More than a cluster: The future of City Road

Monday 19 October 2015

Does everywhere in London have to be a ‘place’? Or are there some locations where the traffic movement function of a road can be left as one of, if not the most important element?

This notion cropped up in a stimulating Think Tank roundtable session on City Road sponsored by Hurford Salvi Carr, the fast-developing area of London where, as Hackney interim head of regeneration Carl Welham remarked, an area the size of the table the group sat around was selling for residential for over a quarter of a million pounds.

The session began with Welham’s counterpart at Islington, service director in planning and development Karen Sullivan, running through some of the key aspects affecting this corner of the capital. Certainly, she said, the core strategy her authority adopted four years ago was ‘surprisingly robust’, but Islington is working to keep it up to date in terms of the demand for employment space, housing and on issues of built form. Part of the authority’s focus is also on potential development sites such as Moorfields Hospital, for which an SPD is planned if it leaves, as expected, to join other medical institutions in King’s Cross. The opportunities represented by Crossrail 2, moreover, must be planned for now, despite being a decade and a half away, building on the experiences of Farringdon. But the biggest move is perhaps the authority’s decision to stop selling land and concentrate on developing it instead. As one of the largest landowners in the area, this is how it can ensure not just that social housing is delivered, but social infrastructure too. Hence there is a whole series of investments being made, such as a new primary school, new leisure centre at Finsbury Leisure Centre (via a design competition), and a new boat club on the City Road basin intended to animate that waterspace. ‘Going forward, we are going to be increasingly reliant on building private housing to pay for everything else’, said Sullivan, including increasingly important elements of public realm as the local population increases. Indeed, with more people living in the area, one of the key concerns is that locals feel cut off and hit by the dual forces of densification and increasing social polarization.

In terms of planning, one of the most potentially damaging moves to the area, said Sullivan, is the removal of the exemption of the CAZ from permitted development rights. And while the noises made by Islington are pro-growth, it is keen that the kind of growth achieved is one that benefits local people and places.

And yet, said Carl Wenham, with a 40 sqm flat going for some £600,000, this only puts the place and the pressure developers are under into perspective. There is some £20-£30 billion of investment ‘queuing up’ to land in London, putting massive pressure on to satisfy that demand. But rather than think about profits, it is important to look to the effects of this development on communities, with marked tensions appearing between, say, the new set of investors and traditional East End residents. And one of the main drivers must be to create schemes which stand the test of time, avoiding the creation of a dormitory by preserving the commercial realm against the lure of residential. With the way that tech is changing, for instance, who could predict the requirements of buildings in decades hence? ‘We need everything to work in perpetuity’, said Welham. Finally, Welham had a word of warning as a ‘student of economic and history’, that every time towers of residential are built, it precedes a crash’. It is a bellweather he hopes does not come to pass.

For James Marshall of TfL, the City Road forms part of the Inner Ring Road and is crucial in keeping the city moving. TfL is working at improving conditions for cyclists along City Road and at Old Street roundabout, but many of the key ‘places’ are just off the main City Road. Routes are indeed important in terms of crossing points and the mental map of an area for those like Russ Hamilton, whose practice Farrells has completed a good deal of work on areas like the Euston Road. And for roundtable contributors like Oliver Rippier of Helical, the experience represented by the Old Street – or Silicon – Roundabout are important ones. According to Sullivan, proposals will involve peninsularising the roundabout, and enhancing the area with a new tube station entrance. This is something that Derwent in particular has been crying out for, said its development director, Benjamin Lesser. What with the huge increase in demand from office occupiers and residents, and the general move east, it can’t come soon enough, in fact. The slight surprise is it hasn’t happened sooner. Have we not learnt from the story of Canary Wharf and its need to attend to key strategic infrastructure moves early? The image of the roundabout is certainly important for the area, especially given anecdotal reports of potential investors shaking their heads and getting back into their limousines. What did work in this regard, said Welham, was Hackney House, a pop-up which helped to attract particularly hotel operators into the area. Interestingly though, said Rippier, it is not really about investors driving office occupiers these days; it is the staff. Recent tenant arrivals to Helical schemes in the Old Street area include John Brown Media who came over from west London and DKLW Lowe, an ad agency, from South Kensington. ‘This has not been driven by rent, but by place’ said Rippier. Even more staid professions are saying similar things, said Welham, that this is where our staff want to be. All the more reason to attend to preserving what makes it attractive.

It is indeed all about staff retention and recruitment, said Ramidus Consulting’s Sandra Jones. Young people are renting or buying in east London, but the permitted development rights issue is a dangerous one, having ‘hemorrhaged’ office space in Westminster and representing a huge issue for the wider city. In fact, most of the businesses in Tech City are media, rather than tech, which is fairly footloose, said Jones.

And yet our best guesses about the future are always difficult, said the GLA’s Colin Wilson. As late as 1974 the GLC built a factory to preserve the furniture-making trade in Shoreditch. The GLA view is it shouldn’t be free market but an area where ‘reasonable control is exercised.’ Perhaps, said Lesser, the lessons haven’t been taken on board and that more buildings of the kind of the White Collar factory could provide an answer, with their inherent flexibility to the fore. So let’s loosen up uses, heights and then we can talk about real sustainability, he said.

While Portland Design managing director Ibrahim emphasized how ‘place activation’ and retail and can be used to bring ‘soul’ and create different character zones and connectivity, and looked to nine streets in central Amsterdam that were not going to allow change, Rab Bennetts suggested that the fact that they have control of the leases was the key. Places with 100s of different owners are susceptible, said Welham, to owners realizing that their properties may be worth something to, say, Costa Coffee. Planners can influence, but private property is private property, said Welham. The challenge is to preserve the independents, and it comes down to money without the prospect of rent controls that are in place in cities like Berlin. It would be a ‘radical shift’ indeed to go to the restrictions of other mainland European countries, said Allies and Morriosn director Peter Bishop. But the area around City Road is broadly successful because it is mixed use, although the area is ‘crying out’ for ground floor retail and also capacity, said Hurford Salv Carr director David Salvi. ‘In order for residents to have a good experience they need offices and retail’, said Salvi. Around 80% of buyers are investors, but whether overseas or not, housing stock ends up as private rented. One and two beds in the area are extremely popular because of their high quality and facilities, but the three beds are more difficult to sell because of the pricing points. It needs to feel like a place rather than a shortcut or cut-through. City Road will be ‘greatly enhanced’ by Berkeley’s 250 City Road, said Mount Anvil operations director Peter Burslem. But part of the problem faced by places like City Road, Bishop added, was that it is one of those ‘cursive places’ that sits on a borough boundary, where it is common in London for deprivation and urban problems to spring up. Simple improvements can be made in terms of how buildings relate to City Road, how it functions, how buildings relate to it and how people cross it from the communities either side as part of a 10 year project. But the worst thing to see it as would be as a permanent boundary or edge and turn one’s back on it. ‘It is a road and will continue to be a road’, said Bishop. 

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