This week the news broke that the popular bar and restaurant The Botanist would be opening up in Keel Square in one of the ground floor units of the new Hotel. The news was hailed as a massive scalp for Sunderland, with the perceived lack of places to eat and drink in the city centre being a longstanding complaint of residents.
But what made this possible? The answer is Keel Square itself, which is turning out to be an undeniable and growing success story for the city centre. Opened in 2015, the Square was initially met with scepticism from some locals who derided it as something expensive, fancy and useless. Yet its underlying importance has been demonstrated as it has served as a foundation for further development around the area and unlocking business potential.
The construction of the square has been followed by development on the Vaux Site, including the Beam office building (which has brought hundreds of new jobs), the new city hall, as well as a new Car Park, plans for an eye infirmary hospital, new housing developments underway and a new River Wear footbridge. This is coupled with the new Holiday Inn on the Square (which will host at least four restaurants) and plans to build a new cultural house and library. The redevelopment of the neighbouring former Fire Station into a Bar & Restaurant and its new auditorium also herald the area’s rapid transformation.
It needs to be said that the Council established a long term strategic vision for this area, and they are pursuing it. Their strategy appears to be to establish Keel Square as the new “heart” of Sunderland City Centre, a vibrant area of both work and leisure. They have done this by prudently reconsolidating existing things from the town centre’s periphery into one place (such as City Hall and the Eye infirmary, as well as appealing to other businesses such as Hays Travel) but also by creating new things too. This gives new meaning, new life and new energy to the City Centre.
It has been well known for a long-time that Sunderland City Centre has suffered from poor economic organization over the long term. With the city’s core employment areas not based in the city centre itself, places such as Doxford Park and Nissan have established “come and go” commuting which means people afar can work in Sunderland without ever visiting central Sunderland itself. The long term consequence of this is that the “town” has lacked a fundamental purpose which has hobbled its economic development in its ability to sustain high quality shops and restaurants, it has been a central business district, without central businesses… One may note how the area becomes completely empty by evening.
The success stemming from Keel Square is a long term, yet critical step in changing this. It is bringing jobs, initiative and purpose back to Sunderland City Centre, making it a worthy place to visit and enjoy itself. Surely even the most ardent critic of the city right now cannot deny this. We all want the best for Sunderland, but we should be prepared to recognize what that is and when it comes.