The £1m makeover that could bring the Bearpit in Bristol back to life
A £1-MILLION makeover is planned for the sunken roundabout at St James Barton in the city centre, commonly known as the Bearpit.
The dark subways and drab surroundings – especially at night – have made the area unpopular with pedestrians for years.
But now there are plans to transform it into an amphitheatre to attract people and create a venue to stage events.
Two of the subways would be closed down and pedestrians would instead cross the busy St James Barton roundabout at street level.
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The two new road crossings would link up to a central rim that would act as a walkway.
These changes would mean people would no longer have to use the Bearpit as a thoroughfare – the only way at the moment for an estimated 14,000 people who use it each day to get from Stokes Croft to the bus station and the Cabot and Broadmead shopping centres.
The amphitheatre would be created by installing tiers down to the sunken level. Tests have been carried out which show that traffic noise does not drown out acoustic sound and the air quality is not poor.
Henry Shaftoe, a senior lecturer in planning and architecture at the University of the West of England, set up a team of volunteer experts after he found himself using the Bearpit as an example of poor design in talks and presentations.
He said it could be turned into a valued asset that attracted people instead of turning them away.
A workshop at the Colston Hall nearly two years ago which was attended by about 80 people who were helping to draw up a planning blueprint for the city centre discussed the Bearpit and concluded that it desperately needed a makeover.
The pedestrian underpasses and recessed central garden were singled out for criticism as a generator of crime and for creating a fear of crime.
The townscape was seen as dismal and outdated despite the junction being an important pedestrian route gateway to the city.
Mr Shaftoe said: "There have been several attempts in the past to try to do something with the Bearpit but one of the problems is that different parts such as the tunnels, the green space and the toilets come under different council departments.
"There needs to be a holistic approach to get the changes that are needed."
He said the street level crossings on such busy roads would not create traffic jams because traffic lights were already in place on the roundabout to manage traffic flows.
"It's just a question of making the best use of what is already there," Mr Shaftoe said. "At the moment, people have no choice other than to use the Bearpit but it could be turned into a really attractive resource which brings people into the area rather than a place to avoid."
He said if an amphitheatre was created, then it could attract small food outlets and a venue for staging events.
He praised the team of volunteers who have been working on the project for the past two years and produced a report called The Bearpit: A New Way Forward and which can be seen at www.the-bear-pit.org.uk.
Lib Dem Cabinet Councillor Tim Kent said: "Improvements to the Bearpit and St James Barton roundabout will make a big difference because it provides an important gateway to the city.
"They will help to open up the links between the shopping centres and Stokes Croft as well as help with the connection to the bus station."
Ward Councillor Jon Rogers (Lib Dem, Ashley) said: "The Bearpit has been a source of concern for many years and therefore I am delighted that funding has been identified for improvements.
"I hope the proposals will be supported by all councillors next month."
The money for the makeover is included in the Lib Dems' shopping list of capital projects which would be paid for with a Government loan at a preferential rate of interest.
The project will need to be approved by full council when it meets on February 28 to decide next year's budget.