Developers told: ‘don’t kill London’s golden goose’

Thursday 25 February 2016

Developers and planners involved in the regeneration of the Royal Docks and Greenwich Peninsula must ensure they maintain high levels of quality design and avoid killing off London’s ‘golden goose’ – its rich layers of history and character.

That was one of the key messages to emerge from today’s NLA On Location event held at Trinity Buoy Wharf against a background of a series of initiatives to bring large-scale housing and infrastructure development to the area.

‘There is the wonderful vista of massive change taking place’, said opening speaker Cllr Ken Clark, the cabinet member for regeneration, planning, building communities and public affairs at Newham Council. And although there is real determination to turn around the long-period of neglect that has followed the closure of the docks, it is important to create communities as the centre of London moves east, bringing institutions like the English National Ballet with it, as well as interest in its ‘abundance of developable land. ‘We’re determined that the regeneration mustn’t pass our residents by’, said Clark.

And although Eric Reynolds, founding director of Urban Space Management and one of the prime movers of Trinity Buoy Wharf’s early regeneration in the area said it was ‘wonderful to see the sun rising in the east once again’, he cautioned that small things must happen as well as big – much of the area’s historical problems had been caused by waiting for what he branded the ‘mega’.

Deputy mayor for policy and planning Sir Edward Lister spelled out some of the visions for the area including the GLA’s City in the East, which hoped to catalyse development given the area’s ‘enormous capacity’. ‘But it’s not just about numbers’, he said. ‘We have to create real places here. We cannot create soulless places with no connectivity.’ Lister said the equivalent of a city the size of Glasgow was being ‘dropped’ into east London, but it was crucial to retain a balance. Certainly it was not until recently that the area was beginning to be transformed, said deputy mayor for housing, land and property Richard Blakeway, and schemes now progressing include Silvertown, which aimed to continue to draw on the area’s innovative roots, said Fletcher Priest’s Jonathan Kendall. ‘The term piece of city is fundamental to the brief we’ve been given’, he said of the scheme, which includes the reworking of Millennium Mills following the removal of some 600 tonnes of asbestos. Or there is Royal Albert Dock, which aims to become a new business quarter for London with a variety of office spaces aimed at the Asian and local market, said Farrells partner Peter Barblov.

For Newham head of regeneration & planning Deirdra Armsby, the crucial thing was to encourage such quality schemes and designers, pledging to try and enforce developers to retain the high quality architects they employ in initial phases of design throughout projects. Armsby said the authority also aimed to push permitted schemes to be built within three years or risk losing their permission. But smaller scale placemaking activities were also essential, such as the ‘Canning Town beach’, which attracted 16,000 visitors last year and was loved by residents. Initiatives to improve transport infrastructure in the region were also key, said TfL principle urban design advisor Emily Read, with the Silvertown Tunnel potentially opening in 2022 and east of Silvertown crossings following three years later.

But it was the patina, humanity and history of sites that interested U+I deputy chief executive Richard Upton, who said his own roots and that of his former company Cathedral lay in Greenwich. The company is working with Rem Koolhaas on masterplanning the Morden Wharf 19 acre site, including one proposal to ‘topple’ one of a series of towers into the water. But there were too few creative developers out there, said Upton, and plenty of greedy ones. It was time to stop creating ‘anodyne’ projects and ‘killing the golden goose, which is the character of this great city.’

The conference also heard from speakers including Igloo development director John Long on his company’s plans to create a floating community at the Royal Victoria Docks following a competition, to designs by dRMM. This had to become an international visitor attraction, he said, but one of the key challenges lay not in design or construction but in allowing people to get mortgages for floating homes in order to create mixed communities. There was also time to hear from Pilbrow and Partners senior partner Fred Pilbrow on his firm’s plans for Greenwich Peninsula Riverside, featuring low-rise perimeter blocks contrasted with tall buildings. And finally, Chenine Bhathena, Senior Cultural Strategy Officer, GLA made a plea that culture retain its place as one of the key reasons tourists visit the city and people like to live in it, especially as more artists studio space is lost and artists leave the city. ‘As the growing need for more housing and transport take the headlines’, said Bhathena, ‘we also need to be consider the social infrastructure. The Royal Docks is a great opportunity to build the social networks that are lacking.’

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