After a long wait, work is forging ahead at historic Kirkstall site

In the 1580s, iron production commenced at Kirkstall Forge, a 57-acre chunk of land, split by the River Aire, just 3.5 miles from the heart of Leeds city centre.

Thanks to the construction of the Leeds-to-Liverpool canal in the 1770s, which runs parallel to the forge, activity at Kirkstall intensified during the Industrial Revolution and a wide range of industries flourished on the site, including brewing, printing, textile production and, of course, iron forging.

During the First World War, the site enjoyed further growth producing axles for military vehicles - by 1930 it is estimated that most of the lorries and buses made in the UK had an axle that had been forged at Kirkstall.

However, after hundreds of years of continuous activity, in 2002 the Kirkstall Forge site closed for good and the manufacturing buildings fell into a state of disrepair.

Today, the forge is being transformed into a mixed-use development far removed from its industrial roots by developer Commercial Estates Group (CEG). Property Week paid Kirkstall Forge a visit to find out what the future holds for this historic location.

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On a drizzly February day, it is not easy to envisage how a muddy construction site with a murky brown river running through it could one day be turned into a shiny new home for thousands of residents and workers. But despite the best efforts of the Yorkshire weather, when you delve a little deeper it becomes clear what attracted CEG to this opportunity.

By train it is only six minutes from Kirkstall Forge’s new station into the heart of Leeds city centre. In the other direction, you can be in Bradford in 15 minutes, while Manchester is just an hour away. The site, which sits at the bottom of a picturesque valley adjacent to the famous Kirkstall Abbey, is surrounded by woodland and is already a major attraction for walkers and runners.

A new start

One day, CEG hopes it will be attractive to homeowners and office occupiers, too. At the moment, the only building coming out of the ground is a 100,000 sq ft office block that CEG has spec built and will be completed later this year - in total the developer has consent for 300,000 sq ft of offices and 100,000 sq ft of retail and leisure at Kirkstall.

Leasing, fleet management and vehicle outsourcing business Zenith has already taken 45,000 sq ft across the top three floors for its new head office and CEG itself has signed up for the ground-floor space for its northern office.

“We’ve got heads of terms out to two further occupiers for elements of the rest of the building, so interest has been good and we are keen to continue to build on that momentum because essentially we’re building a destination here,” says Paul Richardson, investment manager at CEG.

“The idea is that we’re building a whole new community, which means we can deliver enhanced amenities and management services to both residential and commercial occupiers. We see that as the unique selling point that sets us apart from other schemes.”

The idea is that we’re building a whole new community - Paul Richardson, CEG

Quoted rents for the office space are £24.50/sq ft, which is decent value compared with grade-A space in Leeds city centre, which goes for around £27.50/sq ft. Crucially, the scheme offers occupiers generously proportioned floorplates of 18,000 sq ft, which are difficult to come by in Leeds.

Another aspect that CEG believes will set Kirkstall Forge apart is high-quality residential. The developer is currently working through the masterplan for the site’s residential element, which will be pitched at the higher end of the market for “professional people and people who are downsizing”, says Richardson.

Around the commercial space there will be a higher density of residential, with more traditional homes provided on the other side of the site, according to Howard Metcalf, a director at Pierre Angulaire, project manager for the development. CEG has consent for 1,050 units, which will be split approximately 60/40 between houses and apartments.

The first phase of residential comprises 112 housing units - a mixture of two-bedroom apartments and three- to four-bedroom houses - with construction expected to commence by the end of this year and delivery scheduled for the first quarter of 2019.

“The residential phase will hug the river so you will get views up and down the valley, which is a key aspect of the site,” says Metcalf, adding that CEG has looked at the private rented sector model for future phases, but “it will come down to the appraisal at the end of the day”.

Long and winding road

Getting the site to this stage has been a long, hard slog for CEG and for Metcalf, who has been involved with the project since 2007 when demolition and remediation work initially took place - the developer bought the site as seen.

After the recession hit, activity at the site fizzled out, but the proposed opening of the new train station in 2015, which sits right on the site’s front door, persuaded CEG to crank up activity at the forge back in 2013.

While significant progress has been made at Kirkstall Forge in the past few years, it is clear that there is still some way to go - the £400m project has an estimated 10-year build programme. However, office agents in Leeds, who have no vested interest in the site, speak glowingly about the scheme, citing its excellent transport links and proximity to the city centre.

These are assets that Metcalf is also keen to emphasise. “The telling thing for me about the connectivity of this site was when we did an exercise where we timed someone walking from Leeds railway station up to the Headrow [in Leeds city centre] and beyond, and for a similar travel time, you can catch a train at Leeds and get out here, so it puts it into context in terms of how close you are to the city,” he says.

With the site’s blend of fast connectivity to Leeds city centre and beyond, ample parking, affordable rents and top-quality commercial and residential space, it looks as though CEG is well on track to forge a bright new future for this historic location.

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