Friday 31 December 2021

Birds Nest pub threatened in Creekside redevelopment proposals

When plans for residential development at 1 Creekside (now at its final construction height) were going through the planning process a few years ago, there was great consternation among regulars of the Birds Nest pub and local musicians about whether future residents might object to disturbance from the gigs and all-day festivals that it is famous for. 

View along Reginald Road SE8, existing Birds Nest pub to right

Many were worried that complaints from neighbours might undermine the viability of the pub as a night-time music venue - a petition signed by 2,300 people objecting to the plans was submitted along with a number of personal objections. In response Lewisham's planning department used the 'agent of change' principle to try and pre-empt such threats - this policy places the onus on the developer of a new building to incorporate sufficient sound insulation to protect new residents from noise nuisance and to make them aware that they are moving in/buying a property next to a music venue. 

Unfortunately this won't offer any protection to the building from the most obvious threat - the aspirations of its current owners. They have published outline plans of what they intend to do to the building and its adjacent land - as part of the requisite community consultation process - and are inviting feedback from the public. 

The plans cover not just the pub, but the 'beer garden' out front, the land alongside which is currently home to The Deptford Bus and the plot behind the pub at 2 Creekside where a collection of converted shipping container units huddle behind the brick wall in the shadow of the DLR viaduct.  

Fantasy view along tree-lined Reginald Road SE8; redeveloped Birds Nest pub to the right

They propose to almost entirely demolish the Birds Nest, retaining only its facade, behind which a new building will be constructed, which will have a pub at ground level and residential units above; new construction to the south overlooking the creek, and a long block to the east, facing onto Creekside. 

Naturally the consultation site is light on factual info (plans, sections, specifications etc) and is more about marketing than genuine communication; as such it's difficult to extract reliable information even from the exhibition boards which you are tucked away here. And while the website states that this 'mixed use' development will incorporate 31 residential units, the project listing on the architect's website suggests it could be significantly more. 

At ground level the building at number 2 Creekside will have 'flexible' commercial spaces which the developer claims will attract new creative industries to the area - similar perhaps to those that came and went rapidly from the repurposed shipping containers, only a couple of which continue to be occupied. 

The area behind the block is earmarked for communal gardens, to be shared between the residents and the boating community - being within the exclusion zone of the DLR viaduct there is not much else that the land could be used for. On the plus side, it seems the landowner has grudgingly acknowledged the boat dwellers as a relevant factor in the planning process; I understand that discussions are under way between the two parties to seek a permanent solution to retain their residential amenity and right to occupy the wharf.

Leaving aside my opinions about the conversion of low-quality 'creative' space to 'flexible commercial space' and land allocated to employment use being built over with mixed-use developments, there are two key issues which I find deeply problematic with these proposals. The first is the loss of the building itself, and the second is the potential impact on the viability of the pub and its contribution to the local live music scene.

The pub was formerly known as the Oxford Arms and the site also had a theatre, hence the name Theatre Wharf

In the Creekside Conservation Area Appraisal, published by Lewisham Council in 2012, the Birds Nest was described as 'a key building within the area' - in a list that also features APT studios, the railway lifting bridge, the listed railway viaduct, Mumford's Mill, the pumping station and St Paul's Church.  

"It is an elegant Victorian building with a canted bay turning the corner. The pub frontage on the ground floor is rendered and has large modern timber windows subdivided into small panes. The upper floors have timber sash windows and red brick dressings and pediments.

A pub existed in this location by the early 19th century, known as the ‘Oxford Arms’. Next to it was the old Deptford Theatre which run successfully from the mid 18th century to 1840. After a period of decline, it closed in 1860 and became a coal depot. It was demolished in the early 20th century and in its place Theatre Wharf created. Today’s pub keeps up the tradition by having a small theatre space."

The developer's claims that the retention of nothing but the facade, pasted onto the front of a larger modern building, shows 'respect' for the conservation area cannot surely be given any credence? It is nothing but vandalism, pure and simple. 

The building may be run down (no obvious maintenance for the whole two years since its purchase by Trac Properties, which has the same directors as developer Artworks Creekside) but surely it is not beyond renovation? A skilled architect could certainly devise a solution that truly respects the existing building and develops the adjoining land with appropriate sensitivity.

