Work set to start on The Culture House in Sunderland city centre after plans approved for ambitious new facility

Plans for a landmark city library and cultural attraction in Sunderland have been given the stamp of approval by councillors.
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The ‘Culture House’ is among several new buildings included in Sunderland City Council’s masterplan for Riverside Sunderland, which aims to re-imagine the heart of the city.

Standing four storeys high, the modern hub would overlook Keel Square housing a range of facilities for adults, children and young people and spaces for exhibitions, storytelling, learning, media and arts and crafts.

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As well as adult and children’s library facilities, the venue would offer a café, business and faith spaces, an events hall, a local studies and archive centre and a roof garden.

The Sunderland City Council application was presented to the council’s Planning and Highways (East) Committee for decision on March 28, 2022.

Councillors heard that the building, which will be part funded through external funding secured from the government’s Future High Streets Fund, would help boost city spending while attracting more than half a million visitors a year.

Designs for the building were developed by FaulknerBrowns Architects, the firm behind the new City Hall.

During consultation, the designs received a mixed reception with Historic England saying the Culture House would “complete Keel Square with a building of landmark quality and public focus”.

CGI of the planned Culture House at Riverside SunderlandCGI of the planned Culture House at Riverside Sunderland
CGI of the planned Culture House at Riverside Sunderland
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But the Sunderland Civic Society, in a consultation statement, said the building’s intended “monolithic” appearance would “give the look more of a forebidding institution rather than a welcoming destination”.

Comments were also submitted by a former principal landscape architect for Sunderland City Council who led the council design team in the design and implementation of Keel Square.

Concerns included the new development potentially obscuring “long views” along High Street West and the designs “diminishing the design of the square and reducing the presence of The Peacock”.

As the plans require the demolition of buildings at 275, 278-284 High Street West, the report noted the Culture House scheme would lead to the loss of established restaurant Luciano’s.

Culture House © FaulknerbrownsCulture House © Faulknerbrowns
Culture House © Faulknerbrowns
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However council planners concluded that the “significant benefits of the scheme outweigh the moderate adverse impacts” and recommended the scheme for approval.

They also confirmed that arrangements had been made to reduce impacts on the delivery and servicing of units at The Bridges Shopping Centre.

Following presentations from speakers, questions and debate, the plans won unanimous support from the Planning and Highways (East) Committee.

Councillor Pat Smith said the development would provide a place for young people to meet, study and socialise.

Culture House © Faulknerbrowns Pillar VisualsCulture House © Faulknerbrowns Pillar Visuals
Culture House © Faulknerbrowns Pillar Visuals

Councillor Michael Dixon added the wide range of uses at the Culture House would open up several possibilities for visitors.

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He said: “It isn’t going to just be a library, it’s going to be various things.

“The trick is going to be to satisfy every use, is it going to be a nice quiet library but at the same time welcome in the young people, it might be a music room, it could be a coffee shop.”

He added: “I think it’s a great opportunity for the city and it’s in a great position and I hope that in 20 years time the design is still as sympathetic and that the people of Sunderland can remain proud of it.”

Councillor Lyall Reed, while supporting the Culture House development, raised concerns about wider impacts on local business.

He said: “In my opinion it’s regeneration at the cost of a business and a new building at the cost of business confidence in the city.

Culture House © Faulknerbrowns Fillippo.Culture House © Faulknerbrowns Fillippo.
Culture House © Faulknerbrowns Fillippo.
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“I would certainly say this is a fantastic development otherwise.”

Councillor Michael Butler, chair of the Planning and Highways (East) Committee, added: “I’m sure hopefully Luciano’s will continue to trade somewhere else in the city centre, I’m sure they will.”

According to council budget documents, the gross cost of the Culture House is estimated to be more than £27million.

The project will also be “designed to the highest achievable sustainabilityrequirements in order to minimise ongoing revenue costs” and to meet the council’s objective of being carbon neutral by 2030.

Patrick Melia, chief executive of Sunderland City Council, speaking after the meeting, said: “Culture House is a staple part of our Riverside Sunderland plan, and I am very much looking forward to seeing it rise from the ground, adding to the magnificent buildings we’re seeing take shape in and around Keel Square.

“Our plan for the city centre is to create a vibrant new destination, where people can live work and play, and through venues like Culture House, alongside the magnificent auditorium and our planned £80million arena, we are delivering more and better places for people to visit and enjoy.”

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