Thursday, 27 August 2015

Hotel plans for Deptford High Street.

In eight years of delving into the annals of planning proposals in order to write this blog I've read some ludicrous proposals, but I have to say that this one pretty much takes the biscuit.

It's been rumoured for several years now that the owner of this unattractive block of flats next to Deptford station had plans to convert it into a hotel, but as yet there is nothing in the planning system. With a 'public exhibition' now in the offing in early September, it seems that the scheme could be moving forward.

The flyer says that the owner of the site, Masstrade, wants to redevelop the site and build 'a high quality design hotel, including ground floor lobby with active uses and an improved community space for Our Lady of the Assumption Church'.

It would be hard to make this already-pitiful building look attractive, but the photographer and poster designer seem to have conspired to grime it up as much as possible, presumably so that we all agree it would be a blessing if it were rapidly flattened. I'm not necessarily arguing against that; my soul seems to die a little every time my eyes are forced to alight on its cheap and badly-proportioned exterior, and it adds little aesthetic value to the streetscape.

But turn the flyer over and take a look at the 'high quality design hotel' that is being proposed. I wonder if Masstrade got the 'architect' from the previous post to do a bit of moonlighting for them?

My untutored eyes are telling me that this is not a building, it is a stack of Ikea Billy bookcases. I am quite convinced that's what it's modelled on in any case. It most certainly is not 'high quality design', in fact it is close to making the existing structure look accomplished.

Whatever the quality of the building, I fail to see how change of use to a hotel will improve on the current use  - the upper levels currently provide six flats and there are two shop units at ground level, which with some investment could surely be lucrative for the owner, being right next to the station.

A hotel?

Fundamentally I cannot see any logic for building a hotel slap bang in the middle of Deptford High Street. A rash of new hotels sprang up several years back on Deptford Broadway and surrounds in anticipation of Olympic fever - the huge Travelodge, Premier Inn and Mercure brands moving in within spitting distance of one another. The 'boutique' hotel slated for the Distillery development failed to materialise, and it turned into Staycity apartments. I've often remarked how bleak the 'hotel reception' makes this stretch of the highway.

But according to the flyer for Deptford High St, there are many benefits. For a start 'hotels tend to draw more of their employees from the local area than other types of businesses', which is the first time I've heard this stated as fact. Perhaps those people renting the new flats in The Deptford Project need some zero-hours, minimum-wage work to cover the mortgage?

'Guests will use local shops, restaurants and services' it claims, which I very much doubt. Unlike the residents who actually live in the existing flats.

'The building will provide a new meeting hall for the catholic church next door'. Probably because the church owns the land at the back (and the freehold of the entire site) and it's the only way the developer can persuade them to let him build half a dozen extra storeys on top of it. Don't be fooled into thinking he's doing this out of the goodness of his heart, or a love for Deptford community.

'Providing active ground floor uses. Adding to the vitality and vibrancy of the local area'. Leaving aside the grammar, my only comment would be: 'in the same way as Stay City?'

'Contributing to regeneration'. By replacing one ugly building (which incidentally is only about 20 years old) by a newer one.

'Delivering accommodation. Meeting the need for quality overnight accommodation in the area.'

I thought it would be a great opportunity to test the statement that there is a need for quality accommodation in the area. Thursday night in August, just ahead of the bank holiday weekend. Nearly 10pm. Would I be able to find a room locally when according to the developer there's a dearth of quality accommodation....?

For two people wanting a double room tonight, the following are available:
Staycity apartments  (£72)
Mercure Greenwich (£107)
Novotel Greenwich (£110)
Ibis (£89)
De Vere Devonport House (£88)
Premier Inn on Greenwich South St (£115)

I rest my case, m'lud.

Want to find out more? (or count how many Billy bookcases it takes to build a hotel)
Public exhibitions at the Deptford Lounge Foyer on Saturday 5th September (10am to 2pm) and Monday 7th September (4pm to 8pm).

Thursday, 13 August 2015

'Derelict' Deptford

There's something chillingly cynical about the 'for sale' sign on the former Lord Palmerston pub on Childers Street which advertises the £1.3 million building as a 'freehold derelict pub for sale'.

'Derelict: (adjective) in a very poor condition as a result of disuse and neglect'

This building is so 'derelict' that it's currently being used as a site office by the contractor working on the conversion of the old SR House next door.

Yes, it's so 'derelict' that until very recently the upper storeys were occupied by property guardians who have been living there since the pub closed a couple of years ago. While I'm sure it's no des res, the building looks far from derelict to me and there's absolutely nothing in the sales information to back up this claim.

