Imagine coming across a disused building at one end of the walkable City Wall between the busy inner ring road and a small housing estate in one of the most visited tourist destinations in the UK.
What could be done with York’s tiny ‘one-up, one-down’ red brick tower originally built in 1490 whose only current use was storing a bit of junk? The building had little natural light, with just a few slit windows, and a rickety wooden ladder staircase to the first floor room. It had no electricity or running water, and was just an empty shell. Neglected and locked up, it seemed ripe for a new lease of life.
A diverse group of people came together to see if they could do something with the Red Tower. The Council were willing to lend the keys to the group who started to tidy it up and come up with a plan for this unpromising little building. On the plus side, the tower was visible from one of York’s busiest roads, and had a constant stream of potential visitors coming off the City Walls from Walmgate Bar to the south, or from the northern sections of the wall, via Foss Islands Road from Jewbury near Peaseholm Green, and beyond that, Bootham Bar to Monkgate.
Once cleaned and tidied, Red Tower was opened up as a simple ‘pay-as-you-feel’ community cafe at weekends, with homemade cakes and hot drinks. People donated furniture and crockery to the café, they baked and came to serve tea. These sessions were great opportunities to ask local residents and visitors for their ideas and suggestions about new uses. No suggestion was discarded and every comment was collected as 2015 drew to a close.
The winter of 2015-2016 proved to be an interesting one for the Red Tower Project, and many others in the City. York suffered one of the most damaging floods ever, with the Ouse rising to an almost record height, and an amazing amount of more local precipitation raising the level of the Foss to levels never seen before. The combination of these two flooding rivers meant that the City’s defences were overwhelmed, and flood water spilled out onto Foss Islands Road and swirled into the Tower and neighbouring buildings. The water submerged the entire ground floor and all its contents. Dozens of homes in Navigation Road and Rosemary Place were inundated and many residents had to leave. It was a disaster, and caused an immense amount of disruption and heartache.
However the response, after the water subsided, leaving stinking mud and a vast amount of destroyed property, was truly amazing. The proximity of the Red Tower to the flood victims meant that local people could see the value of the physical space being there, as the little building became a store for donated cleaning products like mops, buckets and disinfectant, and a distribution centre for materials and advice. The Red Tower team worked with volunteers across the City to help those in need.
This episode helped the team crystallise a plan for the future. Any infrastructure put into the building would need to be flood resilient; that is either above the level of the highest expected flood (electrics), removable (cupboards and work surfaces) or easily cleanable (the staircase). It helped the team focus on what the building could be used for and who by.
After much work, the team decided to become a Community Interest Company registered as Red Tower CIC. The evolving business model hinges on not relying on public funding to keep going, but offering the Red Tower space at a commercial rate to customers who are able to pay, which will subsidise the users who can’t.
After negotiations with the Council (who own the building), a 30 year lease on a peppercorn rent was granted, which enabled the CIC team to start looking for funding for the works needed to make the building useable and comfortable. Time was spent on developing a business plan and preparing policies and procedures, including publicity, marketing and public relations, accessibility and equality, employee and volunteer management, and more. Economic, environmental and social sustainability are core values for the project with community benefits arising from revitalising an important part of the City’s heritage. There is a small productive planting bed at one side of the garden space, which has an assortment of edible plants donated by Edible York, and is looked after mainly by local residents.
During 2016 Red Tower hosted regular open days, including the community café, art exhibitions, storytelling and kids entertainment, historical re-enactment with the Sealed Knot, residents’ barbeque and Heritage Open Days. We liaised with English Heritage, Locality, York Civic Trust and many other local organisations for advice and support with the future plans. Towards the end of the year architects provided design plans for getting electricity, water, drainage and communications to the building, and a refurbished interior to include a kitchen facility, WC, LED lighting, electric heating and a beautiful modern staircase to set off the ancient brick walls and make getting upstairs easier and safer.
Three quarters of the way through 2017 the team are working together well, and funding applications have been successful in helping to achieve a range of activity and the selection of contractors ready for the final phase of development. There is still much work to be done, funding to be raised, and decisions to be taken, but we all look forward to seeing the Red Tower being regularly used and enjoyed, providing a place to meet and socialise, to explore and marvel at more than 500 years after it was first commissioned by Richard III. It’s a great way to keep making history!