My second concern is impact this proposal will have on the pub itself, not to mention the live music and cultural scene both in Deptford and beyond. The Birds Nest is one of the few pubs in the area that still hosts regular gigs and even day-long festivals, with free entry. Both established and up-and-coming bands feature, and the venue provides a valuable focus for musicians and fans alike. The pub is also loved as a meeting place for Deptford life in all its glory - young and old, from all walks of life and backgrounds. Its unpretentious nature may not conform to the modern gastropub mould, for that's the key to its appeal for many of its customers. And there are plenty modern gastropubs around for those who prefer them. 

As noted above, the site's history also featured a theatre; a performance space was part of the existing pub until 2000 and there is no reason this could not be considered as part of a redevelopment.

The website includes lots of reassuring words about how the developers are working to ensure that the redeveloped pub retains 'its much beloved character, and that its rich music heritage is preserved for current and future residents to enjoy', but in the next breath suggests that the adjoining bus could serve as a replacement pub (and music venue?) during the reconstruction work. 

This certainly raises a whole load of questions about continuity and viability - it seems unlikely that what is essentially an outdoor venue could host the same programme of gigs without causing problems for neighbours, and it also begs the question as to how a much smaller and awkwardly-laid-out floor space can be viable even in the short-term when the existing one is not. In 2020 the Deptford Society applied successfully for the pub to be listed as an Asset of Community Value, to ensure that its importance to the area was officially acknowledged. However this only gives the community the option to intervene if an asset is put up for sale. 

It's worth pointing out that the information on the consultation site is what they call 'indicative' (i.e. you can't rely on it), and the consultation process is only being conducted as it enables the developer to notch up a few Brownie points ahead of the actual planning application. 

Feel free to submit comments but if you want them to count in the planning process you'll have to replicate them once the application is live; also it's probably a good idea to send comments by direct email, rather than using the website form, just so you have a record of what you've submitted. These things have a habit of getting lost and it is always interesting to see how your own comments have been interpreted (or are even present) in the subsequent report. 

View along Creekside towards APT with new mixed use building on the right

Monday 1 March 2021

Albany Theatre garden earmarked for construction in new local plan

Deptford's Albany Theatre and its back garden are earmarked for construction of more than a hundred new flats in the new Lewisham local plan, the document which sets out the council's planning strategy for the next two decades and which is out for consultation at the moment.

The Albany is being put forward for 'comprehensive mixed use development' which would see the theatre retained, but with residential accommodation built above and behind it, including on the rear garden which includes more than half a dozen mature trees.

In happier times, when the cafe at the Albany is open, this garden is probably Deptford's best kept secret for a quiet coffee/beer and sandwich in the sun. It's a little overgrown and has never really been used to best advantage by the facility, but it is a delightful oasis of calm especially on the busy market days we hope to see return again soon.  

If the draft plan is adopted, it will formalise the plans that the Albany has been talking about for more than a decade now - most recently in February last year. 

While there is no planning application yet submitted for the Albany, having the land included as a 'site allocation' in the local plan essentially enshrines the case its development and sets out the density and type of development that the council would support within the boundaries.

According to the document, the Albany site on Douglas Way is suitable for up to 102 residential units on an area of land measuring just over 0.6 hectares. 

You can get an idea of the kind of density this represents by taking a look at the development that is just nearing completion on Amersham Vale opposite the police station. This has 120 residential units on around 0.7 hectares, which doesn't include the small park adjacent to it and also doesn't have to accommodate a theatre and 'town centre' uses at ground level. 

In consultation up to now, the Albany has said it will retain 'outside space' in the development, but it seems unlikely there will be room for anything like the size of what's there now.

The Albany land is just one of 18 'site allocations' being proposed for the North Lewisham area, which covers Evelyn and New Cross wards. The majority of those listed have been in the pipeline for at least a decade but the Albany is one of a number of new sites, alongside several which have been planned for redevelopment but which the revised document proposes can accommodate increased density of development. 

I'll be writing more about the draft local plan in the coming days, but if you want to comment on it I suggest you start reading now - the full consultation document is 870 pages long, it's one of a number of documents, and you only have until 11th April to comment. 

You can either submit your comments via the Commonplace platform that the council uses for a lot of its consultation, or you can just download the documents from the council website or Commonplace, and send your comments in by email or post. 

The council is also holding a series of 'information sessions' on Zoom for which registration is necessary - those focussing on the borough-wide issues have already taken place although the recordings are being uploaded to a YouTube channel here and the slides are available on the Commonplace website here.

Sessions focussing on the five 'character areas' of the borough, which include the specific site allocations, run over the next few weeks and require advance registration. Just in case you fancy a bit more screen time in between work and home schooling. 

