The Phoenix Project: Frequently Asked Questions

Human Nature is planning a new sustainable neighbourhood on the former Phoenix Industrial Estate in Lewes, East Sussex. Working with experts in the fields of architecture, design and ecology, our ambition is to build one of Europe’s most sustainable housing developments, creating a blueprint for better living. The Phoenix Project will consist of residential, commercial and community premises, creating jobs, work space and homes for the town. Connected by green and safe streets, the neighbourhood will contain an abundance of public space, including communal gardens and allotments, alongside a Health Hub, recreational and entertainment centres and a range of different housing. Some of the site’s existing buildings will be retained and upcycled, forming part of a new town square – the Foundry Yards – which will lead down to the Ouse opening the riverfront to the people of Lewes.

In September 2021, we invited the general public to explore our work in progress and provide feedback at the Phoenix Project Design Festival. You can see images from the event here as well as the exhibition boards here. We’re compiling a list of your most frequently asked questions, put to us before, during and after the festival – we’ll be answering more over the coming weeks and months. If you’d like to share your thoughts, please do use this questionnaire.

1. What is Human Nature and how is it connected to the Phoenix Project? 
2. There have been plans to develop this site before, what makes this project different?
3. What is the timeline of the project?
4. How much of the housing will be affordable?
5. What is your flooding strategy?
6. How do you plan to minimise traffic in and around the area and what will replace the public car parks currently on site?
7. What are the plans with the Health hub?
8. How will all this affect the neighbours?
9. What will the neighbourhood look like?
10. Will the neighbourhood be accessible? 
11. How do you intend to engage with young people?

1. What is Human Nature and how is it connected to the Phoenix Project? 
Human Nature is a Lewes-based development company that grew out of Greenpeace and Beyond Green, a consultancy in sustainable development. The founders have over 30 years experience working in the built environment and 40 years in sustainability. 

Human Nature is assembling a portfolio of projects, designing and building new sustainable neighbourhoods where people can flourish within the planet’s limits. The built environment, the materials we traditionally use in construction and the dependence on cars are all major contributors to carbon emissions, and we are determined to do things differently. The ten key areas our projects address are described here in our Circle of Impact framework.

We acquired the North Street Quarter site in April 2021 and have renamed it the Phoenix Project to reflect the site’s history. We will not be developing the previously consented scheme as it is economically unviable and, in our view, ill-equipped to address the climate and biodiversity crises. Work has begun on a new planning application alongside the South Downs National Park, the planning authority. Once consent for a new scheme is given, we will be developing the site ourselves. We are invested in the long-term future of the project, meaning our interest and involvement will not end on completion of construction. In particular, we will lead on the management and stewardship of shared community spaces to ensure it remains a truly remarkable place to live and visit. 

This new place will be a beautiful and characterful neighbourhood built using sustainable materials, powered with renewable energy and accessed by walking, cycling and electric vehicles. We believe in the concept of the five-minute neighbourhood whereby all one might need on a daily basis to live, work and play is within a short walk and community life is at the heart of everything. We will enable people to share many facilities and spaces, have access to work space and studios, grow food, eat well and healthily, exercise and have fun.

2. There have been plans to develop this site before, what makes this project different?
There is indeed a long history of failed proposals. The previous owner of the land, Santon, acquired planning consent in spring 2016 for around 415 residential units. However, after five years and with no progress made, the company changed its strategy and decided to put the land up for sale. After looking at the consent, we found the plan to be economically unviable as well as insufficiently sustainable. There are major cost implications associated with this brownfield development from site remediation and flood defences to infrastructure and various planning requirements such as public car parking, provision of land for the Health Hub and a new footbridge. The previous scheme did not plan enough homes to cover these necessary costs, nor did it design a neighbourhood fit to meet the challenges of the climate crisis, housing need or the creation of a strong community. 

We are therefore bringing forward a new planning application. We will be delivering a ‘mixed-use’ neighbourhood that increases the number of homes, which will vary in size from compact studios to spacious apartments with a few larger town houses, all with access to the outdoors and a substantial amount of shared spaces and facilities, commercial and work spaces. We will also respect the heritage of the site and intend to retain and upcycle some of the wonderful old industrial buildings.

Our proposal has been meticulously put together creating what we consider the right balance to create a great sustainable neighbourhood – if there are too many fundamental changes to the plan (such as a reduction in number of homes) the scheme will not be economically viable and likewise loss of community and workspace would create a car dependent residential suburb. 

