells Borough Council confirmed their receipt of the application, which they expect to have validated and available for public view on their website by July 17.

    Cllr Jukes, Leader of the Council said: “This has the potential to be a great opportunity for the town. The scheme appears to fulfil our ambitions for the site and the development will further the economic growth of the borough. I look forward to seeing construction begin.”

     

    The planning application has been made, but have we been here before?

    Yes. Since the ABC cinema closed its doors on October 29 2000, there have been numerous previous applications to develop the site by several owners.

    2001/2004: The first application was made in November 2001 by a company named GLN (Copenhagen) Southern Limited for a mixed use development including shops, cafés, housing and room for a nightclub.

    It was first declined permission in April 2003 citing the lack of the inclusion of a cinema in the plans as the reasoning to withhold consent, among other reasons. The particular case resulted in an unsuccessful appeal and an attempt by GLN to reclaim costs from the council on the grounds that the authority “failed to provide substantial evidence to support its reasons for refusal.” The High Court, which oversaw the case, found in favour of the council.

    2005: GLN sells up to Irish developers Rydell Properties.

    2008: An application was submitted on behalf of Rydell Properties, for another mixed use development with the inclusion of hotel rooms. Conservation Area Consent to demolish the decaying buildings was granted. But the project is taken no further as the credit crunch leads to the distressed company’s assets being seized by Ireland’s National Asset Management Agency (NAMA).

    2011: NAMA sells the site to the Carlyle Group for £11.5million, including VAT. London Developers Bellhouse Joseph are brought on board.

    2013: The council moves to sue Bellhouse Joseph for a figure close to £465,000 over unpaid business rates. The developer opted not to contest the figure and a settlement was made meaning no enforcement action was necessary. The debt was paid by August the following year alongside £22,000 in legal costs.

    2014: Old cinema building is finally demolished and hoardings are erected.

    2015: The site goes on the market again and in October it is rumoured that Bellhouse Joseph is seeking to acquire full ownership.

    2016: In January the deal with Bellhouse Joseph falls through as an unnamed hotel group decided to withdraw from the project. In April 2016, Altitude UK purchase the plot and begin public consultation.

    2017: The latest application is submitted on July 7. Stephen Tillman had previously told the Times construction was expected to take around two years, meaning a likely date for completion in 2020.

    UPHILL VISION View from the bottom of Mount Pleasant