The subtext of this wording, of course, is 'ripe for redevelopment' and helpfully the agent selling it, Acorn Commercial, has included a rendering in the sales brochure as to what this redevelopment could look like. Look away now if you are of a sensitive disposition. 

The only positive note is that the rendering above does not represent an actual scheme with planning permission, it's just the tawdry imaginings of some back-room wage slave who dreamed of being the next Norman Foster but is more likely to become the next Norman Bates. 

It's not even a fair match for the grey horror on the right, which is intended to represent the redevelopment of SR House, currently under construction behind its retained facade. 

Friday, 7 August 2015

Deptford sunflowers

I've been enjoying watching these sunflowers sprout up and raise their yellow faces to the sky, making a mockery of the council's neglect of this car park on Vanguard St and Glendale's wholesale removal of all signs of life from the borders last year.

Sadly some norbert has been trying to pull the flower heads off the plants - as well as being a selfish oaf, they have no doubt found that sunflower stalks are pretty damn tough and unless you are going to carry a big pair of shears with you, you're unlikely to end up with anything worth displaying in your house. It's always a risk with guerrilla gardening, but one that's worth taking in my opinion.

These particular flowers were planted by local residents, I understand, using packets of seeds that cost £1 from Terry's shop on the high street, and planted in less than an hour.

Hopefully there's lots of others out there who've enjoyed seeing these towering beauties cocking a snook at the council's planting policy for this corner of SE8. 

Keeping my fingers crossed that this year's success will lead to a repeat planting next year.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

The Burning Church

It wasn't long since that the idea of a pub crawl on Deptford High Street was laughable - the rather skanky White Swan* being the only regular drinking venue on the street, if you didn't count the shebeens and late night clubs.

But then the Job Centre turned up as a regular fixture, and although Little Nan's cocktails came and went in all too short a time, it was fun while it lasted.

Now however we are starting to see a few new venues appearing on a regular basis, and for a lightweight like me, the idea of a pub crawl along the high street is starting to seem like a possibility at last! I haven't yet tried out the evening fayre at London Velo cafe at the top end of the high street - their beer offering did not look too hopeful when I was last in there - but I am going to try and get sample it sometime soon.

However I've tried the Waiting Room's Friday and Saturday night pop-up bar The Burning Church a couple of times for ales and cocktails. They have commissioned a special Deptford Anchor light blonde ale to sell in the bar - it's rather too light and fizzy for my liking and the bottles I had were thoroughly chilled but apparently you can have it at room temperature if you prefer. It's £3.50 a bottle  and invaluable for keeping the spirit of the anchor alive.

I think the cocktails won me over though - featuring ingredients such as Deptford Dock Gin, oodles of dark rum, and as you might expect for a pop up bar in a coffee shop, lots of cocktails with espresso-based liqueurs and coffee husks. As you might expect in the Waiting Room, made with loving care and a bit of ceremony but not the ridiculously flash and long-winded performance that you get in those pretentious joints.

(Photo: Waiting Room)
Sure, it's a tiny place and you can't get more than a dozen or so people in there without it getting pretty cosy, but it's been pretty laid back when I've been in, and there's always the tables outside on the pavement if it's not British summer weather! Open till 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays, they also serve their veggie and vegan food in the evenings - a useful alternative to the Job Centre kitchen hijack which is not always very veggie-friendly.

*Incidentally I did notice last weekend that the White Swan was undergoing a bit of a refurb, although I didn't see any sign of hand pumps appearing on the bar so not wildly optimistic about that.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Convoys Wharf - homes at last!

I've been planning to write a post about all things Convoys Wharf for the last couple of months; events last weekend have finally given me the nudge I needed to actually get on with it.

Having spent years moaning on about how this site should be redeveloped to provide more than just unaffordable and slightly-less-unaffordable housing, I am delighted to report that it's currently providing free housing for a group of travellers who pitched up at the weekend. 

Eleven caravans and their occupants arrived on the site and set themselves up next to one of the big remaining warehouses - this picture on Twitter taken by a resident of Paynes & Borthwick tower on the east side of Convoys Wharf is also a good indication of the scale of the site.

(Photo courtesy @insyncbody)
A day or so later they had relocated to the inside of the warehouse. I guess those doors just swung open in that windy weather we had. 

(Photo courtesy @insyncbody)
The gates on Grove Street are now wide open and the site has officially been declared a home by its current residents.

