Office block plans for St Mary Le Port site approved despite concerns over ‘massive, monolothic’ buildings

Some believe the scheme will harm views in Caste Park as the buildings look ‘too overbearing, too blocky’.

Plans for three new office blocks at the edge of Castle Park have been approved, despite concerns the “massive” buildings will overshadow the park and overwhelm the Old City.

Councillors narrowly voted in favour of MECP’s proposals for the St Mary le Port site, which currently contains a cluster of three eyesore buildings surrounding a ruined church tower.

One member of the committee even compared the plans for Castle Park to New York’s iconic Central Park.

The three former bank buildings at the corner of Wine Street and High Street will be replaced with one nine-storey and two eight-storey office blocks, with independent retailers, cafés, restaurants, and bars at ground level.

The developer will also expand the park, restore the ruined St Mary le Port church tower, and reinstate three historic city centre streets that were lost during the Bristol Blitz.

It will also put money towards public toilets and improved cycle lanes through the park.

An artist’s impression of what the site could look like once it’s finished.

Members of campaign group Friends of Castle Park, which has been fighting off “outlandish” plans to redevelop the site for 15 years, told a planning committee they thought MECP’s proposals would both “protect” and “enhance” the park.

But Simon Hickman from Historic England, which objected to the application, said the buildings were “just too big” for the location and would “overwhelm” the Old City unless two of the new office blocks were two floors shorter.

Committee members also heard concerns about the number of trees that would be lost, with plans to remove 14 of 28 mature trees on the site.

Mark Ashdown from the Bristol Tree Forum said the scheme should be rejected because the tree loss did not comply with planning policy and would not be adequately compensated by the developer’s plans to plant 63 trees at other unspecified locations in the city.

But Roz Bird, MEPC’s commercial director, said the loss of some trees was necessary and the company had revised the scheme several times to minimise the loss.

MEPC will rent a tenth of the retail units at discounted rates, she added.

“Our scheme will provide valuable employment space in a key location, supporting a strong mixed-use heart of Bristol,” Ms Bird said.

The planning officer who recommended the scheme for approval said it would bring economic benefits for the city as a whole, and “on balance” this outweighed the downsides.

He admitted the tall buildings would overshadow Castle Park, but said the developer had assured the council their size was necessary from a financial viability point of view.

The officer pointed out the council’s city centre framework allowed for four buildings on the small 1.2ha site but MEPC had voluntarily decided to build only three based on feedback from a public consultation.

The council’s senior planning officer, Gary Collins, assured committee members there was still an appetite for high-quality office space in the city centre, despite a switch to home-working during the pandemic.

The nine-strong planning committee voted five to three to approve the application, despite their reservations. One councillor abstained.

Committee chair Richard Eddy admitted the plans were controversial, but said he thought they suited and enhanced the prominent central city location.

“Castle Park in my view is a bit like New York Central Park, so large buildings surrounding it may be appropriate and may actually add to the attractiveness of the location,” the Conservative councillor said.

Green councillor Fi Hance said: “It’s not the most beautiful development, but it’s better than what we’ve got and it’s a sight better than some of the proposals in the past.”

Labour councillor Chris Jackson said: “The site is an eyesore. It’s been an eyesore for as long as I can remember.”

Green councillor Ed Plowden called two of the buildings “too high and too massive” and objected to the tree loss, along with fellow Green member Tom Hathway.

Liberal Democrat Andrew Varney said he thought the scheme would harm views in the historic setting as the buildings look “too overbearing, too monolithic, too ‘blocky’”.

“Unlike you, Cllr Eddy, I don’t want to create Central Park in Castle Park. I don’t think that’s appropriate for Bristol. Certainly not on that old historic city side.”

Speaking after the planning meeting, Roz Bird, commercial director at MEPC, said: “After two years of detailed consultation with local stakeholders in the community, we are delighted that the Development Control Committee voted this afternoon in favour of our application to rejuvenate the St Mary le Port site.

“On behalf of MEPC, I would like to say a huge thank you to Bristol for welcoming us with open arms and for working with us to develop plans that will create a new special and unique district for Bristol – that will bring new independent shops catering for all budgets, attract new visitors interested in the ruins of St Mary le Port Church, and deliver a new attractive office location commensurate with Bristol’s ambitions and climate targets.

“We will now look to continue to engage and work with Bristol City Council, Friends of Castle Park, Bristol Tree Forum, the Civic Society and the wider community to bring our exciting plans to life.”