Community group rejects Crystal Palace plan as “a fantasy”

The leadership of a respected local community group has dismissed the sketchy scheme by a Chinese businessman to build a vast new Crystal Palace over part of the park as “a fantasy”. They have also expressed the fear that while the building scheme seeks planning permission, already agreed and much-needed work on improving the park, funded by a £7.5 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant, will grind to a halt.

A vision of the future: Paxton's original Crystal Palace, photographed at Sydenham before the 1936 fire that destroyed it

A vision of the future? Paxton’s original Crystal Palace, photographed at Sydenham before the 1936 fire that destroyed it

“We should really be looking forward to a new world with new needs and aspirations,” the local community stakeholder group says in an open letter today to Ni Zhaoxing, the chairman of ZhongRong Group who has got the backing of Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, for his proposals.

As we reported earlier this month, the ZhongRong Group’s £500 million scheme to develop a replica of Joseph Paxton’s Victorian steel and glass palace on the site atop Sydenham Hill was announced at a carefully managed press conference, but with community groups barely consulted and physically excluded from the event.

Since then, Ni has sent a message to the community groups. But while he has the support of the London Mayor who has already saddled London with the expensive-to-operate Boris Bikes, has Londoners shouldering the costs of the little-used Dangleway, and left commuters trying to cope with the impractical Boris Bus, the Chinese billionaire does not appear to have won Crystal Palace locals over to his backward-looking project.

The original Crystal Palace, which was moved piece-by-piece to be re-constructed in Sydenham after hosting the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, was burnt down in 1936, leaving a scar above the site of the 180-acre park ever since which has been subject to numerous development schemes, all unfulfilled, often after strong opposition from residents who have resisted attempts to build on the Grade II*-listed park.

Today, Martin Tempia, the chair of Crystal Palace Park Community Stakeholder Group, wrote to Ni, “We appreciate your interest in our park and the possibility of significant investment in its regeneration.

“The biggest concern is that, in reality, not enough is known at present about the detail of your proposition. We have over many years sought to protect the park from overtly commercial development taking up too much green space and also to try and find a way to improve its sad state of repair. We see that your scheme may provide a route to fulfilling both these aims.

“We also appreciate your comments about community engagement and view this as a critical step to improve understanding and to allow us to participate in the development of the detail of the scheme. As your brochure states, a re-imagined Crystal Palace ‘must be owned and loved by the local community’.

“It is true that the Crystal Palace… was a major influence on subsequent architectural practice around the world… Time has moved on and, although there are some people who would like to see the fantasy return, we should really be looking forward to a new world with new needs and aspirations,” Tempia wrote.

“One important concern of ours is that, while your proposition develops into a full-blown planning application, the many smaller projects – not least the important finance of £7.5 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund (and others) – will cease in anticipation of the new investment.

“Efforts to regenerate the park will once again languish and another period of uncertainty will afflict the many participants in these ventures,” the community activist wrote.


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4 Responses to Community group rejects Crystal Palace plan as “a fantasy”

  1. Here we go again.
    Another bunch of self-important busy-bodies attempts to strangle an exciting initiative at birth.
    Crystal Palace is not a local amenity in the sense that a neighbourhood park might be. It is an international exhibition centre set in a prominent position atop the second highest point in Greater London. It just happens to have lost its crowning glory.
    Eight decades after the by-then faded glass emporium was burnt to the ground the name is still renowned around the world, partly due to the many feats of athletic derring-do accomplished at the now equally faded National Sports Centre.
    I don’t much care whether we replace the original building with a replica or a new design (Son of Shard, anyone?); but the site and the regional economy cries out for the prosperity that would ensue from a new convention and exhibition complex.
    It could easily become the best-known facility of its kind in Europe, trading on its historical significance, but it needs our leaders (do we still have any of those?) to grasp the initiative.
    They must address concerns about possible congestion by incorporating novel ways to overcome problems – a tram extension, enhanced train services and local traffic control to minimise queuing from on-site parking.
    Most importantly, they must consign the objections of the small-minded to the dustbin of history. There is no land grab here: the intention is to cover the derelict site of a destroyed exhibition hall with a new building, probably of smaller footprint, and in the process to deliver new life to a down-at-heel public amenity.
    Home Secretary, Theresa May, is proposing to limit the number of appeals allowed to asylum seekers; Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, should consider something similar for planning applications.

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    • A “bunch of self-important busy-bodies”? Really: local residents, who live in an area and take an interest when an international developer comes in and wants to alter their community forever.

      “I don’t much care whether we replace the original building with a replica or a new design (Son of Shard, anyone?); but the site and the regional economy cries out for the prosperity that would ensue from a new convention and exhibition complex”

      The flaw with that proposition, David, as has been shown over decades by the National Sports Centre is that there is not the transport infrastructure to support the staging of major events at the location. We do agree that making better use of the rail links to Croydon and London would help, and we also agree that any developer could, or should, pay for the Crystal Palace Tramlink extension.

      But where a convention and exhibition centre’s road traffic would go is anyone’s guess.
      .
      “Most importantly, they must consign the objections of the small-minded to the dustbin of history. There is no land grab here: the intention is to cover the derelict site of a destroyed exhibition hall with a new building, probably of smaller footprint, and in the process to deliver new life to a down-at-heel public amenity”

      That’s not the case. The detail of the proposal are suspiciously limited, but they do show that the new buildings would extend into the park beyond the footprint of the old derelict site.

      Boris Johnson has a track record of enthusiastically embracing half-cock ideas that end up costing us all a packet: the Dangleway, the Boris Bus and the Boris Bikes. This has all the hallmarks of another such scheme, where we are denied the full details until it is too late.

      Maybe, just maybe, if the new Crystal Palace plans had been discussed with the people who live in the area sooner, the apparent break down in trust would never have happened. Or this “bunch of self-important busy-bodies” might not now think that they are being taken for granted.

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  2. whitgiftavenue says:

    Mr Callam yet again lunges for the wrong end of the stick with both hands. This group of self appointed busy bodies are a sub committee of the CP Park Executive Board. They have been working for two years, often in the face of opposition to promote the Park and initiate a number of projects including, a Job Centre Plus funded training scheme for unemployed 18 to 24 year olds and renovation projects on the Terraces.

    Like most people in this part of South London, they are keen to know what this ‘Development’ will look like, what it will contain and what the consequences for the area business’s and environment will be. They are also beginning to ask to ask why a Chinese billionaire, who trades in ‘conflict’ diamonds, is being given a free run at buying a Grade II listed London Park.

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  3. Goodness: such poverty of ambition.

    If we are to do anything in Crystal Palace Park other than walk dogs we will need to address the roads problem. Fortunately Boris has access to some world-class urban designers who, for all I know, may already be working on a solution.

    I imagine the ZhongRong Group has commissioned the best advisers money can buy, who will doubtless explain that we have strict rules governing the use of designated Metropolitan Open Land. By the time a detailed proposal is forthcoming I’m sure it will comply with planning requirements. Not to do so would simply delay the project further; and time is money.

    Training schemes for young people are always helpful. Apprenticeships are even better; a superb form of further education. I anticipate dozens of them being created during the construction of the new Crystal Palace.

    Once we have detailed proposals to consider I may find myself opposing all or some of them as vociferously as anyone else; to do so at this stage is an overreaction of the most unhelpful kind.

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