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Huge new labs at redeveloped Grafton centre site will ‘dominate Cambridge’s historic skyline’

A residents’ group has raised the alarm about plans to increase the height of buildings at The Grafton centre site significantly when it is redeveloped, warning it will “dominate the skyscape from much of central Cambridge”.

The Friends of St Matthew’s Piece say their neighbouring streets will be impacted by the bulk of the new life sciences building that will replace much of the shopping centre, as well as an urban heat island effect caused by the large-scale development.

Grafton Centre development plans
Grafton Centre development plans

According to the developer’s own documents, the current Grafton centre typically ranges from 10 to 14 metres tall, whereas the proposed buildings in the redevelopment will reach as high as 27 metres.

And the group is alarmed at the fact that fewer than 20 residents have commented on the plans so far – making them wonder if people realise the size of the buildings about to be constructed.

Meanwhile, conservation charity Cambridge Past, Present and Future has spoken of its concern about views from Castle Mound, which it says will be affected by the large new buildings.

Both The Grafton and the Beehive shopping centre are earmarked for redevelopment into science and technology-led parks, while the western end of The Grafton centre would remain a retail area.

Grafton Centre development plans
Grafton Centre development plans

Val Neal, a spokesperson for Friends of St Matthew’s Piece, said: “This development seems to have flown completely under the radar as far as public knowledge about it goes. There have been hundreds of comments about the Beehive Centre redevelopment and just 14 about The Grafton centre. It makes me question if anyone knows what is happening.”

Now the Friends are urging people to look at the plans and make comments to Greater Cambridge Shared Planning.

The developer’s application refers to the consultation on the masterplan for the site that took place between November 2022 and January 2023. It says: “The public and stakeholders were informed of the consultation via leaflet drops, letters, display boards in the Grafton Centre and media coverage. A consultation website was prepared which showed the emerging proposals and invited feedback.”

The heights of the the tallest surrounding buildings include:

- Abbeygate House on East Road – 10.5m tall
- Christ Church on Maid’s Causeway – 15m tall
- Cambridge Crown Court on East Road – 14m tall
- Compass House on East Road – 10.5m tall
- Mallory House on East Road – 14m tall.

The Friends group adds: “All of these buildings already loom over two conservation areas that comprise mainly two-storey, largely Victorian, modest residential housing.

“The damaging visual impacts of this wholly commercial development fail to enhance and, instead, significantly harm the principally residential context of two conservation areas. Overshadowing and widespread overlooking will harm the setting, character and appearance of local housing and views of and from the Kite Conservation Area and the Mill Road Conservation Area, and impact negatively on public open space.”

Grafton Centre current size compared with nearby buildings. The new development will be between 23.95m and 27 m tall.
Grafton Centre current size compared with nearby buildings. The new development will be between 23.95m and 27 m tall.

They also raised environmental concerns about an “urban heat island effect” which they say already impacts Petersfield and the Kite conservation area, with consequences for “the health and wellbeing of thousands of local residents and their environment”. An urban heat island describes built-up areas facing higher temperatures than rural sites due heat retained by hard surfaces being released.

Views of the development have also caused some worry about Cambridge’s unique character being affected. The conservation group Cambridge Past, Present and Future is concerned about the views from Cambridge’s Castle Mound, which will now include the huge development on the skyline.

The group said in an objection: “Cambridge Past, Present and Future object to this application on the grounds of its detrimental impact on heritage, specifically on the Cambridge skyline, and on distant views of significant heritage assets… We consider that the proposals will have a particularly adverse impact on views from Castle Hill, Red Meadow Hill and Midsummer Common.”

Grafton Centre development plans
Grafton Centre development plans

Further on, the group adds: “The applicant argues that the proposed development should be seen in the context of the existing large scale bulky modern buildings seen in the skyline. However, we argue that it should be seen in the context of the towers and turrets of the skyline. The CB1 development already stands out as a bulky addition to the backdrop of the historic city. This proposal would introduce another bulky intrusion… Redevelopment of the Beehive Centre, North East Cambridge and Cambridge East will result in the skyline becoming dominated by large bulky buildings rather than the slim and elegant towers and turrets of the churches and chapels.”

A resident on Silverwood Close complains: “The proposed development is excessive in size, height and density, and would have a detrimental effect on the historic character and setting of the city centre. The development would also generate unacceptable levels of traffic, noise, pollution and disruption to the existing residents, businesses and visitors. We urge the planning authority to reject this application and preserve the heritage and vitality of the city centre.”

There have also been comments from several residents of Christchurch Street, who objected to the removal of a wall which would make the road a thoroughfare.

The proposals are to convert the declining shopping mall into laboratory space, while turning the western end into a more attractive destination for shoppers. The design includes removing the roof from part of the centre to create a new public square surrounded by shops and cafes.

The cinema and gym will be retained under the plans, with a new hotel and restaurants around another public square on East Road.

Grafton Centre development plans
Grafton Centre development plans

The developers, Pioneer Group, which acquired the site in August 2022 from Legal & General, say in a planning statement: “As part of the public consultation on The Grafton centre, it was acknowledged by local residents, that The Grafton centre has fallen into decline, and that bringing the vacant units back into use would add to the vibrancy and vitality of the area.”

The developer commissioned a townscape and visual appraisal assessment, which found that the proposed development would have “an impact ranging from neutral to minor beneficial to moderate beneficial impact on the Kite Conservation Area, a minor adverse to minor beneficial impact on upon the setting of the Riverside and Stourbridge Conservation Area and a neutral impact on the Mill Road Conservation Area”.

The developer added: “The appraisal of townscape and visual effects concluded that the proposal would result in some adverse effects largely associated with the appreciation of the Cambridge skyline. Notably, the adverse effects will be mitigated using appropriate materiality and colour palette that will lessen the proposal’s prominence in key views.”

But it said there would be positive improvements to the appearance of east Road architecture and landscape design of the site.

Cllr Tim Bick (Lib Dem, Market) has said he will wait for officers to explain the pros and cons of the whole project before forming a final opinion.

Grafton Centre development plans
Grafton Centre development plans

He adds that Market ward councillors have spoken extensively to people living in the Kite area about the impact of the development.

He said: “We've made sure that the developer has consulted very widely with people living in the Kite. There have been opportunities for people to make representations directly to the developer in two waves, I think and then there's been some special meetings on particular subjects, with people who are interested in particular aspects of it. And they've all had an opportunity to give their views back to the developer. Some of those have been taken into account, some of them a bit less so. We are waiting to see the evaluation of the vast amount of data that's been submitted with the development. We want to see the planning officers assess that in accordance with planning policies which are there to protect the community and ensure that its characteristics are preserved.”

He added: “I can see there have been concerns about the height of buildings. I'd like to see those properly assessed through the independence of the planning officers but until I’ve done that, I want to keep my counsel and see what that shows us.”

Cllr Richard Robertson (Labour, Petersfield) said: “The existing buildings at The Grafton are a lot higher already than those in the Beehive, which is perhaps why the Beehive development has attracted more comments, but there is a major concern still about height. Also if you are going to have a lot of staff employed there – a lot more than were employed before – how do they get there? It's not next to a station. It's not an obvious place to bring people into unless they cycle. You wouldn't want them to try and drive in. I think the reason we've got so many biotech blocks in the rural areas around the city is because of transport.”

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