Tuesday 26 January 2021

Plans to build on Charlotte Turner Gardens dismissed at appeal

Another case I reported on last year - the application to build a three-storey block of flats on the former Blusher's pub site on McMillan Street - has just been dismissed by the Planning Inspectorate after the applicant took Greenwich Council's decision to reject it to appeal. 

Proposed block of flats on McMillan St

According to the inspector, the main issues were the effect of the proposed development on: 'the character and appearance of its surroundings, and on the living conditions of neighbouring and proposed occupants with particular reference to light, visual impact, privacy and space standards.'

He added: 'The proposed block, in view of its scale, location and visual context, would be crammed onto its site and would appear over-dominant, impinging harmfully on openness and obliterating the pleasant views into the park enjoyed by passers-by, whether on foot, cycle or in cars. To my mind, the development’s intrusive nature would represent the antithesis of good quality urban planning and would case unacceptable harm to the well-balanced townscape that such planning has achieved.'

Although the internal floor area of the flats did meet current requirements, the inspector also noted that within the layout, too much of the space was dedicated to circulation rather than living area, so it would not create a 'high quality' living environment.

This will no doubt be a huge relief to those who would have been directly impacted by it, and from a planning and green space point of view, I think it was the right decision. It's unfortunate that, for reasons I set out in my blog post last year, it is likely to have implications for the work and funding of local charity Midi Music Company.

Sunday 24 January 2021

Proposal for Noah's Ark reconstruction

Draft proposals for the reconstruction of number 229 Deptford High street (the former Noah's Ark pub) have been made public this month for public consultation.  

The move comes more than a year after I initially reported that an attempt to demolish the structure while full-height hoardings were in place was halted when a local resident reported unauthorised activity to the council. 

Since then the building has stood as a semi-derelict and unsightly reminder of the fragile status of Deptford High Street's conservation area designation. 

The site, at the northern junction of the high street with Creek Road, is adjacent to the Grade II listed building 227 Deptford High Street and the former pub building that occupied it - the Noah's Ark - was considered a key 'gateway building' to the conservation area. 

Listed building number 227

After the pub closed, the ground floor was converted to office space and it was used by a firm of solicitors for some years. But subsequently an application was made to divide the existing building up into 11 single-person bedsits/studios with very poor quality accommodation - under permitted development rights as I understand it - and a further application to stick a two-bed apartment on the top in an extension was approved in 2019. 

To say the site has a chequered planning history is an understatement. 

The latest proposals - and it's worth noting they are only proposals, essentially a series of renderings with minimal detail - see an attempt to replicate the structure that was originally torn down, albeit with the addition of a mansard roof. 

View from the high street looking north

According to the website, the ground floor will be brought back into use as two commercial units (not a pub sadly) and the upper floors will provide five residential units of one and two bedroom size. One floor plan is shown on the website but there is no detail of the other four although the website does state that the basement will be retained for use by the commercial units.

The website also notes that the ground floor facade will 'retain and repair any remaining historic fabric' - there's not much of it left by any account, but it seems right that this is the least that the developer could do. 

It's interesting to see on the website that they are sticking with their original story that the building 'became unsafe' during the renovation works and had to be demolished 'for the safety of the public' on the advice of 'structural engineers'. 

Notably the latest version of the story is rather at odds with what actually happened. According to the website the full height hoarding had to be put up 'as part of this emergency work' - locals will recall that the building had been wrapped up for some time and demolition work had been ongoing before the scale of it became apparent. The planners had not been notified of this 'public safety' issue, nor the extent of what was going on behind the hoardings, and once they were aware, issued immediate instructions for it to stop. 

The general public is being invited to comment on the plans via the website - feel free to do so but don't forget that what actually matters is what's in the detail of the planning application. It may or may not align with what you see online. It's all very well to be wooed by some renderings, the developer's statement and one floor plan, but none of it is legally binding till it's on that planning portal - and even then it may be subsequently revised.

One important question remains - what legal action is being taken against those responsible for the destruction of Deptford's heritage?

I'll hazard a guess that there won't be any. It seems to me that the council has traded off the threat of legal action in exchange for cooperation from the developer/owner of the site. I assume they have no appetite for legal action which could be costly and be unlikely to resolve the loss of the building for years. Whether the outcome would have been different had the site been elsewhere in the borough - Blackheath for example - is difficult to say.