The arts community has launched a campaign to save Huddersfield’s Piazza Centre from demolition.
The 1970s shopping complex is set to be flattened as part of Kirklees Council’s £210 million plans to create a Cultural Heart.
But members of the town’s art community believe the Piazza should stay as regeneration is already happening – by accident if not design.
A study by West Yorkshire regional democracy think tank Same Skies has found that since the council moved Huddersfield Art Gallery into the Piazza and allowed art groups to take over empty shops interest in the arts has seen a resurgence.
According to Same Skies, exhibition audiences have trebled and some exhibitions have given the town national coverage.
The think tank is now urging the council to call off the bulldozers and turn the Piazza into an arts centre that could lead town centre regeneration at a fraction of the cost.
It says what has happened so far has proved the concept and could be a model for other towns to follow.
A spokesman said: “Since buying the Piazza in 2019 the council have made empty units available for arts and community groups to use in return for the groups scheduling regular public activities.
“An exhibition organised by Huddersfield Art Gallery in the Piazza saw audiences treble compared to what was expected in their previous venue above the library.
“Huddersfield Art Society, which has been staging an annual exhibition since 1890, were delighted by the growth in visitor numbers in comparison to past years, and attributed this to the Piazza venue.
“As well as the rise in audience numbers, the Piazza arts centre acts as an incubator for new organisations, giving them access to a space where they can develop their ideas and find an audience.”
Same Skies investigated the success of two such organisations, CollaborARTi and the Climate Emergency Hub.
CollaborARTi began as a handful of local artists and the group was formed in response to the opportunity to occupy a unit in the precinct.
They were among the first tenants and now run activities in their original shop and four more spaces, aiming to be open four days a week, 10am-4pm.
Andrew Wilson, co-director of Same Skies, said: “The success of CollaborARTi is remarkable and admirable.
“Local artists working together have taken five empty shopfronts that previously made the streets look ugly and depressing, and turned them into colourful creative spaces.
“That makes everybody who comes into the town centre feel a little bit better about Huddersfield. If we had to put a price on that, what would it be?”
The second organisation featured in the Same Skies study is the Climate Emergency Hub, a week-long pop-up occupancy of a Piazza unit.
The Hub hosted a programme of 28 events in six days, all focused on engaging the wider public in the climate and ecological emergency.
The highest profile event was a presentation by international climate justice campaigner Farhana Yamin, who travelled from London to Huddersfield to give an evening talk. Farhana promoted the event on Twitter to her 11,000 followers around the world.
The success of the Hub drew attention well beyond Huddersfield and Mike Prior, the main organiser, has been invited to talk about the initiative and other activities in the town at several events with national and international audiences.
Both Mike and co-founder Kath Wright felt the open and welcoming big glass shopfronts contributed to the success and people were curious to see inside. Bringing artists together in one place also encouraged new collaborations.
Kirklees Council is currently working with consultants on the Cultural Heart plans which will see the Piazza demolished and replaced with an urban park. Queensgate Market will become a food court with a new “events space” accommodating between 2,500 and 3,000 people built alongside.
A new museum and art gallery could be located within the existing library building with an extension providing additional gallery space.
Mr Wilson added: “We are encouraging Kirklees Council to pause, take a step back and recognise their own success.
“The Piazza arts centre is flourishing and the council should adapt their Blueprint to put it at the centre of the regeneration strategy rather than knocking it down.”