3. What is the timeline of the project? 
We have been working on our proposal and ideas for the site for nearly 12 months and at the recent Phoenix Project Design Festival (September 2021) we showed the evolution of our plans over this period including the latest iteration on the masterplan and initial housing design ideas from the eight architecture practices we have engaged. We also showed our proposals for the flood defence, walkable streets, connections, renewable energy supply, transport and mobility. Consultation will continue until submission of a draft planning application in late spring 2022. We are working alongside the South Downs National Park Authority with the intent of gaining planning permission not later than the end of 2022. We will seek outline permission for the whole scheme, with some parts in detail (such as the flood defence), which we can start to construct in 2023. The rest will come forward in overlapping phases and the entire project is expected to be completed by 2030. 

4. How much of the housing will be affordable?
We intend to deliver as many affordable homes as possible, including homes available to Lewes families on median incomes (as identified in the Lewes Neighbourhood Plan). The exact number will become clearer over the months ahead as it depends heavily on other site costs and the number of homes overall. 

Other site costs and requirements include: demolition and remediation; the riverside flood defence which continues around the back of the site to protect the Pells area; a riverside walk and new bridge; infrastructure and public car parking. The planning policy for the site requires it to be mixed use – providing work, community and commercial spaces as well as housing, which we would do in any case, as we believe in real neighbourhoods, not residential only suburbs. We intend to build smaller and more compact homes throughout the site, with lots of shared space and facilities, to make best use of this precious brownfield land. The total number of homes is to be agreed with the planning authority, the South Downs National Park, over the months ahead as we finalise the planning application.

Once all the expenditures and future revenue has been appraised – this is ongoing and will settle when we have an outline agreement with the Park on our plans for the site – we will be able to give a clear indication of affordable homes numbers and types of tenure. A viability test is then run by experts working for the planning authority, which will fairly determine whether our proposals are reasonable. We will continue to update you as we have more information to share.

5. What is your flooding strategy? 
Our flood defence strategy, developed with the Environment Agency (EA), is to replace the existing flood defences along the river with a new flood wall with a level of 6.15m above Ordnance Datum (mean sea-level), designed for a 120-year life. New flood defences – a bank – will run to the east of the Recreation Grounds and Pells Pool. A number of flood gates, integrated within the existing walls along the Pells Pool and Recreation Grounds will increase the current level of protection to the Pells Pool. To protect the Pelham Terrace neighbourhood, a parapet wall will provide a passive level of protection, and demountable elements stored within the wall will enable raising the crest to the 6.15m defence level in the event of a flood warning from the EA. A raised embankment at the southern end of Talbot Terrace will also protect the neighbourhood from flooding from the railway.

A sustainable drainage strategy has also been developed in close coordination with the EA and East Sussex County Council. All stormwater will be discharged to the river, and stormwater storage will be created to hold stormwater when high river levels do not permit river discharge. Storage in landscaped features within the street corridors and some of the courtyards will be promoted over in-ground storage. The drainage system will be designed considering the effect of the climate crisis on rainfall intensities and river levels, and considering overland flows from higher parts of town during intense storms.

6. How do you plan to minimise traffic in and around the area and what will replace the public car parks currently on site?
Minimising traffic requires many different measures. For starters, a new cycle route that connects to Eastgate and a new pedestrian bridge across to Malling field will improve interconnectedness with the town and will encourage walking and cycling. Furthermore, by providing amenities on site, people can walk to all things needed daily both at the Phoenix and in the town centre, while providing mobility services will reduce the need for people to own cars and free up valuable space. These services include car sharing, car hire, a co-mobility app, a freight hub, electric cargo bikes for hire. We aim for all these to be integrated into a top quality service on site.

In order to create quiet, green and safe streets – and to reduce vehicle movements around the town’s one-way system – we will concentrate parking in a mobility hub located directly adjacent to and accessed from the causeway. This means vehicles coming to and from site and town parking can be held here, alleviating the current pressures on the one-way system.

We will also be encouraging the County Council to be looking at other options around the edges of the town to provide car parking for rural residents and visitors and even long-term parking for town residents. We would like to see the whole of the centre of Lewes similar to the Phoenix site whereby the pedestrians, cyclists, clean air and safe walkable streets are prioritised. 

