Saturday 10 August 2013

Convoys Wharf revised masterplan planning application

The revised planning application for the Convoys Wharf masterplan (ref DC/13/83358, link here) consists of more than 50 files, some extremely large in size. Just to download them all from the planning portal takes a significant amount of time; but do you have to read them in order to formulate your response?

If you want the quick answer, it's no. The good news is you don't have to read them all. The most important part of the planning application is this sentence:

All matters reserved other than access and the siting and massing of three tall buildings.

Which in layman's terms means that no matter how many pretty pictures are in the planning documents, however detailed they seem, there is ABSOLUTELY NO GUARANTEE that the final development will bear any resemblance to them. This is not a detailed planning application, it's an outline planning application.

The renderings are merely 'indicative' of what might be built, so don't be surprised if what ends up on your doorstep is nothing like the pictures.

So if you are writing an objection to the application*, don't bother focussing on the fact that you don't like the cladding on the towers, or you think that there should be more lavender in the planting of the jetty garden, it's not about that at this stage, it's just about how many square metres of development can be shoehorned onto a sensitive, historical, riverside site. (*the 'nominal' date for comments has long gone, but comments can be submitted right up to the date that the application goes to committee, so there's still plenty of time).

If the planning application gains approval, the only things that councillors will be approving are the maximum density of the development, the access routes into the site, and the positions and heights of the three tall buildings (currently two 38-storey towers and one 48-storey tower).

They are shown on the diagram below, which also shows the proposed phasing (yellow first phase, green second and blue third). This is one of the few 3D images in the application that show the whole development.

Do note how the green expanses of Pepys Park, Twinkle Park and Sayes Court Gardens have been included, presumably because there's precious little green space on the site itself and it looks bad without; note also how the angle from which the digital model is viewed has been carefully chosen so that the two 38-storey towers blend into the surrounding blocks. At risk of repeating an old favourite from previous planning application assessments ad infinitum, there's no other blocks or buildings around the site, even in outline, to show relative heights of the buildings in context.

So that's the quick answer, but you didn't think I'd let it lie there, did you?

I've covered some - but by no means all - of the main issues below, and am planning a couple more posts once I've recovered from the effort of this one!

Back to the planning documents; there's a fascinating host of information in the hundreds - perhaps thousands - of pages, should you choose to read them all. Having waded through a considerable number, I can certainly confirm that the staff of new masterplanner Farrells, appointed after the previous Aedas scheme failed to set anyone's pulse racing, have worked hard for the fee, at the very least in terms of research and report writing.

A huge amount of effort has been put into uncovering the history of the site and its surroundings. But considering the fact that the last masterplan was scrapped because it failed to adequately reflect the internationally-important heritage of this riverside site - the former Deptford Royal Dockyard - I'm not sure the latest incarnation really does any better. In fact you'd be foolish to expect this increased knowledge and understanding of the site to be reflected in any meaningful improvement.

The Aedas masterplan was purely and simply an architect's vision driven by a developer's bottom line. Roads and building arrangements bore little relation to the buildings remaining below ground, neither did they hold any memory of the site's history, and the arrangement of buildings was just a case of cramming as many as possible on the site, with as many river views as could be shoe-horned in.

The pesky Olympia Building in the centre of the site was just something to be built around, and part of the problem with the Aedas masterplan was the extent to which the residential buildings cut off the connection between the boat-building shed, the buried basin, and the river. Without its connection to the river, the presence of the Olympia Building lost all meaning.

In the new masterplan, Farrells took a bold step; they committed to 'put the Olympia Building at the heart of the development'. Which made me laugh really, it sounded so ambitious and earth-shattering. As if they were going to jack it off its supports, put it on huge self-propelled modular transporters, and wheel it somewhere so that it was right at the centre of the site.

There's no need to do that of course, it's already pretty much literally at the heart of the site. But apparently if you draw a big red heart shape around it on an exhibition board, you immediately elevate its status in your masterplan.

In reality, it hasn't been elevated at all - as you can see from the diagram below, which shows the Olympia Building in the appropriately pink 'heart' of the site, its connection to the river is still funnelled meanly between two lines of buildings. There may be a 'mirror pond' proposed in front of the building, which is supposed to reflect (sorry!) the link between the shed and the river, but anyone looking at the site from outside - whether from the river itself, from the opposite bank or from the new riverside walkway, will struggle to see the listed structure.

In his comment on the new masterplan, English Heritage historic buildings and areas adviser Richard Parish makes a point of referring to this 'narrow, glimpsed view' which he said 'fails to make the best opportunity of this prominent and centrally-located heritage asset'.