The guards sit impotently outside, unable to impede anyone from entering or leaving and it seems there will be no change on this for a couple of weeks at least; a new poster stuck on the gates next to the occupants' declaration of residency gives notice of a hearing at Woolwich County Court on 24th July. 

The ticking time-bomb of our capital's housing crisis - which the Mayor of London seems to think will be adequately addressed by allowing developers to build overpriced apartments while shirking any responsibility for housing our low-paid key workers - provides a sobering backdrop to this kind of shenanigans. While some people may prefer to live in caravans, there are an increasing number who are forced to do so out of financial necessity and a lack of options. The number of people living afloat long term is also booming - a few years ago the canals of east London were largely deserted; now they are lined for miles with craft of all shapes, sizes and states of repair which serve as homes for our city's residents. 

I'm sure this is only a minor and temporary thorn in the side of site owner Hutchison Whampoa, but the past 18 months have raised ongoing questions about their intentions for this land.

You may remember that the company demanded the Mayor of London call in the planning application because they were annoyed at Lewisham Council 'taking too long' to consider their proposals. It's a huge site and a very significant piece of land for this borough, being the majority of our waterfront, even before you consider the historical context of the Royal Dockyard, Sayes Court Garden, Pepys and John Evelyn. Hutchison Whampoa's complaint that the council's planners were doing their job thoroughly and carefully says a lot about this developer as an organisation.

So with planning permission granted by the Mayor of London in March last year, and the section 106 agreement finally signed this March, Hutchison Whampoa must be firing on all cylinders, getting mobilised to get moving on this development they've been planning for so long, right?


In the four months since the S106 was signed (and almost 18 months since they received the go-ahead for their outline application) not a single detailed planning application has been lodged with Lewisham's planning department.

You cannot tell me that a developer with the resources of Hutchison Whampoa is unable to work up detailed planning applications in that amount of time. By the volume and extent of their protestations to Boris, you'd think they had the detailed plans all set out and ready to unleash two years ago!

Perhaps HW will try and put the blame on the community projects Sayes Court Garden and The Lenox Project, but the truth is that neither of these schemes is located in the east end of the site, which is scheduled for the first phase works.

In fact I understand that yesterday's planned site visit to Convoys Wharf - on the very first day of the somewhat-controversial feasibility study for the Lenox Project - descended into farce, with the assessor and his team first denied access and then granted it and then eventually denied it again by HW. With the customary lack of manners that reports suggest have been consistent throughout the last couple of years' negotiations, HW staff didn't even bother to attend.

The continued lack of any progress on the site in the face of the demand for intervention, surely begs the question, who's yanking whose chain? Presumably Boris doesn't give a shit that he's been made a fool of over this - he'll be off next year and handing over the reins of (considerable) power.

We, on the other hand, are back to waiting. Good luck to the current residents of the site - at least someone has a home for now.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Wharves planning application

A planning application for redevelopment of 'The Wharves' - the land bounded by Grove Street, Dragoon Road, Evelyn St and Oxestalls Rd - was submitted last month and documents are now available online (search here for reference 92295 but beware there are 454 documents, some extremely large and the system seems to fall over now and again).

The applicant Lend Lease has provided smaller versions of some of the documents on its website with a carefully-chosen range of visualisations, but for the full story and detail, you will of course have to suffer the grim trawl through the documents yourself.

As you may recall, outline planning permission for the site was granted back in 2011 - I'd written about the original plans with some enthusiasm (by my standards at least!) considering the plans to reinstate the route of the Surrey Canal as a water feature, the retention of the Victoria pub and the mix of uses on the site, with a new facility being built for tenant Ascot Cabs to retain a relatively large-scale business and employment centre.

Scroll forward a few years - Ascot Cabs presumably got bored of waiting for the developer to get moving on the project, and decided to decamp elsewhere - and new owner Land Lease began consultation on a new application.

Despite the touchy-feely marketing schmooze I was not impressed by their revised plans. Increased housing density, higher blocks, potentially triple the parking spaces and the loss of the water feature and the Victoria pub.

There was another period of 'consultation' and presumably additional negotiation and meetings with Lewisham's planners, and I have to admit to being - while I won't go as far as pleasantly surprised - unexpectedly relieved at the final outcome.

Final proposals - shown with Convoys in the background

Of course I know damn well that the only reason they ramped the towers up to 30 storeys in the interim period was so that when they brought them back down to 24 storeys, in our relief we'd forget all about the fact that they were originally a maximum of 18 storeys.

