Update 21/10/13: there has been a resubmission of the planning application for a block to be built on the car park fronting Tonbridge St, featuring a healthcare clinic instead of a cafe. This happened last week, so it will be a while before it reaches a decision. Let’s hope this time it is successful and so secures the future of the Portland Hotel itself.
Original blog continues below:
The Portland Hotel site in Kent Road has been empty for a few years now. At the Planning Committee meeting on Wednesday, the council’s Planning Committee rejected a critical part of the scheme to bring it back to life as a hotel.
The ground floor of the building had been a popular bar, ‘Havana’, and before that ‘The Dog’. Older readers will remember it as ‘Norma Jean’s’ and the positively ancient will remember it as a Brickwood’s pub in its last guise as the Portland Hotel. The upper floors of the building haven’t had a use for years (beyond squats since it closed as a bar) and most of the interior is in a bad state of repair. Not long after ‘Havana’ closed, a potential tenant had a survey done and had to pull out when it revealed a variety of problems requiring expensive structural work.
There has been since then a fire in the building, adding to the damage, and an application to convert the hotel into 22 flats, which was refused twice by the Planning Committee a couple of years ago. Eventually a scheme to convert it into 16 flats was granted permission on appeal, even though these would be below the recommended size set out in the City Council’s development policy.
The hotel is architecturally important, being part of the terrace built by Thomas Ellis Owen in the mid-19th century. There is a need to balance what is a viable use for the building in order to preserve it against other considerations, including the objections of neighbours. The hotel functioned as a pub or bar for decades, and other residents of the terrace benefit from it being rescued from being derelict and under threat of demolition in the 70s, mainly by the-then Portsmouth Housing Association. Across the road, the Church of England had a plan to demolish St Jude’s 20 years ago, so there is a fair history of Owen’s splendid architecture at this end of Kent Road being in peril.
There were 3 relevant applications before the planning committee on Wednesday. The first was for the construction of a block on land fronting Tonbridge St consisting of six flats and a coffee shop. Tonbridge St itself is little more than a wide alleyway for service access to Palmerston Rd shops and the rear view of Portland Terrace is itself fairly ugly. The streetscape as it stands does nothing to enhance the setting of St Jude’s church opposite.
The first application was always going to be the contentious one (the other two were recommended for “conditional permission” by the Planning Dept). This was the one to build a block of 6 flats over a coffee shop on a part of the empty space fronting Tonbridge St, owned as part of the Portland Hotel plot. Historically there was a “Portland Hall” on the site, but that is of little value in planning terms to justify the new block as a replacement for a pre-existing structure.
Not a lot is known about Portland Hall, but it was built in the 1860s and used for various concerts and events. The Salvation Army frequented it for meetings. In 1908 the American composer and conductor John Philip Souza performed there while on tour in the UK. His comment on the gig was:
“Portland Hall, where we played concerts at 3 and 8 to good business, is located in Southsea. The hall was very cold, and it was painful to work on our instruments as the fingers would almost freeze. At the night concert the temperature of the hall was a little better, as the management decided to put in a couple [of] oil heaters. Mark Lyon made a hit carrying off the stage a hot stove right before the concert. Portsmouth is a great sea-port town. The British battleships make this harbor their principal port”.
Opinion is divided as to exactly when the hall was demolished – there are references to it being demolished in 1918, but there was still a building of some sort on the site until after World War 2.
Back in 2013, sadly two of our St Jude’s ward councillors, Cllrs Andrewes and Eddis of the Lib Dems both presented a deputation against the block. It seemed to me to be a design fairly in keeping with the hotel and terrace behind it. It would also have the merit of “tidying up” what is at present a real eyesore at the point where “Owen’s Southsea” meets the 1950s Palmerston Rd precinct. Cllr Eddis also contradicted his own party’s planning policy in complaining that there are “too many” coffee shops around Southsea. Given that the prevailing conditions for retailers generally have hammered by his council’s policies on parking and traffic this seemed a blinkered assessment. He should be grateful anyone wants to do business in Portsmouth and be supportive. Sadly, his case was persuasive enough to persuade his Lib Dem colleagues to vote en bloc against it.
It’s unusual for PCC to turn down a hotel project, as their masterplans for the City generally consist of little else. There is also the common-sense consideration (though this has very little weight as a planning consideration) that any redevelopment of the hotel has to be economically viable; given the poor condition of it, it is doubtful whether anyone would even take on the risk of converting it into flats, either. There is every likelihood that the hotel will now stand and rot for a further long period of time.
The coffee shop and its economic viability were constantly referred to by a number of councillors, even though they were warned by the officers that it wasn’t a legitimate consideration for judging the application. If the applicants decided to appeal I’m sure they would make something of that.
Anyway, it was rejected and although the agreement of the committee to the other two applications was granted – relating to work on the hotel itself to ready it for use – the overall scheme now looks dead in the water.
Considering some of the objections were about parking space and general disruption, it seems to me it would be better to have a smaller number of additional cars connected to the flats and hotel than a larger number should the hotel itself eventually be converted into 16 flats.
That’s where things end for now, with another unfortunate missed opportunity to redevelop a key site in the city. It’s no good having pipe-dream masterplans for development if we can’t safeguard what fine design and heritage we already have.