More sides to
the Triangle

A once abandoned area is a hotbed of creative industries, but can it survive the property developers who are inevitably taking an interest. Julie Tomlin investigates.

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When words like “vibrant” and “thriving” are used by developers to describe Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle, it’s a sure sign that they have it in their sights. So what does the future hold for this pocket of creative enterprise, cool venues and warehouse parties that has emerged from the ruins of the city’s docks?

As with London’s Shoreditch, New York’s Meatpacking District and some parts of Detroit, along with many other neighbourhoods laid waste by the decline of the city’s major industry, things began to take off in Liverpool’s former warehouse district about eight years ago when artists and creative entrepreneurs began moving in. The area framed roughly by Jamaica Street, Greenland Street and Upper Parliament Street had numerous empty warehouses, relics of a bygone era when the port was the busiest in the world and they were used to store cotton, silk, tea and other goods. Jayne Casey, a creative pioneer who oversaw the opening of Liverpool Capital of Culture ‘08, was one of the first to explore the area, and staged a series of art shows in some of the disused buildings.

“It was a pretty dead area and there had been talk two or three years before of it being turned into an official red light district,” says Erika Rushton, who set up the Baltic Creative CIC with Casey. “But it was very close to the city centre, though it didn’t feel like it was then, and I could see that the area was a bridge to the town.”

The Picket live music venue and two galleries that have since closed were next to move in before the Baltic Creative CIC arrived in 2009. With Casey as a director and Rushton, who was then director of neighbourhood management company Include, as chair, it secured £5.2 million funding to buy 18 buildings for use as work spaces for the creative and digital sector.

A manifesto drawn up in the early days reflects some of the energy and chutzpah of that time: “A bonfire of old-school regeneration mantras; a celebration of everything marginal, curious and inspired; a private sector led, bottom-up, grassroots networking, matchmaking and freewheelin’ revolutionary manifesto for change. With a creative, industrious, pioneering agenda and a bohemian, alternative, radical leaning.”

The approach, from the outset, was one of collaboration, says Rushton, adding that other landlords who had concerns about being undercut by low rents were eventually won over.

“I said to those people ‘Bear with us, we all work together, this is a collaborative approach’ and within a year we were 100 per cent full across 45,000 square feet,” says Rushton. “What was important wasn’t that we were full, it was that everyone was full, because once people move alongside each other that’s how economies are built and born.”

“We came on site and were able to open in 12 weeks because everyone helped us.”

The Creative Campus on Jamaica Street is at the heart of the Triangle, home to the Baltic Creative CIC’s offices, a campus café run by Unit 51, and a variety of studios and wooden sheds that have attracted pioneering businesses such as Ironbird UK Aerial Cinematography, which uses unmanned drone technology, app developer and designer Novoda, and Sea Level Research, which is developing new software enabling accurate prediction of sea levels. Add to this a wide range of small businesses and sole traders, including artists, photographers and musicians, and the manifesto vision begins to take shape: “Low values mean: flexible space and flexible tenures; frugality and invention; industry, art and spectacle; planning freedom, free thinking. High worth low value uses, attracting followers and debutants; every well heeled entrepreneur, socialite and fashionista wants an edge; every local upstart and graduate needs a home.”

This all appealed to Clemens Wangerin when he left his job at Sony Studios and the sterility of Wavertree’s Technology Park to set up in the Elevator Studios on Parliament Street. He later took on the role of managing director at Starship, at the forefront of mobile social networking using virtual reality technology, that has offices in the same building.

“The Baltic Triangle had a very grassroots and hands-on vibe,” says Wangerin, who was appointed as a member of the Baltic Creative board in 2011. “You went there if you didn’t mind if there wasn’t an elevator in the building for the next 12 months, or there was only one place you could get a butty in the morning. But it was raw and it was fresh and it was cheap.”

Wangerin adds that the area is either currently having, or perhaps even had, its “halcyon days” – a comment that reflects widespread acceptance that change is up ahead. For a variety of reasons, however, the Baltic Triangle could shape up differently to other city neighbourhoods it has been compared to, and the now ubiquitous gentrification is not an inevitability. A lot rides on how involved the people who live and work there get to be in shaping its future.

The Baltic Creative now owns 18 buildings, with plans to double that number over the next five years. As a major landlord, it can act as a bulwark against the rent hikes that so often squeeze out early pioneers. They also hope that newcomers can be persuaded to buy in to the collaborative spirit nurtured both in the buildings and with other businesses summed up in the manifesto commitment to “cherish what we have: artists, brewers, musicians, designers, fashionistas, welders, bakers, ducks, galleries, engineers, skaters, printers, cabaret, biennials, afternoon tea and… night-time thrill seekers”.

Rebecca Pope says it was thanks to nearby architects, builders, timber yards and the rest of the community who pitched in that she and business partner Nick Baskerville were able to get the building work at their events business Constellations completed so quickly.

