Tottenham Court Road strategic visioning group

Monday 23 June 2014

Crossrail will act as a ‘catalyst for change’ in the areas around Tottenham Court Road, but the aftermath of its transformation will require new funding mechanisms to emerge in order to maintain the rejuvenated public realm.

That was one of the key thoughts to emerge from a special Tottenham Court Road strategic visioning group think tank run by NLA and co-hosted by Crossrail, which aimed to draw out the main issues for the area following the arrival of the new station in 2018. 

Colin Smith, Head of Over Site Development, Crossrail introduced the session, noting that the new line will bring a 10% boost to capacity, a relief for existing tube lines and a new kind of accessibility for Tottenham Court Road, with Canary Wharf just 12 minutes away in future. Usage of the station will rise by some 50% from 118,000 to 180,000 in and out daily, but Crossrail is also dealing with the oversite development, Derwent London adding an eight-storey scheme with a theatre which promises to add more vibrancy to the area. 

Crossrail’s Land & Property Director Ian Lindsay said one of the line’s unique USPs is that ‘we are the first rail project in the UK that has designed the stations, the oversite development and the surrounding urban realm as an integrated package so we have a much greater impact on placemaking and the future shape of areas than other rail projects that have gone before.’ Crossrail is also contributing £3 million to a £9 million scheme to upgrade St Giles, with the overall objective being ‘enabling and benefiting from growth’, said Sam Monck, Assistant Director Environment and Transport, LB Camden. But it is important to deal with the placemaking issues including a new park alongside improved transport measures without sacrificing those in other areas, he added, while an aim for the council is to maintain the 30% drop in traffic brought about by the current hole in the ground where works are going on. Monck said that consultation on the creation of two-way working for Tottenham Court Road is ongoing – it was important to hear from other businesses and groups, via http://www.wearecamden.org/westendproject/   

It was instructive to look at the changing picture of work and demographics as they attach to the area. The total number of people commuting to central London, said Arup director Alexander Jan, is broadly constant – around 1.1m in 1979 and around that figure now. But the real change has been a shift in modes, with 200,000 doing the journey by car in 1979 at the morning peak falling to around 90,000 today. And, he added, the big increases in growth have been in the off-peak hours, with the nine major mainline stations around the West End experiencing an 80-90% growth, but most of that beyond the morning peak. This is mirrored to a large extent in Lower Manhattan where they are also trying to establish whether this has been caused by leisure, tourism, or work patterns which have moved away from the traditional 9-5 regime. 

The area, said Graham King, is a 24/7, mixed use zone, with the growth in the West End all about the rise in ‘offpeak’, and shopping. Although Crossrail has been on the books as a potential project since 1989 and Crossrail has had developments planned above the stations for many years, it was only a GVA report in 2012 that kick-started the notion of developing around the line. But the amount of extra development does not seem great, said director of LSE London Tony Travers. While planners can only deal with what is submitted to them, said King, and manage a system which is ‘fundamentally flawed for the growth agenda’, the problem is that developers are not coming forward with enough plans to densify the area. 

In a sense, the area is in need of being re-imagined, said Deborah Saunt, director of DSDHA, telling the story of how when she first began public realm work and presented to London First there was a ‘palpable intake of breath amongst the business community’ when they were shown the amount of ‘excellence’ in terms of institutions there are in the area. Perhaps, she added, Tottenham Court Road needs to concentrate on being less of a route, and more of a place, like the West End, with the area’s wealth of ‘exhibition-ism’ (those institutions) potentially being a more active part of the public realm in future. 

The public’s notion of the station and proximity to Soho and other areas will also need to be recast if it can come to the aid of people wanting to get to, say, Covent Garden – whose station has been unable to cope with its numbers for decades primarily because of its lifts. This would need to be accompanied by an uplift in maps, apps and wayfinding. 

But in providing a new area of high quality public realm around the station, we need new financial models to make the management of that space work, said Monck, given a drop in government funding to Camden of 50% over 2010-2018. ‘We know that transport infrastructure and public realm helps deliver extra value but we don’t capture that’, he said. ‘We need to not do marvellous things in London and then watch them degrade.’ There is no silver bullet on this but one answer might come from BIDs, multiple streams or, suggested Travers, from a service charge the like of which Westfield imposes. ‘The thing is that Westminster and Camden are the richest two boroughs in the country with, in effect, no access to their resources beyond parking’, said Travers, adding that the tourist industry may be faced with a bleak choice – to either pay a levy or face ‘degradation’. 

What kind of place might Tottenham Court Road become? The run of its electrical shops have not embraced the ‘experience’ or the ‘destination’ retail in the way that Selfridges or Apple Store have done to bring in more footfall to Regent Street and elsewhere, so perhaps, said Patrick Richard of Stanton Williams, who are designing the entrance pavilions for the Tottenham Court Road underground station, there is a demand for a kind of place where people can meet and be entertained. Or it could include a cultural quarter that could revitalise the old base of the music industry, and the eastern edge of Oxford Street. Philip Turner, Associate Director at AHMM, designing the 61 Oxford Street scheme for Dukelease, said that the new mixed use building will contain a flagship Zara store. Although Zara have several other stores in the West End, retail agent CBRE advised that people tend not to shop across districts, so Oxford Street East acts as its own separate sub-district. Tottenham Court Road is clearly a grand street suitable for larger stores, and controlling the identity of those stores can be difficult. The idea we have the same thing everywhere is disappointing, said Alex Lifschutz, however. ‘It would be great if the character of the road emerged and Tottenham Court Road became something distinctive’, he said. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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