Cool as you like with the kind of architectural rawness and creative edge of Clerkenwell 20 years ago, Digbeth is one of Birmingham’s freshest and most eclectic spots. We caught up with one of the people striving to sympathetically develop the area while nurturing its original spirit, James Craig of Oval Real Estate
James might not be keen on the Clerkenwell comparison, but there’s no getting away from the similarities and that’s no bad thing in our book. Oval’s talented trio includes, in addition to James, Nick Prior and more recently, Max Schofield who have sold more than £600million of commercial property since 2013.
Their strategy for Digbeth is more about saving it than changing it as they and their partners go about restoring the beautiful, but battered in some cases, industrial buildings. The idea was never demolition. “Digbeth is a gritty place to be cherished – one of the best bits of modern Birmingham,” says James. “We have a responsibility to look after the buildings and our role here is one of stewardship.”
You might not have clocked that Oval has owned 17 acres (that’s a million square feet!) of Digbeth including the Custard Factory and Fazeley Studios for two years as they didn’t bounce onto the scene to a big fanfare and much bluster. The experienced developers slipped in quietly and have been beavering away behind the scenes working to enhance what’s already there rather than ripping it apart. “The space was a bit rubbish and leaky. Some people didn’t pay rent in exchange for maintaining their buildings. It’s a living, breathing, working estate that needs treating sympathetically,” James explains.
BACK FROM THE BRINK
Spending a considerable sum on bringing at-risk buildings back from the brink has been challenging, but hugely rewarding. James is almost evangelical about the estate and its tenants and is super excited about what they’ve achieved so far, but equally buoyed by what’s yet to come – not least the impact of HS2, the Metro coming to the High Street by 2021 and Seven Capital building 2,000 homes bang opposite the Custard Factory. They’ll need somewhere to drink, eat, be entertained.
Five hundred tenants in a hundred different buildings provides a rich pool of talent, one that Oval has been able to utilise. When they need some design work, they use what’s on the doorstep, same goes for other areas of expertise. Keeping existing tenants happy and maintaining the eclectic vibe and originality of the place is top of the list of priorities. Affordable workspace has been key to that with rents ranging from £2 to £20 per square foot depending on the space.
I wonder if making Digbeth more appealing to more people might change the soul of the place, so that the original people don’t want to be there. James says: “That would be an unintended consequence and it can happen. I don’t have a solution for it, except we’re making it better in a sympathetic way.” If you haven’t noticed a dramatic change, then maintaining and enhancing the current vibe rather than stifling it is working.
The sprawling squeaky clean developments in the centre of the city are a world away from what Oval is trying to do. In fact, the phrase ‘antidote to the City centre’ when referring to Digbeth has been bandied about. James explains: “A lot of big developers create a leisure experience but it’s all a bit clinical. This is organic and eclectic.”
Packed with independent businesses and oodles of character, Digbeth is certainly that and provides us, as a publication, with more inspiring people and organisations to write about than we can fit into these pages every month. For instance, we caught up with Jack Brabant from Digbeth Dining Club when it was in its infancy, chatted to David Brown, founder of Graffiti Artist about his incredible story and interviewed Lee Desanges from Baked in Brick just after his leap from street food outlet to bricks and mortar to name just a few. There’s much to talk about here that’s as exciting as anywhere in the city and there’s a buzz that ripples through the 17 acres that would be difficult to recreate elsewhere.
In terms of what’s next, well that’s a big question. As well as the improved infrastructure mentioned and a continued programme of work to restore the buildings, there’s chatter about creating a BID specific to the area, plus Birmingham City Council has earmarked £60million to improve the public realms on Digbeth High Street, so there’s a lot to get excited about.
If you’ve never just wandered around Digbeth, try it. There’s something interesting and probably creative going on behind every highly Instagrammable door. #notanad
DIGBETH BY NUMBERS
- 17 acres
- 1 million square feet
- 100 buildings
- 500 tenants
- 6-minute walk to the Bullring
- 7-minute walk to Moor Street
- 9-minute walk to New Street