By mid afternoon Kylie Minogue is already blasting out from inside The Shakespeare on Williamson Square.
It’s a weekday but the small stretch of bars on the square’s east side are often some of the city’s liveliest. They give Cooperssituated outside of Liverpool Centrala run for its money for a near round-the-clock offer of karaoke or pub singers.
The row of shaded passages to the side of the square are reflective of a more Bold Street-like, cosmopolitan Liverpool. In today’s warm weather, a spare table is hard to come by amongst the outdoor seating of numerous cafes.
However the center of Williamson Square itself is largely empty, but for masses of pigeons. Its famed £ 1.1m metal grid fountain remains turned off – which was said to suffer from flooding after being installed, with previous claims temporary food outlets added to the issue by pouring boiling fat down its grid. More recently the council says it hasn’t worked for a number of years.
The square was once home to a range of traders, market stalls and some of the city’s biggest brands, with a selection of theaters to choose from. But few remain.
For four generations Jamie Dunn’s family-run fruit stall was a firm fixture at Williamson. Its usual spot is currently empty and has been that way since the beginning of the pandemic.
A taxi driver for the time being, Jamie says he’s hoping to move to another site in the center of Liverpool. There he hopes there will be better footfall – making his fruit and veg business viable again.
Standing by the Whitechapel taxi rank, he told the ECHO: “Everything over here seems to have gone down to Liverpool ONE, so this side of town has died a death. It’s been a managed decline.
“This square will be all bars and restaurants in the end. I hope it comes good again, but for traders like me, this area is finished – I can’t ever see it coming back. “
Changing with the times
In recent years the area has battled issues with anti-social behavior and seen a number of key retailers leave behind vacant shop fronts. The latest blow to the square came last week when it was announced that Marks & Spencer would be ending its near 100 year stay at Compton House.
But in many ways M&S has always had its back turned to Williamson Square – quite literally. The large unit which it occupies at the rear of Compton House on Church Street has not been in use, nor has provided a south side entrance to the department store. But there is a sense that M & S’s departure could inadvertently usher in a new lease of life for the square – which was once at the heart of the city center shopping district.
TO council endorsed regeneration framework centring on the Cavern Quarter and Williamson was signed off just before the pandemic. It provided a range of recommendations to help attract new investment, celebrate the current music scene and to enable the council to steer the future use of existing buildings in the area – in turn improving its offer.
These ideas included implementing a re-design to include flexible performance space in the Square as well as refurbishing the St Johns extension and enhancing the presence of the Playhouse theater. One of the other aims is to “activate the façade of the vacant Marks & Spencer building”.
For other traders, such as Mark, who did not want to give his surname, change can only be for the better. He has worked on the square for 30 years, with his family di lui running a former restaurant situated near by. These days he operates a mobile catering truck on the corner by George Henry Lee’s.
“It’s gone downhill, hasn’t it,” he tells the ECHO, scanning across the square when taking a break to the side of his truck.
He points to the inactive water fountain and nearby benches with frayed paint. “You wouldn’t put that on Church Street would you ?, he says, adding:“ We’re second in command to Church Street. Williamson is a downgraded area.
“It’s like we’re second class down here. I think it’s come to the end of its life, so I welcome any change coming forward. “
However there is a prevalent feeling that change in the area has been slow, adding to its slightly tired appearance. Asked whether he sees a future in the square if wholesale change is brought out, Mark is undecided – but he can’t seem himself having to move on any time soon, due to the speed of change he’s experienced so far.
‘Nothing has changed’
There is a similar feeling next door at Brian Gould’s stall which sells Everton and Liverpool memorabilia. He notes now “nothing has changed” in the square since he started working here in 2008.
He told the ECHO: “Since 2008 Liverpool ONE has been built. If you stand still and something else gets better you’re going backwards aren’t you. “
Mr Gould agrees that the area has been neglected and has been the center of false promises. He added: “All you keep hearing is how we’ve got things in the pipelines. But we’ve been hearing that for years. “
He sees a future where new development and stalls such as his can remain, adding that “there’s enough space here for everything”, as if to suggest such a prominent city center square should be better utilized.