7. What are the plans with the Health hub?
We are providing a site for the Health Hub in our plans – the Spring Gardens car park to the left of North Street adjacent to Brook Street. We are waiting for the Foundry practice to give us their specification before design work can start – Mole Architects, a firm based in Cambridge, are ready to begin work once given the green light. Foundry Healthcare is keen to work alongside us in adopting a broader perspective on health and wellbeing, which will help to create a healthy community, as well as provide key medical services to the community. 

We are aware that access to the Health Hub is a key concern for the public. We are waiting for specification from the Foundry practice on access needs, but we envisage some in-situ parking and other access options that will meet the immediate needs of patients. 

8. How will all this affect the neighbours?
It is of course disconcerting if you live nearby to see designs for homes near yours or hear that a new mobility and parking strategy is being worked on or that the flood defences will change. We had lots of conversations with our neighbours earlier this year and met some more at the Festival with specific concerns. We held a second meeting with neighbours in October and will continue these conversations into the New Year – if you are one and would like to come along please email us here.

9. What will the neighbourhood look like?
The Phoenix Project will be a ‘mixed’ neighbourhood not just in terms of its uses, but also in terms of building heights, materials and design. Nine different architectural practices will work on different parts of the development, which is made up of housing, commercial premises and community spaces. Existing buildings on the former industrial site – such as the Old Soap Factory – will be upcycled, resulting in a neighbourhood that is diverse, characterful and enjoyable to wander through. While there will be variety in buildings and texture, they will adhere to a design code – often using local materials such as timber and chalk – that will be respectful of Lewes heritage and architecture, but offer a modern take. The spaces between buildings – streets lined with trees and other greenery, where people will have the chance to rest, linger and enjoy food and drink – will hold the neighbourhood together, visually and practically. 

One key aspect of the project will be a varied and interesting roofscape. While houses no longer need chimneys, we need roofs to work hard for us for visual enjoyment, insect and birdlife, water capture and energy generation. In order to make sure the scheme is viable and we cover the many costs including flood defences, we need to use this brownfield site wisely and build enough homes. Buildings will range from two-storeys up to five-storeys (with the occasional roof-top pop-up). These buildings will, of course, alter some views but provide others: for example, the Foundry Yards – a new town square – will open up access to the Ouse, and create views of the Downs to the west. 

10. Will the neighbourhood be accessible? 
We are determined to make the Phoenix Project a neighbourhood all can enjoy – for those passing through or living there. We’ve already met with a representative from Lewes Area Access Group, and these talks will continue as we refine the masterplan and when we start building with accessible and easily navigable streets and buildings in mind. There will be blue badge parking in the neighbourhood and a mobility hub (which will minimise traffic on the site) and new cycle and walking routes connecting the Phoenix to the rest of the town. We are working with the Foundry Healthcare to ensure that the new Health Hub is accessible to those needing to get there by car or public transport. 

11. How do you intend to engage with young people?
At the Phoenix Project Design Festival many people asked about Human Nature’s plans for youth engagement. As we refine our masterplan, we continue to meet with local groups to discuss their feedback on our early proposals, gather ideas about services we can provide in the neighbourhood and get them involved in the design process. For example, teams of Lewes Art and Design students designed and built parklets in partnership with us, Culture Shift Lewes and East Sussex College Group and also produced animations and drawings for a new bridge and creative makers spaces. We regularly invite classes from local schools and colleges to visit the site and recently spoke about green careers at an event with Priory School. We are exploring the idea of creating a ‘youth assembly’ to help shape policy about what young people want and need. 

We’re keen to make sure the buildings on the site are being put to good use before construction begins. For example, our new tenants Ben and Viv English are currently in the process of creating an indoor skateboarding centre on site. If you represent a local youth group, and you’d like to get in touch, please do so here

We want the Phoenix Project to be a neighborhood that can be enjoyed by all. In the Old Soap Factory building, we intend to create an active health, sports and wellbeing facility where there will be bouldering, climbing, dance, yoga and fitness studios, party hire, a juice bar and cafe. Across the neighbourhood, there will also be outdoor play areas and we intend to build a sound-proofed music venue and rehouse Starfish Music Studios.

We will ensure it is a safe place for families. Through the creation of a co-mobility hub, we intend to channel most traffic to the southern tip of the site, minimising vehicles in the neighbourhood, reducing local air pollution, and allowing for low-traffic residential streets where children can play safely. Courtyard gardens and other shared spaces will allow children to play together but in sight of family and neighbours.