EH acknowledges that the extent of the visual connection to the river has varied since the building was constructed, but as Parish writes pointedly: 'the current proposal would appear to historically represent the most restricted view'.

The buildings that line the route of this 'narrow glimpsed view', incidentally, are 14 storeys and 10 storeys high. The other 'indicative' heights are shown on this diagram.

Which brings me to density. 

Essentially the density being demanded from this site is the biggest stumbling block facing any masterplanner. Given the reluctance of the developer to agree to any reduction in this figure, the most a masterplanner can do is juggle the sizes, heights and positions of the buildings around the best they possibly can within the other constraints of the site. And clearly, from the results we have seen so far, there simply is not enough room on the site for this much development.  

And of course ultimately it's the density of the development - the number of apartments, retail units, restaurants, businesses, hotels and so on - that directly influences the other impacts of the development. The number of people needing to get on and off the site each day to go to work; the number of drivers needing to park vehicles; the number of commuters needing to catch a train or bus; the number of service vehicles needing to deliver supplies or remove waste, the amount of electricity and water the development needs, the number of school places, medical services and leisure facilities required etc etc. 

Transport is a particular sticking point for this site; its public transport accessibility level is very poor and there's little that the developer can do to improve this. Hutchison Whampoa is proposing to build a new stop for the Thames Clipper riverboat, which is all very well if everyone on the site works at Canary Wharf and doesn't need to do anything else on the way to work like taking kids to school. Other than that, a bus will be diverted through the site - or possibly a new route created, which might be an idea since even the developer's outdated figures suggest nearly 500 people from the site will want to catch a bus during the 8am-9am peak period. A mere 260 will catch the train in the same hourly period, so nothing to worry about there.*

(*get yourself a bike)

The table above and the transport assessment in the application is analysed more thoroughly over on the Deptford Is.. blog, which also addresses potential issues with parking. 

The other thing that Farrells seems to have gone to town on in terms of its 'placemaking' efforts is naming every inch of the site with a maritime, shipbuilding or similar reference. Raleigh River Gardens, Basin Place, Royal Navy Square, Tudor Rise, Old Officer's Row, Royal Caroline Square and so on. I'd be more than happy to support street names with a real link to the history of the site, but from the plans it looks as if this is as far as proposals to acknowledge the site's heritage goes.

I did wonder whether the towers should be given maritime-inspired names - perhaps Sea View for the 48 storey tower? I'm sure you'll be able to see the North Sea on a clear day.

Sea View? 

I've still got things to say about the protected wharf and the heritage-led regeneration projects such as Sayes Court Gardens and the Lenox Project; both of the latter seem to have gained some ground but are still little more than erasable pencil lines in the empty bits of the site that Hutchison is struggling to fill.

As far as the images, renderings and plans in the documents go - the whole communication side of things, which HW hasn't been too hot on thus far - if I had the time and inclination I'm pretty sure I could write a thesis on this. As it is, I might try and find time for a separate post some time soon.

In the meantime I'll merely make a few observations.

On the positive side, at least they seem to have stopped representing the 'podium' gardens (ie those above street level with private access for residents only) as green spaces on the plans. They are shown on the plan below in white. I haven't checked every plan exhaustively, but it's good to see it's at least not standard.

Of course they still include the green spaces around the site on every plan, rendering, image etc. At first glance it makes the plan look very green, but when you give it proper consideration, it merely emphasises the paucity of green space within the site itself and the extent of green space around it - pretty much all of which is publicly accessible.

There are plenty of renderings within the planning documents; all 'indicative' of course although they do show the height and positions of the main towers, so do have a certain value. If you can pick the conveniently-grey buildings out from the grey clouds of course - funny how on this rendering they have chosen grey for the highest buildings and white for the lower ones, with the result that the viewer's eyes are immediately drawn to the lower ones.

The main planning document with the rendered images can be accessed via this link - it's a big file so may take some time to download depending on your internet connection.

Meanwhile I leave you with further renderings of the proposed streetscape* from carefully-chosen perspectives. (*terms and conditions apply)

View from Twinkle Park

Glimpsed view of the Olympia Building; whatever's in the shed* is proving popular! (*still a mystery)

The river front with 'jetty park'; you'll need freakishly long legs to dip your feet in btw.
There's links to further reading below for anyone who wants to give the application serious consideration and offer informed feedback and valid debate in the comment section.

I'm sure the rest of you will just empty your brains there in the usual fashion.

My comment on the public exhibition earlier this year
Convoys Wharf open day and Farrell's 'listening' process

Deptford Is... initial overview of the application
Comment from Estates Gazette about the masterplan (by former Lewisham-Deptford Labour candidate hopeful)
Deptford Is.. response from English Heritage