When it comes to being a man with an innovative approach to business, Charlie Hoult is guilty as charged.
His idea to turn an old pottery factory in Newcastle into a hive of creativity as Hoults Yard has proved a huge success, attracting 150 tenant companies, ranging from hairdressers and picture framers to TV producers and fashion designers.
Now he’s bringing his skill of breathing new life into forgotten buildings to Sunderland.
The last charge sheet at the former Gilbridge Police Station in Sunderland city centre was signed in 2015 and it’s since been left as an eerily empty figure on the city’s landscape.
But in the next few weeks work will begin on a £4million project to transform the building into a space for events, creative industries and offices under the moniker Station H - a throwback to the old police radio slang for ‘home’.
Built in 1972, its Brutalist architecture isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but its utilitarian aesthetic is right up Charlie’s street.
“If you’ve seen Hoults Yard it’s all brick and mellow and it’s been a huge trend that you can see in lots of bars in Newcastle now, which have all gone back to bricks with that Victorian, industrial look,” he explained. “I’m a bit of a horizon scanner and I’m always looking for the next trend. “Brutalism is back, that concrete, stark, factory look, and I’d been looking for a new project.
“Three years ago I met with Make It Sunderland (who drive inward investment in the city, supported by the council) and I told them I’d love to do something in Sunderland. I asked if they had any interesting buildings and they showed me some heritage buildings which weren’t what I was after. I told them I wanted something more 1970s, like Life on Mars, and they said they had a building in the city centre which may be demolished. That was the police station. The late Paul Watson (former leader of the council) said it was a monstrosity, but I loved it straight away.”
He added: “The head of property at the council said he couldn’t believe Sunderland would want this building, then he came to Hoults Yard and said he couldn’t believe Sunderland wouldn’t want such a hive of creativity.”
Charlie’s plans were approved for the site a year ago but have been delayed due to the surrounding regeneration and building works which include lengthening Garden Place, which runs between the Empire and the Dun Cow pub, to join up with Livingstone Road as part of the wider Minster Quarter Masterplan.
But in the next few weeks work is finally due to begin on polishing the building’s existing features and making it a usable space for up to 200 people, with the first tenants potentially setting up shop in October.
Charlie says it’s the 20 cells and internal exercise yard, which have been untouched since Northumbria Police moved out, that have sparked the most interest.
“The office market has been slower, but we’ve shown around three micro-breweries, two Escape Room operators, as well as other small independents around the cells. We can very much see this floor being like Affleck’s Palace in Manchester, an ideal place for things like a brewery tap, coffee shops, a barber shop, pop up traders, rent-a-cell events, and we’ve had huge interest from those types of businesses.”
Meanwhile, the larger rooms on the three floors upstairs, which include the former Police social club, with their panoramic views of the city, are earmarked for office space with shared kitchens, gym and breakout space.
“We’ve very much a counter point in the market to the Vaux development over the road which is all brass and shiny and, therefore, more expensive. “We’re more evolving and fun. We’re a little pressure cooker and we want to get that vibe going, right in the centre of the Mac Quarter.
“Trends move very fast, but Holmeside Coffee are an example of how you can take a trend and tone it for Sunderland.”
Station H comes at a time of great change in that corner of the city, which will soon house The Beam offices as part of the mixed-use Vaux development; a new Hays head office in the former HM Revenue and Customs building in Keel Square, which will be a base for 400 staff; and the creation of a brand new £8.2million 450-seater auditorium which will be built next to The Fire Station.
Charlie said: “The challenge of Sunderland is that this is an area of regeneration so the traffic isn’t quite there yet until the other developments are finished. My definition of success, however, will be if I can get people not from Sunderland to come here twice and we’ll keep animating and changing to achieve that.”