Nevertheless they've still managed to shoehorn another couple of hundred dwellings (now 1,132) onto the site, by a combination of the two tallest towers having six extra stories dumped on top, and by playing around with the heights of the blocks on the rest of the site. It's not all up though, the lowest buildings have been reduced to three storeys rather than four.

I always have to allow myself a wry smile when I read the blurb that justifies the increase in height of residential blocks (aside from the obvious reason, being to make more money).

For example:
"The significance of the Surrey Canal Way is marked by raising the massing of some of the buildings along its length. The location of these buildings has been chosen to allow the greatest amount of light into the public space of the Surrey Canal Way, and so these are predominantly on the east side of the space. The diversity of building height adds character and interest to the long elevation of the canal, whilst marking it as an important space and route." 

Like any casual observer at ground level would either (1) notice that these blocks were several floors higher or (2) equate that to a situation in which they consider the route to be more significantly marked with buildings of 12 storeys than of 7 storeys.

The application that has been submitted is a 'hybrid' application - as well as covering the outline planning permission for the whole site, it includes detailed design for the first two phases. This is reassuring as it suggests that the work will actually get going when/if permission is granted rather than continuing to lie derelict.

The first phases will be the side facing Grove Street (purple on the plan) and the corner of Evelyn St/Dragoon Way (hatched green). The light green area is the second phase and the red area will not be developed until they have actually managed to buy the land off the current owners!

The other bits of the application that I was happy to see had been reinstated were the intention to retain the Victoria pub on Grove Street - reportedly in a parlous state but still worth saving in my opinion - and the reinstatement of a water feature along the route of the old Surrey Canal.

The pub - which in the scheme that gained planning permission was set to be retained and restored - was potentially going to be demolished by Lend Lease. But it's now being retained and is intended to be brought back into use as a pub.

The water feature had been included in the original scheme but Lend Lease had wanted to ditch it in favour of a 'linear park' (grass, some bushes and seats) claiming all sorts of silly things about unsuitability, danger to children etc etc. One of my favourite bike rides is through Surrey Quays and along the route of the old canal, which has been restored as a shallow water feature with bridges, nesting platforms for water birds, and reeds. I had hoped that Deptford might get something along similar lines.

I'm happy that a water feature has been restored, although it's more footbath than canal, but will still offer some kind of memory of the original purpose of the alignment.

Water feature restored as footbath
Another change that makes sense is that the building adjacent to the old canal bridge on Evelyn Street has been repositioned and its footprint changed from a linear block to a 'y' shape. I continue to hold out hope that some day, the route under the canal bridge on Evelyn Street could be restored as a cycle and pedestrian link, which would make utter sense and provide a safe and easy link across this busy road. With the pedestrian link set to be restored under the Oxestalls Road bridge, this route could make the site properly permeable and would also provide excellent walking and cycling connections towards Canada Water and in the opposite direction to Deptford, New Cross and Surrey Canal Road.

Plan of the site showing y-shaped block in bottom left corner
Rendering of the y-shaped block which is intended to house retail, offices and cafes
Evelyn St is over the wall on the right; the Y-building on the left
Public realm (The Yard) around the Y-building
The renderings of the main blocks are pretty muted and quite calming (although I do think the balconies shown on the renders below seem awfully over-done and very ugly from below, which is after all where most people see them from)

Rearing blocks over Dragoon Road
View from Pepys Park across Grove St
As is the norm with developers renderings, they don't tend to show neighbouring properties in any great detail, if at all, since they want to eliminate any real idea of scale. On the picture above you can just about see the two/three-storey houses along the east edge of Pepys Park on Leeway on the bottom left if you click to enlarge the picture. 

As usual the plans also make the development look very green - but although there's a lot of green space shown, the vast majority of this is provided as 'semi-private' space. That means podium parks built at second or third floor level on top of the private residents parking, and only accessible to residents. At street level you'll be looking at buildings. 

The purple bits are all the 'semi-private' (residents-only) parks
If you want to know how it's going to impact on the surrounding views, I've picked out a few of the images that the developer is obliged to create, but that tend to get buried among the planning documents. They have to represent not only their own development, but also any others nearby that are being taken forward (in this case, the most obvious is Convoys Wharf, which is shown on the some of the river views).