Leo, who works on the stall with Brian, notes how hundreds of traveling Europeans often congregate in the Square ahead of Liverpool’s Champions League home matches. He questions what impression of the city the square gives off, noting how it can sometimes be “embarrassing” when there is little activity and not much is open.
For Central ward Labor Cllr Nick Small, Williamson Square is a significant piece of the city’s center “jigsaw”. He believes the timing is right to push ahead with plans after the “surprise” announcement that M&S will be leaving the area.
Cllr Small explains how the regeneration framework for the Square could look to remove the more modern retail units that were built and now house the Liverpool FC shop – in turn clearing space to “green up” the area with new trees and public space. This, in theory, could add a “green entrance” to the city center that links up with St Johns gardens.
Asked if he fears a similar sort of decline to London Road if action isn’t taken, Cllr Small added: “There are some great businesses who’ve come in and changed Williamson Square a lot, but it does need to [continue to] change. It’s well past its sell by date. It looks tired.
“It’s a space that a lot more could be done with, and could contribute a lot more to the city. There’s a lot going for it. “
‘It’s an entranceway’
For many, Williamson Square remains a key gateway to the city center. However work needs to be done to display this better to residents and people vising the city.
This is the view of the BID Company’s CEO Bill Addy, an organization which represents the interests of the city center’s retail districts, who believes change “should never just be reactionary and it should never happen in isolation.”
Mr Addy added: “Williamson Square ties you to St George’s Hall, to the museums, to Lime Street, to Whitechapel and the Cavern Quarter, to Church Street and the shopping area.
“When we think about how we need the square to evolve, we need to think about its role for all the people who could use it. It’s one of the oldest parts of the city center, a place steeped in history and its future should have it playing a central role in how you are welcomed into Liverpool. “
“It’s an entranceway to the city as well as a place of connection.”
Within the Square, the Playhouse Theater is arguably the most striking building and remains one of its anchor institutions. Up to the 70s it was neighbored by the Theater Royal, but it is the last cultural institution in the Square – one that has “a long history as a cultural hub for the city,” according to Everyman & Playhouse CEO Mark Da Vanzo.
While this history has faded into a diminishing retail foundation, the potential of the Square has remained. This, according to Mr Da Vanzo, remains a strong selling point – even if Williamson itself has seen better days. He told the ECHO: “Williamson Square is a massive opportunity and in some cases a missed opportunity.
“Over the years there have been interesting initiatives to animate the square, but I don’t think any have really have really stuck for the long term, so it does feel neglected.”
However he says its current predicament is not for a lack of “vision or want for change.” The Playhouse itself featured heavily in the area’s regeneration framework and therefore can play a key role in shaping its future if momentum for change is sustained.
When asked how he and the Playhouse sees the Square’s future, Mr Da Vanzo said: “We want to see it as a place that is celebratory, celebrating food and drink. Where businesses are animated and have an improved relationship.
“Whether that is dining on the square, providing space for live entertainment. A small change could be a big screen on the Playhouse showing what we do inside the theater. “
He adds how there are “ambitious and exciting” plans for the Playhouse itself and that the remaining popularity of the area means that it “deserves to be loved, looked after and animated.”
Liverpool City Council, which has endorsed the regeneration framework for the area, owns the freehold on Compton House and the vacant M&S unit to its rear, facing onto Williamson Square. A spokesperson for the council has suggested it will therefore be able to have a say on what replaces Marks & Spencer once its lease is up, in effect providing greater room to deliver the desired enhancements to Williamson Square in line with the regeneration framework.
Additionally, a project with the aims of ‘refocusing’ Church Street is to launch soon, with Liverpool BID company developing the route between The Bluecoat on School Lane and Williamson Square. It is hoped that this will help to establish a stronger and more supportive connection between the two retail areas.
Despite the speed of change retailers said they have experienced, a spokesperson for Liverpool City Council says it “recognizes” the importance of Williamson Square as a “key gateway” to the city and should remain a “destination” in its own right. They added that the area’s Spatial Regeneration Framework (SRF) is also moving towards being adopted as a Supplementary Planning Document (SPD) in the coming months. Working in line with the council’s Local Plan, which was fully adopted earlier this year, it is said the SPD will enable more detailed guidance for developing the area.