The key to Chester’s future could be intrinsically linked to its proud past… but only if the city is unafraid to look forward and embrace change.

This is one of the main findings of the world renowned cities think tank, Urban Land Institute, in a 50-page report on last year’s study of the ancient city’s potential.

Experts on the ULI panel conclude that Chester is a city of “immense and unrealised potential”- but trying to be “too many things to too many people”.

Examples included a tourist, retail, employment, cultural and historical centre plus a county town serving as a regional base for government, law, church, military, cultural and commercial activity.

The ULI’s first UK study found Chester caught between over confidence on the appeal of formidable but fading assets and a form of “conservation paralysis”, plus endless strategies developed without any over-arching vision.

The panel advocate use of a rich legacy of history; heritage and distinction as the base to move forward but warn the city of the need to focus on the future – not immerse itself in its history and look back.

Chester should focus on what it has, improve its historical assets and usage of them, says the report. “It should be a city moving into the future while drawing on its rich past – a city accepting and advancing change whilst preserving its heritage.”

And as a distinctive regional city, the panel maintains that Chester should concentrate on remaining a city with a strong business hub which, in turn, should support the positioning Chester as a ‘boutique, best in class’, destination.

Said Council Leader Mike Jones: “The new authority and its partners invited ULI to study the potential of our city simply because we wanted an independent view of its future direction.

“I agree with many of the sentiments expressed in the report and I think that in two years we have made a considerable impact on the effects of many of years of inactivity.

“Concerns about too many organisations with overlapping agendas in the promotion of Chester are currently being tackled and we are about to respond to the ULI’s perceived need for a comprehensive strategy with the announcement of the One City Plan.”

Professor Tim Wheeler, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Chester, said: “The message is clear. Now is the time for everyone to work together to build a successful future for the city.

“I am delighted that the report mentions the positive contribution to the study made by students in Chester. What we do now will, of course, have great significance for both current and future generations.”

Revival of Liverpool and Manchester has led to Chester ‘losing out’ in the fields of retail and leisure and culture, with significant deterioration of the latter with a night-time economy emphasis on low cost drinking and night clubs.

“The lack of cultural entertainment offers beyond drinking are clearly apparent and a significant challenge for Chester – particularly if the city wants to attract other types of visitor,” says the report.

Yet the climate for Whitehall support for urban infrastructure is now poor, it says. Chester must pro-actively engage its business community to establish coherent and deliverable plans for future inward investment.

ULI highlight the need for a clear, comprehensive strategy based on firm foundations of environmental sustainability, reinforced and managed by clear integrated and accountable leadership.

Alexandra Notay, ULI Vice President Strategic Programmes, said:  “We are delighted that our first panel took place in Chester where we were made so very welcome. We hope that the people of Chester who were so willing to give their time to participate in the panel process will be keen to continue to engage in further debate of our recommendations.”

The report includes ten ‘big ideas’ to help the city regain its status in the tourism market, including the redevelopment of Chester Castle into a multi-use facility(hotel, arts centre , exhibition space); conversion of the upper floors of The Rows into boutique city centre hotel and development of the River Dee banks and canal ‘to re-invigorate’ the current leisure experience.

The ten big ideas are:

  • Further improve Chester’s public realm
    Providing an enhanced ‘sense of place’, further improvement to Chester’s public realm will focus on the most attractive urban assets of Chester.
    Striking urban spaces such as squares and terraces could be gradually created and used for various activities such as open-air cafes and street performances.
  • The River Dee and the Canal
    Chester should consider using the Dee River banks to refresh and reinvigorate the current leisure experience, making use of the available assets and creating a vibrant focus of activity.
    The southern embankments could also be a potential location for a state-of-the-art conference facility – creating the need for a new bridge that could become an attraction like other such bridges elsewhere.
  • Reintroducing cultural centre in Chester’s city centre
    Re-establishing itself as a centre of cultural tourism, Chester should consider the need to reinstate a theatre or cultural centre. Since the closing of the Gateway Theatre (2007) and the Odeon Cinema (2006), a theatre was high on the list of many people’s priorities.
    The panel warned that several major centres are already struggling in Liverpool and therefore recommends a multi-functional centre for arts and culture instead. Alternatively, the provision of a small theatre venue through refurbishment of an existing property. There are examples of successful smaller speciality theatres in the UK, such as the Almedia in North London.
  • Conference/performing art/exhibition facility
    To secure Chester’s position as a ‘boutique’ destination appropriate venues are required. The panel explores the idea of a multi-purpose conference/performing art/exhibition facility.
    Such facility would be used for:- business, entertainment, cultural activities, exhibitions and performances. This would optimise investment and operating costs. Potential city centre locations should be contemplated; one such option would be to use the Castle for this purpose.
  • Biodome (Zoo extension)
    Chester zoo has been planning to create a new extension that could become a phenomenal new tourism attraction likely to generate huge visitation. Alongside ideas to link Chester and its zoo the Biodome would help build local innovation capability related to environmental sciences.
    The panel recommends that the Biodome this development is wholeheartedly sponsored by the public authorities.
  • Chester History Experience Centre
    A Chester History Experience Centre would not be a museum but a true ‘experience’ where visitors would enjoy learning about Chester and its history in an entertaining and interactive manner.
    The panel suggests using the Roman Amphitheatre and the Dee House as the ‘containers’ for this Experience Centre, combining outdoor and indoor spaces. The panel proposes digging under Dee House to expose additional Roman remains and using the resulting ‘undercroft’ space as part of the facility.
  • Chester Port
    The panel recommends using the canal and what is left of Chester’s old harbour infrastructure to create a new leisure experience at the northwest side of the city – thus bringing into value assets currently neglected.
    Aside from creating a new centre of activity, this intervention will also generate activity between the centre and the port. However, the challenges confronting this ‘Big Idea’ are mainly the investment costs and the scarcity of land available.
  • Hotel at The Rows
    Using the currently underutilised and mostly vacant upper floors of the Rows for a high-end, ‘boutique’ city centre hotel has been proposed by the panel – and to explore the potential for other uses of the upper floors such as residential, office incubators and artist studios.
    The objective of these proposals is to re-create the vibrant mixed-use fabric that the Rows used to be not so long ago. Examples of similar strategies have been used elsewhere, like in Annapolis and Istanbul. You may check into one building and stay in another – but each will be unique in its heritage, story and ambiance.
  • Underground car-parks
    Eventually, extensive underground parking will become essential to pedestrians. The panel recommends that this facility should be able to accommodate a minimum of about 2000 cars (on 2 or 3 levels).
    If enough underground parking is provided, it will be possible to eliminate the several current car parks and replace them with better buildings, such as the public venues (theatre, conference facility proposed above).
  • Redevelop Chester Castle
    Lastly the panel recommends redeveloping Chester Castle into a multi-use facility that could accommodate a hotel, arts centre, Chester experience or exhibition space.

    The complexity of the building (including the presence of historically and architecturally significant pieces) will require careful assessment of the existing fabric and its potential reutilisation, but the panel firmly believes that the currently neglected state of the property not only fails to take advantage of a valuable urban and historic asset – it is also detrimental to Chester’s desired positioning in the tourism sector.