The Baltic Triangle is the independent heart of Liverpool, a place where the daylight scene is brimming with co-working warehouse spaces, artist studios, tech hubs, and brightly lit open-plan cafes serving up craft beers and coffee. At night, hungry revelers from the city descend on the area to dine at Scandinavian woodland-themed restaurants like Camp and Furnace (complete with open fires), and to catch live gigs at District or watch leftfield theater at The Lantern. Bright, buzzing, and utterly transformed — the Baltic Triangle is being compared to New York’s beloved Meatpacking District.
The Baltic Triangle has seen darker days. Back in the 18th century, the area played an integral role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, with 75% of European slave ships setting out from the Liverpool Docks. The red brick warehouses were used to store grains, cotton and goods from the far-flung world as Liverpool’s trade port and maritime heritage grew.
After the second world war, the area, which had been a prime target during the blitz, fell into decline for many years. After Liverpool was awarded the Capital of Culture, the desolate South Docks seemed to miss out on the lashings of regeneration as attention was turned to the Waterfront and Liverpool One.
Even a few years ago, after 5 PM on Jamaica Street, the area was nothing but shadows and silence. Despite the heavy industrial and maritime heritage, it wasn’t boats or bricks that saved the area — but the desire from creative enterprises to buy up affordable spaces for their businesses to bloom. Some of the first faces on the scene were The Contemporary Urban Center, Liverpool Biennial, and the AFoundation (now the Camp and Furnace). Suddenly, new roads were paved and street lighting improved, and then came Baltic Creative to really cause a shift in the direction of the Baltic Triangle.
A Creative Approach to Building a Community
Baltic Creative is a community interest company, but if you ask them what they do, they will say they are a commercial property landlord. In 2009, using full funding from the European Union and North-West Development, they snapped up 18 warehouses for a million pounds. Using the other 3 million pounds of funding, they set to work refurbishing these once-abandoned and empty spaces. The work was completed in 2012, but Baltic Creative wasn’t just in the business of investing in spaces to release to anyone. Their ethos was to adopt a strict letting strategy and only lease to creative and digital companies with buildings that are asset-locked and yearly dividends going straight back into supporting the creative growth of the area.
Mark Lawler, the director of Baltic Creative expands on this: “We support artists, musicians, makers, designers, web apps, gamers, publishers, printers — all manners of creativity in spaces like offices, performance spaces, maker spaces, shopfronts and studios.” He goes on to say, “It’s all about supporting the area plan to be creative and digital, but also to support independent Liverpool.”
A year after the work was complete, the properties were full to the brim, and in less than 12 months there were another 90 creative companies on the waiting list. Baltic Creative is rapidly growing and has big plans to triple its footprint in the Baltic Triangle over the next five years. As part of that plan to take ownership of more space in the Baltic Triangle, it aims to have 200 companies (all in the creative industry) on its rental books. Yet, now that Baltic Creative is only 1 of 500 companies working out of the Baltic Triangle, it’s a far-flung statement to say they have a monopoly on the area.
Mark Lawler and the other directors may hope to steer the area in one direction, but other developers may have less carefully curated ideas. In an interview with Independent Liverpool, when asked where the idea for Baltic Creative came from, Lawler said, “As those (creative) places become popular, music events, arts, etc. begin to attract interest from other types of industry and business, and you see property values rise. It has happened for 20 years. Happened in Ropewalks, Hardman Street and although they still have so much creativity, a lot of people get pushed about. About 7-8 years ago, a lot of those businesses were relocating to the Baltic Triangle. What can we do to stop the sector getting pushed around?”
The current manifesto that spells out the vision of Baltic Creative is a well-penned fury of passion; its opening statement speaks about “a private sector led bottom-up, grassroots, networking, matchmaking, and freewheelin’ revolutionary manifesto for change.” It goes on to lay out its plan in full-fold technicolor before ending with the statement, “The strategy is simple, fill the area with people and the rest will follow — fill the area with creative, industrious, and pioneering people, and the rest will follow sooner; we believe in SME incubation, innovation uses, creative capital, gainful employment, cultural tourism, international press, optimism and good times.” The manifesto is currently being redesigned and is due for relaunch in August, but the ethos remains the same.
In the interview with Independent Liverpool in 2015, Lawler sketched out some of the economic statistics behind Baltic Creative. “Our 5-year review projected we put £1.4m into the local regional economy. As well as that, we have created 50 jobs, work with over 65 businesses and our tenant’s turnover growth is 7% over the last 12 months, and employment growth is 7.6% over the last 12 months.”
Keeping the Balance in the Baltic Triangle
The Baltic is on the rise. There are already plans for a 70-million-pound hotel and another 40 million pounds worth of apartments. Yet, Baltic Creative faces the challenge of keeping a tight rein on the direction of the area; a few blindsided developers or cash-hungry investors could cause the carefully curated house of cards to come tumbling down. The delicacy of the situation doesn’t escape Lawler, who tells us “it’s all about the balance,” which is a term he uses a lot when referring to the Baltic Triangle. “It’s ensuring the investment development doesn’t drive out the industry that has evolved here.” There is a note of hope with the statement “that’s possible with good design and good developers.”
He explains that even simple measures, like putting air conditioning in the apartments so that people don’t need to throw open their windows and let in the noise, help. The nighttime economy of the Baltic is also growing, and there’s nothing like noise complaints from residents to throw a spanner into those works. It’s not only about design but also about the tenure you bring into the area. Introduce apartment blocks brimming with students or pricey places for professionals, and you lose that all-important mix of different people that stops a place from becoming just another gentrification story.
