The ability of Chester, England, to transform its economy and achieve its full potential as a magnet for development and investment hinges on its willingness to embrace change, according to the recommendations of an international panel of real estate and land use experts convened by ULI.

The panel, part of ULI’s global advisory services panel program, advised the city of Chester on how best to revive its aging retail district and leverage those efforts to create further revitalization programs. The ULI panel visited Chester in fall 2010, concluding the trip with initial recommendations. Its 50-page report was just released.

Experts on the ULI panel noted that Chester is a city of “immense and unrealized potential,” but that it is trying to be “too many things to too many people,” promoting itself as a tourist, retail, employment, cultural, and historic center, plus as a county town serving as a regional base for government, law, church, military, cultural, and commercial activity.

The panel found Chester caught between overconfidence on the appeal of formidable but fading assets and endless strategies developed without any overarching vision. The group advocated use of a rich legacy of history, heritage, and distinction as the basis for a revitalization strategy, but it emphasized that the city needs to focus more on the future than the past.

Chester should concentrate on what it has and improve its historic assets and its use 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.” The panel maintains that Chester, as a distinctive regional city, should concentrate on remaining a city with a strong business hub, which, in turn, should support the positioning of Chester as a “boutique, best-in-class” destination.

The revival of Liverpool and Manchester has led to Chester losing out in the fields of retail, leisure, and culture, with significant deterioration of the latter given its nighttime-economy emphasis on low-cost drinking and nightclubs, notes the report. “The lack of cultural entertainment beyond drinking are clearly apparent and a significant challenge for Chester—particularly if the city wants to attract other types of visitors.”

The panel highlighted the need for a clear, comprehensive strategy based on a firm foundation of environmental sustainability, reinforced and managed by clear, integrated, and accountable leadership. Chester, the report says, must actively engage its business community to establish coherent and deliverable plans for future investment.

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 multiuse facility (hotel, arts center, exhibition space); conversion of the upper floors of the Rows into boutique city center hotels; and development of the River Dee banks and canal to reinvigorate the current leisure experience. The ten ideas are:

  • Further improvement of Chester’s public realm by providing an enhanced sense of place. Striking urban spaces such as squares and terraces could be gradually created and used for various elements and activities such as open-air cafés 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 location for a state-of-the-art conference facility—creating the need for a new bridge that could become an attraction like such bridges elsewhere.
  • Reintroduction of cultural amenities in Chester’s city center. Reestablishing itself as a center of cultural tourism, Chester should consider the need to reinstate a theater or cultural center. Since the closing of the Gateway Theatre (2007) and the Odeon Cinema (2006), a theater has been high on the list of many people’s priorities.
  • Conference/performing arts/exhibition facility. To secure Chester’s position as a boutique destination, appropriate venues are required. A multipurpose conference/performing arts/exhibition facility could be used for business, entertainment, cultural activities, exhibitions, and performances. This would optimize investment and operating costs. Potential city center locations should be contemplated; one option would be to use Chester Castle for this purpose.
  • Biodome (zoo extension). The Chester zoo has been planning to create an extension that could become a new tourist attraction likely to attract a large number of visitors. Alongside ideas to link Chester and its zoo, the Biodome would help build local innovation capability related to environmental sciences.
  • 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 Roman Amphitheatre and the Dee House could be the “containers” for this center, combining outdoor and indoor spaces. An additional proposal: digging under Dee House to expose additional Roman remains and using the resulting “undercroft” space as part of the facility.
  • Chester Port. Use the canal and what is left of Chester’s old harbor infrastructure to create a new leisure location at the northwest side of the city, thus bringing value to assets currently neglected.
  • Hotel at the Rows. Use the currently underused and mostly vacant upper floors of the Rows for a high-end, boutique city center hotel. Explore the potential for other uses of the upper floors, such as residential space, office incubators, and artists’ studios.
  • Underground car parks. Eventually, extensive underground parking will become essential to pedestrians. Such a facility should be able to accommodate a minimum of about 2,000 cars on two or three 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 (theater, conference facility) proposed.
  • Redevelopment of Chester Castle. Redevelop Chester Castle into a multiuse facility that could accommodate a hotel, an arts center, the Chester History Experience Centre, or an exhibition space. The complexity of the building will require careful assessment of the existing fabric and its potential reuse.

The visit to Chester was ULI’s first advisory services panel activity in the U.K. Through its widely acclaimed advisory services program, ULI assembles objective experts in the fields of real estate and land use planning to participate on panels worldwide, offering recommendations for complex planning and development projects, programs, and policies. Each plan prepared through the advisory services program is informed by significant input from representatives of the communities. ULI advisory panels approach the project from all perspectives, including market potential, land use and design, financing and development strategies, and organizing for implementation.