View from Grove Street with Riverside Youth Club in the centre
View from Deptford Park
View along Evelyn Street
View from Grove Street near Sayes Court Park
View across Pepys Park now
View across Pepys Park after phase one
View across Pepys Park with whole development shown
View from the north side of the river showing Convoys Wharf towers - the proposed Wharves development is behind it outlined in colour
View from Greenwich foreshore showing Convoys Wharf towers
Overall I will be happy to see this plot of land being developed - for years it has been the site of some quite heavy industrial stuff, not necessarily a bad thing per se, but many of the breaker yards were appalling neighbours and caused ongoing problems with parking, traffic and danger to pedestrians on Grove Street, not to mention the noise, dust and pollution.

It's a shame the other more responsible employers no longer remain although presumably the developer expects them to be replaced by retail jobs, offices etc.

As with so many developments now, the biggest scandal is the very poor ratio of anything approaching 'affordable' housing, not to mention the 'viability' conditions that underwrite everything that's proposed by the developer. In this case the developer is proposing up to 237 units, which is about 21% - while this might be better than other developments nearby, such as Convoys Wharf, there's still time for it to be revised downwards over the period of the work, as it's all conditional on the 'subject to viability' clause.

Here's how it works:
  • Each council has a set target for 'affordable' homes which is worked out depending on its own particular circumstances (in Lewisham's case this is 50% 'affordable' with 70% social/affordable rent and 30% 'intermediate')
  • Developer submits a confidential viability report which almost inevitably claims that it 'can't afford' to provide the target number on this site.
  • Developer proposes a lower number of units.
  • Council generally has to agree.
This excellent article by Oliver Wainwright in the Guardian last week takes a look at the arguments that developers use to back up their case - in figures that are rarely seen by anyone except council officers and those councillors who sit on planning committees (and not always the latter). 

It's in the developers' interest to make a generous estimation of their costs, while being cautious on  the sale value of the properties (or omitting to account for rising sale values over the period of the build, which could be up to 10 years or more). The figures often build in a healthy profit margin for the developer of up to 25%. As Wainwright points out, these are all perfectly legal. 
In some cases the viability figures are challenged - not always by the councils, sometimes it's left to pressure groups or individuals to do so - and after a number of high-profile cases it seems that councils are now starting to investigate ways in which they can force developers to increase the percentage of 'affordable' units they include. 

You don't have to read far into the article to see a familiar name - Lend Lease, the developer of the Wharves, is also behind the Heygate estate's transformation into 'Elephant Park'. While much of the sorry story relating to Heygate seems to be down to the council's ineptitude/lack of due diligence, the article examines whether the figures in the developer's viability statement stack up to anything of substance. It makes an interesting read, not least in the context of the potential for the Wharves. 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Laurie Grove Baths planning application

At last! A planning application to get excited about! 

Goldsmith's College has submitted a planning application for conversion of the old water tanks and service areas of the listed Laurie Grove Baths into a new gallery space.  The initial plans were revealed last year, and the design by Assemble Studio and Alan Baxter & Associates has just been submitted to Lewisham Council. 

The Grade II listed building is currently used by the college as studio space - the application includes the history of the baths, which date from 1898, and some old photos of them in use as well as photographs showing how they are being used today. I've never been in the building and it's great to see that many of the old features still survive, such as this gorgeous tiling. 

This space does not form part of the current application - it is the buildings at the back of the pools, which formerly housed the water tank and service areas, that will be stripped out and converted into new gallery, performance and public space. 

A number of new gallery spaces will be created, including one in the old water tank, and the building will be opened up to provide a double-height project space at the centre. The bare brick and retention of the steel water tank walls and original pipework will help retain its industrial feel and link to its original purpose. There will be a series of basement spaces suitable for video works or performance.

According to the application: The central gallery is a tall and generous room space which is naturally lit with a central lantern. The ceiling of exposed trusses make it suitable for hanging work. This space is visually connected to the new corner gallery, which is lit with a clerestory window. You then move through to the darker, powerful space of the existing tank, where a new roof with one-sided clerestory has been added to improve the volume and light quality of the space. In the final tank the existing temporary roof will be removed. This is the culmination of a sequence of top lit spaces, progressing from dimly lit basement, to the new insertions, finally to a raised courtyard open to the sky. A new secondary staircase creates a parallel dynamic at the other end on the building. Visitors emerge on the first floor landing which creates access both to the curator’s office and to a bridge which leads into the Lantern Gallery. 

Corrugated cement board coloured turquoise to complement the tiling inside the building will be used on some parts of the exterior.

The intention is to open out the buildings at the back, creating a new entrance to the gallery space and connecting it to the rest of Goldsmith's. Access will be via a cobbled bridleway along the side of the baths.

I'm really rather looking forward to seeing this built!