“We came on site and were able to open in 12 weeks because everyone helped us,” she says. “We paid people in cold beers and flapjacks.” Constellations, which recently celebrated its second birthday, has a creative studio, events space, café-bar and a gin garden. There are other bars and cafés in the Baltic Creative too, including Camp & Furnace, which has become a firm fixture in Liverpool’s nightlife. Workshop it may be, but all of these venues, the skatepark, street art and pop-ups like the Botanical Garden – a “secret” gin garden that opens for the summer in New Bird Street – all make it a unique urban playground.

Some of the young Liverpudlians who work and socialise there may reluctantly accept the “hipster” label, but they work side by side with employees of garages, tyre shops and other light industries. The Life Sciences UTC and the North Liverpool Academy Studio School, a school and sixth form college specialising in creative media, gaming and digital technology is in the Triangle. FLT Training, a forklift training centre on Jordan Street, not only brings in young people who attend its courses, it has also proven popular with artists when they need to move sculptures and other large art works.

“Successful economies have always been built on good relationships and good trading, collaboration and trust, not on competition,” says Rushton. “Although most economic development specialists for the last 25 years have failed to recognise that.”

Along with the café and drop-in centre at Constellations, the Women’s Organisation at 54 St James Street plays an important role in attracting families and older people from neighbouring Toxteth. Set up to tackle high unemployment among women, it provides training and support, employing an outreach team to engage with the city’s “hard to reach” communities. Not only has it helped women set up in health and beauty and a variety of creative businesses, it also works to break down barriers to women entering the tech and digital industries.

“Digital businesses are very male dominated in this city, so our presence here does gender balance the area,” says Joanne Austin, the organisation’s engagement and digital marketing co-ordinator. “There are a lot more businesses run by women, and we also draw in people who might not otherwise feel comfortable coming here. There’s a perceived culture, of types of people who might come into the area, but we bring a slightly different flavour.”

But as development of the Liverpool One shopping centre continues apace and a £50 million scheme to create more than 250 apartments overlooking Queen’s Dock has been given the go-ahead, can this unique community withstand the kind of development we’ve come to expect in an up and coming area?

“Once you start introducing this stuff, then mutations start to happen and the DNA of an area can then change irrevocably,” says David Lloyd of award-winning city blog Seven Streets, who until recently had his office in the Creative Campus. “And the creative, industrial people who brought back life to the area, who seeded it and created it, are at the bottom of the food chain.”

Rushton is more optimistic that developers can be persuaded to work more collaboratively, and Baltic Creative is currently in negotiations that would see ground and first floor space in new buildings used by creative and digital industries.

Pope hopes that, if done in collaboration with the community, development could create opportunities for businesses and provide much needed accommodation for families. The Baltic Triangle was designated as a Neighbourhood Business Area by Liverpool City Council last year and a forum has been set up with responsibility for delivering a neighbourhood plan that will provide guidance for planners and developers.

“I want this area to be alive and vibrant, and we need developers,” says Pope. “But let’s make sure when they come in that they are building buildings that are sustainable, architecturally interesting and which have the right acoustic treatment so businesses like mine aren’t turfed out in a few years time.”
To achieve this, and avoid being dismissed by developers, the plans will need to have teeth, says Lloyd, who believes the Baltic Triangle could play a key role in shaping a distinctive future for Liverpool.

“A lot of cities make the mistake of thinking one size fits all, but we have the potential for doing something different,” he says. “We’re really good at collaboration and in germinating things. We have the rough, raw ingredients. Maybe there’s a space for a place for incubation, for trying things out and failing sometimes. Liverpool could be that place.”

Three quarters

While Liverpool’s Baltic Triangle is facing the challenges of development, an area in the north of the city is just starting out.

The Baltic Creative’s Erika Rushton is spearheading a Launchpad project led by local entrepreneurs and Liverpool Council called the Beautiful Ideas Co CIC in North Liverpool.

The LaunchPad has a £600,000 pot to fund 30 projects with potential to not only be economically self-sustaining but also to benefit the local community in innovative and creative ways. Make Liverpool was the first to win funding to the tune of £30,000 for its plans to transform a disused warehouse in the area’s docklands into a maker space, with workshops to allow people to use equipment and tools, meeting rooms, co-working and events spaces.

The team behind the city’s recently demolished Kazimier venue is just about to open a sprawling arts complex, the Invisible Wind Factory, in the north docklands too.

A more established artists’ community is housed in a cluster of nineteenth and early twentieth century mill buildings at the northern-most edge of Ordsall in Salford and near to Manchester city centre. The Islington Mill Arts Club and Studio is at the heart of Salford’s creative community and home to 50 small creative businesses and more than 100 artists. Its focus is also on nurturing emerging talent and over the past 15 years it has supported more than 5,000 artists from 35 different countries.

Launched in 2010, Regather is a trading co-operative set up by a group of self-employed social activists in a building called the Horn Handle Works that dates back to the later nineteenth century. The building in the central Sheffield district of Sharrow, which was also known as Little Sheffield, is used for gigs, cinema and other events. A craft brewery, organic fruit and veg box scheme and a green homes project operate in the building.

In this week’s print magazine (23 May) we look at another emerging area – Ancoats in Manchester. Next month, look out for our features on Holbeck, Leeds and Kelham Island, Sheffield.

Featured image: Rebecca Pope of the Constellations café-bar. Photo: Rebecca Lupton

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