Developer pledges to build project to make town proud

Abergavenny Arms

The privately owned company that last week bought the old cinema site in Tunbridge Wells has moved to quell fears that it might prove to be another false dawn.

Altitude UK told the Times that it ‘fully appreciates’ why residents might feel sceptical about anything actually being built on the site that became a major eyesore since being vacated nearly 16 years ago.

The reassurance comes after the town’s MP warned that people’s patience with the long-running saga has been exhausted.

Greg Clark said: “The old cinema site has been plagued with false starts so I won’t get my hopes up until I actually see work starting on the ground.

“The new owners just need to get on with it – our patience has well and truly run out.”

Altitude, which hopes to put shops and restaurants on the plot, has been working on the project and with the borough council for the last three months before the site was purchased on April 25.

It is the fifth company to own the 1.3 acre plot since the cinema closed in 2000. The previous owners, Carlyle Group, spent £10million on buying the land five years ago.

The most recent purchase price has been described as ‘commercially sensitive’ and has not been disclosed.

Numerous proposals for the site have been put forward over the years, including for a Waitrose, hotel and mixed-use schemes, although none of them has ever got beyond the drawing board.

Altitude co-founder and director Stephen T illman, who was born in Maidstone and is familiar with Tunbridge Wells, insisted his company fully intends to ‘build bridges’ with the local community.

He added: “Knowing a bit about what has gone on with the site in the past, I can fully appreciate there is scepticism as people don’t know us from the next developer.

“But we want to build up a relationship with the community and the council, both of whom we intend to consult as we go forward.”

He stressed the company intends to deliver a project the town will be ‘proud of’ and was not put off by the failures of previous developers to make the site work.

Mr Tillman said: “Our background has been about delivering  projects in complicated places and making something from them.”

Altitude is fully aware of the issues surrounding the railway tunnel that runs under the plot and difficulties with access.

Mr Tillman said that this development is of similar magnitude to one Altitude is currently undertaking in West Byfleet, which is also in its early stages.

On its website the company states it is delivering the West Byfleet project while working alongside ‘Woking Council, occupiers and local groups’.

But he stressed that each develop-ment was unique: “Every site has its challenges with regards to physical and social constraints and you have to make it work with the local environment.”

Gaining planning permission for the intended mixed-use development should take between nine and 12 months, the developer suggested, followed by a further two years for construction.

However, he stressed they were eager to get ‘straight into delivery’.

“For this reason we will probably submit a detailed plan rather than just go for outline plan-ning permission,” Mr Tillman said, adding that the initial strategy for Altitude is to hold on to the freeholds – though this may change.

He also hinted that going for another cinema screen was not off the table.

“We are aware of the proposed cinema development in the shopping centre, but if there is shown to be demand and depth to the market I do not see why there couldn’t be something boutique on the site.”

Mr Tillman said the company was very enthusiastic about working in the town: “Tunbridge Wells is a great place and we have a long and exciting journey ahead of us.”

Fellow director Nigel Robson said: “Tunbridge Wells is an attractive town with an affluent catchment area and first class connectivity to central London.

He added: “We believe there is a significant untapped potential in the area for high-quality restaurants and residential development that will help boost the town’s day and nighttime economies.”

So just who are these people that want to rid our town of its biggest eyesore?

Altitude Real Estate Ltd is a private company based in Cheltenham specialising in office, residential and mixed-use development and “strategic land assembly”, which involves acquiring and holding properties.

Established in 2011, it focuses on locations in London and major towns and cities that have a strong local economy and affluent demographics.

The company was set up by Gary Taylor and Stephen Tillman, who had previously been joint managing directors at the property developers Argent. Both joined the company in 1994 and had been board directors for a decade, during which time they had been heavily involved in projects in Birmingham.

The Birmingham Post described Mr Taylor, who is also a director of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, as “one of the most influential characters in the transformation of Birmingham over the past two decades”.

The pair completed an award-winning city centre regeneration at Brindleyplace, which cost £400million and covered over a million square feet.

This diverse “city quarter” scheme involved retail and leisure outlets, serviced apartments, 11 office buildings, multi-storey car park, hotel and theatre around Sir Norman Foster’s stunning National Sealife Centre.

Then they decided to leave Argent, which was heavily involved in a massive development at King’s Cross in London, in order to concentrate their energies on another of their former company’s “city core” schemes in Birmingham.

The ongoing Paradise Circus project covers a seven-acre office development costing £750million. They have been awarded £60m of Entreprise Zone funding from the government to help with work on infrastructure.

Mr Taylor had also been involved in large-scale projects in Manchester, while Mr Tillman was responsible for Argent’s first two City of London office buildings including one that was built on top of the old Roman Governor’s Palace near Cannon Street station.

Last year the directors were joined by Nigel Robson, who was a founding partner of Resolution Property and head of its UK asset management and investment, having previously worked with the other directors at Argent.

Mr Robson has been responsible for a number of Resolution projects such as the development of Ocean Terminal on the waterfront in Edinburgh, and an ongoing project at Brewery Square in Dorchester, Dorset, which has seen innovative new architecture being incorporated alongside the town’s historic buildings.

Altitude already have something similar to the old cinema site in the pipeline, at the District Centre in West Byfleet, Surrey. Late last month it was granted planning permission by Woking Borough Council after the site was bought for £10.5million in August 2015.

The area includes the town’s main shopping centre 200 yards from the station, part of which consists of a seven-storey concrete “carbuncle” built in the 1960s called Sheer House. This has fallen into disuse apart from a parade of shops at ground level and a car park.

The company is working in conjunction with the council on the project, which it aims to convert into a “vibrant mixed-use space that ties in with the area and provides the possibility of a large space for community activities and public focus”. The company’s ideas include a new square, to create a “core heart”.

Director Stephen Tillman said of the Surrey site: “Fundamentally, the town has everything one would look for. We want to start from scratch and take a holistic approach to look at how people use the town centre.”

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