Public only get to peek in at the uncertain Palace plans

CROYDON COMMENTARY: Nearly a year on since Boris Johnson stood on the terracing of the old Crystal Palace to announce a £500 million “investment” and the handing over of a significant chunk of public property to a Chinese developer, there’s still a lack of clarity, even secrecy, over intentions for the historic site, ANDREW PELLING writes

Arup, the architects who are acting as the planning co-ordinators for a rebuilt, full-sized Crystal Palace, will have a clear message for the ambitious developer, Ni Zhaoxing, after Saturday’s consultation event.

Joseph Paxton, the designer of the original Crystal Palace, looks on - disapprovingly? - at the old terraces and the Chinese scheme to build on the neglected site

Joseph Paxton, the designer of the original Crystal Palace, looks on – disapprovingly? – at the old terraces and the Chinese scheme to build on the neglected site

The consultation was overwhelmed with people unable to get into the public meeting, with some left craning their necks to catch an occasional word while they stood outside the fire escape or the only door to the room.

The message for Ni’s ZhongRong Group is that residents in the five south London boroughs that nestle around the historic site demand to be given proper input into the future of their Crystal Palace Park.

James Lough, associate director at Arup, said that Ni is “a man of vision”.

But it was unclear what the “vision” is, beyond an exciting prospect that a whole life-sized recreation of Prince Albert’s and Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, that would rise from the ashes of the 1936 fire that destroyed the wonder of the Victorian age.

The brochure from October last year, reissued at this consultation in the names of Ni, London Mayor Boris Johnson and Stephen Carr, Bromley Council’s leader, provides computer-generated images of a glass palace that looks very much like an airy airport terminal that is bathed in light. Paxton’s original Crystal Palace was in many ways an inspiration for such imaginings.

This time round, though, there are no specifics about what would go into the new Palace, just a multiplicity of prospects.

A questionnaire seeking views of residents attending offered many prospects. What would they like to have built on their Listed public parkland? A hotel? A cinema (haven’t we been here before?)? A museum? An art gallery? Shops, artist studios, a conference facility, a viewing platform… the list was long and included almost anything you could think of.

And some of the propositions might serve the area well. A conference centre would be a plus for this part of south London and would be complementary for the Upper Norwood Triangle, rather than a competition for the shops there.

The British Museum has long flirted with the idea of a satellite facility at Crystal Palace. A conference facility and a museum would strengthen the argument for better rail links to the beautifully restored Crystal Palace Station, now linked with the London Overground network. It would also make the case for the Tramlink connection to Croydon that Mayor Johnson has now twice promised and twice then withdrawn soon after being elected. The current transport infrastructure to the park and the sadly neglected National Sports Centre have been known for decades to be inadequate for large-scale public attractions.

The lack of definition about what the new glass palace will be used for poses trouble for Arup. “Maybe we are too early, but such is the public interest in the matter that we really need to be out here listening to people,” Lough said. Listening is one thing, acting on what the public might say is another.

The proposal for a cinema raises the hackles of residents who successfully headed off a bid to build a multiplex on the site – an issue that dominated the first London Mayoral election in this part of London.

A vast shopping centre would undermine the heritage-style small and independent shops at a much-improved but still fragile retail area at Upper Norwood Triangle. It would also risk a serious commercial failure if pitched up against the £1 billion Hammersfield scheme in Croydon, which is already more advanced in the planning and development process.

The public consultation, organised by Arup's, drew many more interested members of the public than they could have expected

The public consultation, organised by Arup, drew many more interested members of the public than they expected, with some forced just to peek in on the meeting from outside

Bromley Council’s communications advisor, Andrew Rogers, reassured that his council, which assumed control over the whole of the park upon the demise of the old Greater London Council, does not see the initiative “as retail-led or another Westfield”. There are many who will be grateful for that.

Rogers also said that there is a presumption against residential development on the site, which is a rejection of the approach in a London Development Agency plan that would have improved the park subsidised by modest amount of housing at the top of the hill overlooking the sports centre.

Rogers also emphasises that the land has greater planning protection than when the multiplex was considered, and that with the park being Metropolitan Open Land, permission to develop it would be given “only exceptionally”. But as the London Mayor has shown only recently, granting permission to develop an incinerator at Beddington nature reserve, what Boris Johnson regards as exceptional may not always tally with the public’s view.

Bromley’s role as the keeper of the park has always been a difficult burden for that borough council and the decline of the site reflects another negative of the GLC’s abolition. The outlook of the nearby and neighbouring boroughs such as Lewisham, Southwark and Lambeth rarely match that of Conservative Bromley, which has long been keen to shed the financial burden of the park, and especially the expensive upkeep of the sports centre.

Bernard Weatherill, the former Croydon MP, long complained how Crystal Palace suffered from being at the border of four boroughs and very near a fifth. This is still a curse and complicates the process of political and resident engagement in redevelopment prospects.

Valerie Shawcross, the London Assembly Member for Lambeth and Southwark who is an Upper Norwood resident, is concerned about Bromley Council’s behaviour, the lack of transparency of the process and, perhaps surprisingly, that the developer is not British. “Let’s not forget, this is an overseas private company,” Shawcross said last week.

There are very real worries about just what confidential contractual understandings Boris, Bromley Council and the developer have come to.

Shawcross is concerned that such a large land disposal has been arranged without any competitive tender.

It is notable that the National Sports Centre gets just a passing reference in the brochure. Continued decline seems to be in prospect with the Mayor looking at an educational use, likely an academy near the site, a bit like that proposed at the Croydon Arena.

Development of a prestige site that has been neglected for 78 years argues for a new developer to be embraced with enthusiasm. A new cultural destination would bring jobs and an uplift in local asset values, and probably prompt other private investment.

But still, months after Boris and Ni publicly announced the scheme, the lack of detail about the Crystal Palace development is tempering any enthusiasm, instead nurturing suspicion and losing any chance of generating local support.

  • Andrew Pelling is a former member of the London Assembly for Croydon and Sutton and was a member of the London Development Agency board from 2000 to 2004

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2 Responses to Public only get to peek in at the uncertain Palace plans

  1. davidcallam says:

    How about using the new building for a state-of-the-art sports centre?

    That would allow us to remove the concrete eyesore that currently disfigures the centre of the park.

    • Are you referring to the listed sports hall and pool building, which is regarded as a piece of outstanding 1960s architecture (admittedly, without much competition)?

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