With public consultation for the Convoy's Wharf development starting this weekend, it seems a good point at which to consider what can happen during the planning process and perhaps take note of this cautionary tale.
I took these photographs of the construction of Creekside Village West several weeks ago, but have been too downhearted to write about it since. However I think this project serves as a salutary tale of how it doesn't pay to take your eye off the ball, and also shows the importance of demanding renderings at the planning stage which present views of proposed developments in the context of their immediate surroundings.
I've written before about the various ongoing developments in Deptford and its environs. I have not always been kind, but I want it noted that I have no grudge against the construction of new apartments per se. Redevelopment of brownfield land is a sensible policy which can bring derelict land back into use, stimulate regeneration of an area and often provides new housing close to existing facilities. In the case of Deptford there is plenty of old industrial land to spare and I agree that new housing is a good way to use it.
Since taking these photographs, I've been trying to analyse what it is that I dislike so much about this particular development. After all, the Laban excepted, the Creekside Village is surrounded by lacklustre buildings and its location is hardly a heritage hotspot, although in my opinion it should be given special attention considering it's next to Deptford Creek. The other new apartment buildings along Creek Road and elsewhere in Deptford are similarly uninspiring in terms of architecture.
No, the problems with this scheme are multiple.
A. It's huge. Its height is way out of proportion with anything else in the area, even the tower block on the opposite side of the Creek. What you are seeing in construction at the moment is Creekside West, the smaller blocks of the development. Two huge towers form part of the second phase, and there is a tall block at the west end of the Creek Road frontage.
B. It's ugly. Now I realise that this is a rather subjective issue, but I can't help thinking that this big shiny glass box looks more like an office building than a collection of homes.
C. It's not only tall, it's dense. The density of the development was commented on unfavourably during the early part of the planning process by the Mayor of London and Cabe, although it didn't seem to matter so much once the percentage of 'affordable' housing was clarified. What's that? You thought it was just posh apartments for rich city workers? Not a bit of it! Apparently 35% of the units will be affordable, 70% of that social rented.
I find it hard to imagine living in these blocks. Where is my outdoor space? I think those recesses are balconies, but they face north so will not get enough light to grow things or sit in the sun.
What happens if you want to open a window? Even when I lived on the A2 in a noisy flat with no outdoor space there were times when I wanted to feel a breeze, enjoy the first warmth of spring or smell the wet pavements after a summer downpour.
This photo was taken from halfway along Millennium Quay. The blocks are still imposing even from the Thames riverside.
These buildings seem to bear no relation to human scale or living conditions. They tower over the street with their glass facades, looking more like somewhere you go to sit at a computer all day than a place where you would make a home.
They are so close together that neighbours will surely overlook one another and the height of the blocks means that some of the lower windows may never experience direct sunlight, especially during winter months.
At ground level there are public areas which are shown on the renderings in the brochure as having pavement cafes, water features and views over the Thames. With such tall buildings on either side these are likely to suffer a lack of direct sunlight and any wind will be funnelled to ground level (anyone who's been to the public areas in Canary Wharf knows what I'm talking about).
The website has been relaunched since the last time I wrote about this project, but it is still nearly impossible to get a rendering that shows the development in its actual setting (although of course brochures by their very nature are not designed with reality in mind).
If you know the area, the best illustration for showing the scale is this one, and I suggest you click to make it bigger.
Here's the rendering of the Creekside waterfront showing the towers of the east development. The short one on the right is the height of the blocks that are currently being built.
So how did this pitiful situation arise? Surely the residents of Lewisham and Greenwich and the local Deptford creatives were united in their opposition? Surely the councillors on planning committees in our boroughs viewed the renderings and shrunk away in horror? Surely the Mayor of London realised how inappropriate and oppressive the scheme would be?
In the minutes of the Greenwich Planning Board meeting of 31 May 2007 I was surprised to read that representatives of the Laban Centre and Creative Lewisham had supported the scheme. One of the things I had particularly noted about the construction as it progressed was the way it overshadows the Laban Centre completely and encroaches on its architectural presence and landscaping. With its unremarkable and bland architecture I felt sure that the local creatives would be pushing for something a bit more inspiring.
I was surprised, until I read that the east part of the development (not yet started) will include 9,000sqm of space for Trinity Laban, and there will be artists studios and a 'creative quarter' as well, which presumably Creative Lewisham (now Creative Process) will be involved in filling.
The Mayor of London was concerned about the mix of housing - developers can get funding to supply affordable housing since councils don't build their own any more. The Mayor said that the development was too dense and there was not enough affordable housing. By the time he waved it through the issue seems to have been resolved, although from the details of the report I couldn't see much difference other than some new calculations. It seemed that the developer just had to prove that the sums added up and that the cost of remediation had been high, justifying why the scheme couldn't achieve the recommended 50% mix.
The level of energy needed to run such a large development and how sustainable it would be was also questioned, but again it was just a case of the developer having to put something in writing, or commit to exploring alternatives, so that everyone could tick the appropriate box.
Transport for London was worried about the impact the development could have on public transport in the area. What's the solution? Perhaps reduce the number of units to reduce the impact? Oh, a cheque for £250,000 towards the three-car DLR upgrade, £15,000 towards a study into bus priorities on Creek Road and £30,000 towards bus stop upgrades? That'll do nicely thanks! Throw in £500,000 towards a new footbridge over the Creek? Sorted!
CABE expressed concerns about the density and size of the scheme, particularly the high blocks. But after expressing concern, it decided that the local authorities were perfectly capable of resolving the matter themselves and everyone ticked another box.
Concerns about the height and size of the development, its appearance and potential overshadowing were raised by nearby residents, but these were dismissed with comments that they would not experience overshadowing in the summer, and that they should have known about plans to build the tower which had been approved some time ago. The World Heritage committee representative questioned the height of the buildings but this was also dismissed.
One of the reasons this development made it through to approval with very little difficulty, in my opinion, has to be its location. The first phase falls entirely within Greenwich Council boundaries, yet in a remote corner which is barely known about, let alone cared about by the majority of the borough's electorate.
The second phase straddles the boundary, with two of the buildings in Lewisham and the rest in Greenwich. This corner of Lewisham is similarly quite remote and little cared for by most of the borough. It is far enough from Greenwich town centre and World Heritage zone to prevent the conservationists getting worked up about it, yet close enough that it can be marketed as being in Greenwich. Although local residents protested, they were unable to drum up additional support that might have carried some weight - Greenwich being too remote and their heritage organisations disinterested, the Lewisham groups having already been persuaded of the benefits of the scheme by whatever means.
Being on this side of the Creek presumably also offered the opportunity to tap into regeneration grants or at least take advantage of some degree of flexibility in the planning process.
What's more, this position between the two boroughs blurs the responsibilities and creates the opportunity for each side to blame the other for unpopular decisions.
I do hope that proposals for Convoy's Wharf will undergo full and thorough scrutiny - for a start I know that there are strong residents associations in Pepys and Evelyn estates which should be able to offer support for locals, but the rest remains to be seen.