Report: turning a derelict viaduct into a green community space

You might not think New York City and Leeds have much in common, but a community project is taking inspiration from Manhattan’s ‘High Line’ – which turned a derelict viaduct famous for drug dealing and prostitution into a green urban promenade.

The 1.7km Holbeck Viaduct stands south of Leeds Station but was closed in the late-1980s, in part, due to its sharp curve as it enters the city which deemed it unsuitable for any sort of high-speed freight.

In 2017 a community group called the Holbeck Viaduct Project produced an ambitious pre-feasibility report which brainstormed potential uses for the space, including abseiling, community gardens, falconry displays and a BMX park, amongst other ideas. The disused railtrack also travels to Leeds United’s Elland Road stadium, and the group believes they could provide a safe walkway for fans on matchdays.

High times

The New York High Line.

The non-profit organization Friends of the High Line was formed in New York in 1999 by two residents of the neighbourhood through which the tracks ran. They campaigned for its preservation and reuse as public open space, and in 2009, the 2.3km walkway finally opened. It’s been a massive success, and it’s estimated it attracts five million visitors a year annually.

Developing the High Line in New York cost £170m, most of which was provided by US government. So in an era of public sector austerity, the NYC High Line perhaps provides an unfair comparison.

It’s not the first time there have been regeneration plans mooted for the Holbeck Viaduct, and the architects Bauman Lyons had drawn up a plan for Leeds City Council back in 2008 which included plans to build a bridge over the Leeds & Liverpool canal to the city centre, but like many projects of the time, the plug was pulled due to the recession.

The current group stepped in to revive the project a few years ago and they hope it can be in operation to coincide with the Leeds City of Culture in 2023.

‘Whether it’s a “High Line” with community gardens or a route to Elland Road or a cycle path. It’s a community asset that’s not been used at all,’ says James Whitley, of the Holbeck Viaduct Project group.

‘We want to bring it back into needs of the community,’ he adds.

The group say this time around there has been increased interest in the viaduct from the voluntary and community sectors, and it might be feasible that much of the resource (including labour and materials) for designing and developing the viaduct could be provided by volunteers.

They also know they will have to be creative with fundraising, and their pre-feasibility report lists  ‘sponsor a brick’ schemes, enhanced membership options, donations, grants schemes, crowdfunding or social impact bonds as possible methods of raising money for the project.

‘The NY Highline development was massively expensive,’ says Mr Whitley.

‘Even if the money was available, you wouldn’t want to spend that much money anyway, so we’re keeping all options on the table,’ he adds.

Networking rail

Courtesy of Holbeck Viaduct Project

Key to their plans will be fostering a healthy relationship with the current owners of the viaduct, the publically owned Network Rail. The group have had meetings with them which they described to New Start as ‘productive.’

In addition, developing the viaduct could make the units below the viaduct more attractive. The group believe that their high line would increase footfall which means the units underneath could be rented more readily or for higher rent. ‘In this sense, developing the viaduct is advantageous to Network Rail,’ says Mr Whitley, who is remaining cautiously optimistic.

‘Network Rail haven’t given us the red or the green light. There’s still a lot of work needed in terms of what we want to achieve, which is to bring the viaduct back into use.’

The High Line’s success has inspired cities throughout the United States to redevelop derelict infrastructure as public space. The project has spurred real estate development in surrounding neighbourhoods in what has been described as a halo effect.

Key to the growth of Leeds city centre will be the regeneration of the South Bank, where 235 hectares of land have been earmarked for development with the potential to double both the size and economic output of the city centre. Home to the proposed HS2 integrated station, South Bank Leeds alone will accommodate some 8,000 new homes, creating more than 35,000 local jobs.

‘There’s a desire to double the size of the city centre and to develop the South Bank, so there’s a unique opportunity for the viaduct to be part of that. For a neglected asset to be in an area that’s widely developed could be a missed opportunity,’ says Mr Whitley.

Connecting places

The proposed project in Leeds is not the only viaduct regeneration project currently underway in the UK. The Camden Highline, which would bring a new thoroughfare to link Camden and Kings Cross, is currently in its fundraising stage, and similar projects have also been planned in Liverpool and Manchester in recent years.

In Holbeck, there is still a long way to go and questions still have to be answered about how HS3 will fit into the regeneration of Leeds station. They hope to produce a feasibility report later in the year and start fundraising later this year.

‘This could help to regenerate an area, and ultimately benefit the businesses under the arches to that would benefit the wider area but we’re realistic about whats achievable. ‘ says Mr Whitley.

‘It’s not singing all dancing yet. It’s not baby steps but it’s not full steam ahead either.’

Thomas Barrett

Thomas Barrett

Journalist. Follow him on Twitter

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