Kevin McManus, who set up Baltic Creative, tells us that he believes “the city hasn’t really ever understood the importance of creative industries and still doesn’t.” He suggested there was a preference towards cultural creativity as opposed to commercial, where big events that bring people in are supported, but the smaller commercial ventures can feel like one step forward and two steps back. One of the reasons he set up Baltic Creative was to fill that need for cheap space, saying that “in Liverpool and every other city, once it gets cool, the developers move in.” He said that every city is always after the same thing: “for the big boys to come in, but the exciting stuff in Liverpool is happening at the micro level in the Baltic and other places.”
With developers like Iliad (who also worked on the Ropewalks) looking at developing the Baltic Triangle, it’s clear that a careful approach is needed to keep the balance. In an interview with Liverpool Echo, the finance director of Iliad, Tim Malloy, was enthusiastic about the prospect.
“If you want to live in a city centre you have a right to sleep.” he said. “As long as they (the bars and restaurants) comply with their planning conditions, there shouldn’t be any noise emanating from the bar anyway.” Nurturing the growth of the Baltic Triangle is going to take a collaborative approach with the other developers. Lawler nods to this, stating that there is a need to “put pressure on the developers so they support rather than detract from the area.”
The Double-Edged Sword of Gentrification
Everyone knows gentrification is a double-edged sword and a prickly prospect that many cities under the flux of change face. There are many that say that the Capital of Culture award saved the city, enabling reinvestment and offering a hand up for a place that was on its knees. Clare McColgan from Liverpool Council was quick to add, “Doing what they have done in the Baltic, it’s not gentrifying; it’s making a city that people want to live in.”
Yet despite the good intentions behind a place like the Baltic Triangle, some creative individuals feel like the vision isn’t enough to go against the grain. In an interview with Vice, a local artist named Tristan Brady Jacobs said, “In Liverpool, the culture has always grown in the cracks. But what we’ve seen happen since Liverpool was the Capital of Culture in 2008 is a land grab that has resulted in these cracks being polyfillered in. There’s not many people left in the Triangle who could be called pure artists. It’s mostly app developers and web designers. I mean no disrespect to these guys, but other artists have had to move back into their garages to work.”
There’s no doubt that keeping the Baltic Triangle flowing the right way is going to be an uphill battle, a battle that Mark Lawler is more than aware of. When asked about gentrification, he passionately replied, “It’s not about driving out the bakeries and the breweries and the car repair places; they are all part of it.” He goes on to tell a story about the green sandwich van that has been parked outside of Baltic Creative HQ. “Everyone keeps asking when are you going to get rid of the sandwich van; you have nice cafes selling lattes next door.” He tells us that they have been there 25 years. ‘There’s a place for everyone,” he repeats. Although the statement is also followed by “whether or not in the future they will feel this is the right home for them, we will have to wait and see.”
I ask whether Baltic Creative considers itself more of an anti-gentrification scheme. Lawler hesitates, mind flickering back to the glimmer of that double-edged sword. “I wouldn’t call it a reverse; I’d call it a benefit. We’re not trying to suppress the increase in value because we benefit from the increase. We use that increase to support the growth of the creative and digital sector.”
A Model for Cities Wanting to Curate Growth
The vein of independence is vital to the beating heart of Liverpool’s cultural identity. Having independent cultural opportunities throughout the city delivers a variety of ways for different people to access the arts. While tourists and out-of-towners stepping off cruise liners will flock to places like The Tate and The Walker, the locals are more likely to attend an offbeat exhibition or grassroots event at the Baltic Triangle. This is why it’s so important to protect and nurture these organic creative scenes.
As the Vice article summarizes, ‘The Baltic Triangle isn’t ‘important to the city’s economy,’ it is important to the residents of Liverpool and to the personality of Merseyside. Areas like the Baltic Triangle cannot be measured in currency.”
Could the Baltic Triangle set an example for other cities wanting to strike the right balance between regenerating without selling out? Mark Lawler believes that creative and digital companies having a long-term stake in the area is paramount to this plan. When discussing the North Docks of Liverpool where the council has started to build on its Ten Streets project, he offers his support and calls it a pat on the back for the council before adding that “what we’re keen to ensure is that those industries that are supporting the growth of North Liverpool actually get a stake and aren’t just used for the benefit of property owners.” Claire McColgan, Head of Culture for the Liverpool City Council, has the same sentiment: “We don’t own those buildings, but as a city we can try and protect what happens in them.”
This process of working to curate growth within areas of regeneration seems to be an excellent model that other places could replicate if they wanted to avoid their cities being filled with spit and scotch-tape student flats, bland chain bars, and a loss of heart and heritage. Yet, as Mark Lawler reminds us, “It’s incredibly time consuming — the time I have given to the CIC of Baltic Creative, no one has ever paid me for that time. It’s a model that works, but it has to be a model that the community buys into; it has to be shared.”
In short, it’s possible to sculpt the growth of an area so it becomes inclusive, but it’s a mission of pure passion and love for your city, something that seems to come naturally for Liverpudlians. Like Claire McColgan says, “When it comes to regeneration, the best thing you can do is reach out to that pride, and that’s what we do through culture, to get to that sense of place in people’s hearts.”
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