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Hospitality mixed use vs. planning land use 

By Dexter Moren, Partner

In the early years of our existence, we were regularly criticised in our annual Chartered RIBA benchmarking audit as being too exposed to one sector - hospitality.

After some reflection, we concluded that it was better to be a known entity in one area, than be a ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, and spread our then small practice resources over a plethora of specialisms.

Ironically, history played into our hands as hospitality has, and continues, to morph from hotels into associated uses such as serviced apartments, hostels and build-to-rent, sports and leisure, student and retirement living, co-working, co-living and healthcare. Today, our architecture and interior design services attract the diversity of client base to which the RIBA always advised we should appeal.

However, the greater opportunities that hospitality design could, and should, be opening up continue to be hampered by the narrow way in which local planning authorities regulate land use.

I’m reminded of a discussion I had with a City of London official, probably eight or so years ago. He advised that the reason for blocking approval for a new hotel in the Square Mile was the City’s objective to become London’s premium office destination, not a location for residential or hospitality services.

Recognising that the West End was the premium office destination at the time, I asked him whether that might be because people didn’t only live to work and the diversity of residential, retail and hospitality was what might attract that premium designation.

His response was quite extraordinary: “But you can park for free in the City in the weekends.” Not only did he not appreciate that broader activities of life were not confined to weekends, but he failed to recognise that you could almost see the tumbleweed on a Saturday and Sunday in The City.

Having grown up in South Africa, I believe I am qualified to use the word apartheid to describe the institutional segregation of land uses expected by that City of London official. Like racial segregation, they should be confined to the annals of history as real estate evolves into an exciting, multi-use, experiential hospitality-led model. While there was always a margin of mixed-use, with some retail at the street level of many office buildings, the basic premise of our planning system focusses on segregated use.

This is contrary to the emerging urban dynamic within buildings that house an exciting overlap of uses reflecting a more diverse, experiential society. Even funding institutions are coming to the realisation that a mixed- use model, like a mixed share portfolio, is a better risk hedge than the previously favoured single-use building model.

The new generation of millennials want jobs and accommodation in the buzz of the city rather than in the B1 business parks popular when I first moved to London in the 1980s. It’s Shoreditch now, not Stockley Park.

This year we opened a boutique hotel in The City that has attracted much attention and design awards. Our client noticed that the adjoining office building was largely vacant and asked us to look at an extension focused on the longer stay market and with some co-working space. Regrettably we quickly came up against City policy to protect existing office use. How much more contributory to the rich mix of urban life would such a mix of uses have been to the location, that performs well weekdays, but is still an activity desert at weekends.

Hotels are in the vanguard of the drive for greater diversity promoting an ethos of ‘local, local, local’ as opposed to that old property adage ‘location, location, location’. Hotel design is increasingly focused on extending the hotel hospitality offer to non-hotel guests, notably neighbours, locals and passing trade. This has revitalised hotels as the lifeblood of their location, extending the offer of drink, food, meeting and co-working space, leisure opportunities and services generally to the wider neighbourhood. Not only does this generate revenue for the hotel, it also enriches the guest experience.

While the hotel function has become more diverse, in equal measure the concept of hospitality, and specifically hospitality space planning and design, has morphed into other sectors. Hospitality design specialists are now at the heart of housing, leisure and office design as much as their traditional hotel market.

If only we could see an end to the planning apartheid of use class orders, then the opportunities for our towns and cities to benefit from the socio-economic advantages of hospitality-led, mixed-use development, could be fully explored.