Published: 06:00, 26 November 2020
A new "long-term vision" for Ashford town centre has been revealed – including plans to transform Bank Street and turn the Park Mall shopping centre into a residential development.
Council bosses have compiled a "reset" document in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, earmarking an "investment corridor" stretching from the International station.
They say they are working to ensure the traditional town centre area can "remain relevant" and are keen to regain the "wow factor" of the high street.
Controversial proposals to demolish part of the former Mecca Bingo building are not mentioned in the plan, which will be discussed by Ashford Borough Council's cabinet this evening.
Town centre regeneration manager Hannah Clayton-Peck says the document "seeks to consolidate areas of focus".
In the report, she writes: "We currently have a vacancy rate of 19.9% which is the highest it has been since we began recording 12 years ago.
"With 40% less footfall than we were seeing last year, we need to consider the role of the town centre and understand its relevance to the recovery of Ashford’s economy.
"It is clear the traditional town centre area needs to provide an offer that complements offers elsewhere, and must adapt to survive."
Ms Clayton-Peck says Bank Street and Elwick Road are the "focal point" of the reset plans.
"Bank Street will be transformed to become a focal point for the community and will be where many now consider the ‘new modern high street’ to be," she writes.
"The main complementary retail and leisure uses will be focused there.
"It will be where people dwell and mingle, with a variety of independent shops, eateries and cafes.
"Elwick Road will continue to be redeveloped with a mixture of uses, including residential and potential varied use on the ground floor.
"It will act as a clear entrance into the newly transformed Bank Street area and effectively become the key gateway into the new high street, particularly from the station."
Ms Clayton-Peck says there are "suggested plans" that ABC-owned Park Mall will "one day become a new residential community within the heart of the town".
"In this instance, independent businesses will be offered opportunities to move to the Bank Street area," she said.
"The residential offer will house a variety of different people and become key footfall generators in their own right which will, in turn, will support the transformed Bank Street area and beyond.
"At Park Mall, the provision of a new multi-storey car park or utilising the existing one will be explored as a means of providing more footfall generation and to help anchor and deliver the aspirations surrounding the Bank Street area."
In the report, Victoria Road – which is already home to the Curious Brewery and Aldi – has been recognised as a key area that bosses say will act as a "gateway" into Bank Street and Victoria Park.
The historic Middle Row area has also been picked out, with Ms Clayton-Peck saying it has "untapped potential".
Although plans to knock down part of the Mecca Bingo site and build a public square on the Vicarage Lane car park are not mentioned specifically, the council document says the Lower High Street will "continue to evolve, with the market playing a key role".
And as part of the plans, the bus stops in Bank Street could be moved to a different "suitable and accessible location" in the town.
"For buses, these remain important footfall creators and are the favoured mode of transport for many," Ms Clayton-Peck says.
"Careful consideration will be needed about alternative drop off points within the traditional town centre area, so that a solution can be found that allows the aspirations for Bank Street to be delivered, yet provides safe and accessible access to it from a nearby point."
Ms Clayton-Peck says "things are already moving forward" but the study "does not aim to prescribe timeframes".
"We must take advantage of this reset to regain the wow factor"
"This is our long-term vision and future projects will take this study into account," she said.
"It is recognised that the roles identified in this study will take time to establish.
"This presents the opportunity to look at how some of the areas might be phased as a means of potentially delivering some ‘quick wins’.
"For example, there are currently a number of key underdeveloped sites along Elwick Road which will remain underdeveloped for potentially some time.
"This could provide some opportunities for temporary uses being delivered here in the short term if desirable.
"Such uses could focus on promoting an enhanced art and cultural offer through a variety of events and exhibitions or ‘pop-up’ facilities and attractions."
ABC's cabinet will discuss the proposals at a virtual meeting from 6pm tonight.
It is expected to delegate authority to the Ashford town centre redevelopment advisory committee which will then develop the action plan.
In documents prepared ahead of the meeting, ABC's portfolio holder for regeneration and corporate property, Cllr Paul Clokie (Con), says the reset plan provides a "direction and vision to work towards".
"We must take advantage of this reset to regain the wow factor of the original Ashford high street," he said.
ABC leader Cllr Gerry Clarkson (Con) added: "Ashford town centre reset is the blueprint to establish the future success of Ashford town centre.
"However it must be agile and flexible in its use to respond to changing circumstances and future opportunities.”
What do you think about the town centre reset? Comment below or email email@example.com