WALTER CRONXITE on how council planning officials have reported that the “Croydon Carbuncle” is a serious threat to the town centre’s historic, 400-year-old almshouses and a Grade I-listed church
Westfield and Hammerson’s sharp-suited executives will have a lot of explaining to do when they come up before the Croydon Council planning committee tonight, where the borough’s residents will discover whether Jo Negrini, recently announced as the council’s interim CEO, is prepared to stand-up to old colleagues she worked with at the Stratford shopping centre development.
The Croydon Partnership – the name adopted for the redevelopment of the Whitgift and Centrale shopping centres by Westfield and Hammerson – last week produced radically altered plans for the now £1.4billion project, barely a year after being given planning permission for a smaller scheme, and following a lengthy publicly funded Compulsory Purchase Order inquiry.
The new plans for central Croydon double the number of homes to be built, and include a single, 3,000-bay car park alongside the tall residential tower buildings, while proposing an IMAX cinema where Allders used to be.
The sweeping scheme changes have created a significant early test for Croydon Council’s Australian-born planning chief, Negrini, who was appointed to her role after she had previously worked closely with Australian developers, Westfield, on their previous major mall, alongside the Olympic Park in Newham.
Council planning officials, from Negrini’s department, have delivered an in-depth summary of the revised proposals which expresses widespread concerns about the size and scale of the buildings proposed. According to a Town Hall source, “It’s rare for officers to place on record quite so many concerns, at such great length, for a scheme which has after all already been granted planning permission.
“There’s a clear sense that there’s a feeling that the developers are pushing hard for a more profitable scheme, and that they reckon they can force the council to accept anything. This regeneraiton has been in the making for so long, and there’s so much at stake, it’s doubtful whether the council will dare to insist on changes.”
“The nine-story blocks along Poplar Walk will dwarf North End and St Michael’s Church,” was one warning about Hammersfield’s revised plans.
“The carbuncle above Allders will dwarf the Whitgift almshouses,” was another.
But with much of central Croydon, its existing businesses, residents and the council hanging on for the promised “benefits” of the Westfield supermall, there are growing fears that the planning committee will bow to the developers’ demands, however hideous.
“I don’t want to stop the development but the increased massing of it is of concern and they’ve got us over a barrel,” one resident intending to attend tonight’s meeting said.
Tonight’s meeting is the first pre-application presentation for the scheme, with another expected in June.
In the report to the committee, council officials state that, “…there are a number of unresolved issues in relation to the latest plans… which do need to be addressed and resolved in on-going dialogue with the developer”.
They highlight that “The current proposals are also indicating the demolition of buildings that were previously to be refurbished, in particular the Whitgift Car Park and the Marks and Spencer store. The proposal also includes additional height in some areas.
“Issues of concern set out in this report include a significant increase in massing proposed in the latest plans and resultant concern as to the impacts of this additional massing on heritage assets in particular, for example as the Almshouses and St Michael’s and All Angels Church, and in relation to the Central Croydon Conservation Area.”
It does not take much reading between the lines of the officials’ report to sense serious disquiet at the way key elements of the original plan, which helped to make it acceptable and be granted planning permission, have now been dropped from the revised proposals.
“Other key principles forming part of the existing approved scheme (such as 24-hour pedestrian east-west route and two secondary east-west routes, high-quality public realm on Wellesley Road and the creation of a vibrant urban block lined with active frontages incorporating residential at upper floors) are also issues which need to be resolved satisfactorily.
“In addition, officers also consider that, at present, the design approach requires further work to demonstrate to articulate [sic] an appropriately balanced and informed relationship between the retail and residential aspirations of the proposal and the wider aims and aspirations for the Opportunity Area and Croydon as a Metropolitan Centre. Continued discussions are required with the developer in this respect to resolve these issues.”
Concerns about the town centre’s few remaining heritage buildings, following the brutalist redevelopments of the 1960s, are also made plain in the officials’ report.
“A clear progression of the commitment to strong place-making and integration of the scheme as a high quality new piece of the town, including an appropriate relationship with affected heritage assets, is key to the acceptability of these latest plans,” the officers’ report states.
Elsewhere, they say, “The approved scheme established a principle of building up the massing towards the Wellesley Road frontage and to step the massing down towards the more sensitive areas of George Street, North End and Poplar Walk where heritage assets and the Conservation Area are located. This approach was supported in the approved scheme.
“The currently proposed scheme results in a significant increase in massing in certain areas. There is concern over the extent of negative impact on heritage assets (whilst acknowledging further heritage impact assessment work is underway in this respect).
“Five floors of car parking are proposed above the retail uses and the additional bulk and massing of these car parking floors compared to the consented scheme is highly visible from certain key viewpoints; there is concern about adverse impacts on the adjacent heritage assets. The car park decks would be located along a north-south alignment, behind the residential uses on Wellesley Road. They would extend north towards Poplar Walk and south, being above the proposed department store at the southern end of the site.
“Officers are of the view that on the plans seen to date the location of the car parking, along with a residential tower of substantial height on the corner of Poplar Walk and Wellesley Road would have a significant impact on the setting of St Michael and All Angels Church, which is Grade I listed. Further discussions and refinement of this element of the scheme is required to determine what an acceptable impact would be when balanced against other planning considerations. This should be done alongside the development of the heritage assessment for the site.”
The site of the Whitgift Centre is, of course, owned by the Whitgift Foundation, who also own and run the 400-year-old almshouses, one of the town’s last remaining links with its historic origins. Could this charitable foundation really be considering allowing the development, as currently proposed, to maximise profits at the expense of Croydon’s heritage?
One reason for the change of plan has been the acquisition for the Hammersfield scheme of Green Park House, an empty office block on the corner of Wellesley Road and Poplar Walk, at the north-east corner of the vast slab of real estate to be redeveloped. Sources in the property business suggest that the vacant office block had increased in value four times over since the Hammersfield redevelopment was first announced in 2012. Its previous owners were: the Whitgift Foundation.
The use of the Green Park House site, close by St Michael’s church, opens up that corner of the site and has prompted a re-think over access roads into the supermall and its car park.
Under the headline “Outstanding Questions and Way Forward”, the report suggests that tonight’s committee meeting should discuss:
- The height of the proposed development and its relationship with the Almshouses, other heritage assets and the impact on other views.
- The height of residential development on the site of Green Park House and its impact on St Michael and All Angels Church.
- The removal of the existing Marks and Spencer building and the form of its replacement in the context of it being assessed as a positive element of the Conservation Area in the Conservation Area Appraisal and Management Plan (CAAMP).
- Changes to the highway layout on Wellesley Road and revised access arrangements, also affecting the layout of Poplar Walk.
- The character and quality of the public realm along Wellesley Road and how the proposals contribute to the creation of a new urban space that signals a step change in Croydon.
- The form of the 24-hour east-west route, including the extent of openness, roof glazing, development above it, its role as an important route within the town centre, how level changes on site are dealt with and the introduction of doors at either end.
- The appearance of the residential element on Wellesley Road and how the retail element appears behind it (including the visual impact of the car park ramps).
- The importance of the roof or “fifth elevation”, the need to minimise rooftop clutter and the integration of amenity and biodiversity.
- Phasing of the development: including the phasing relationship of the retail/leisure and residential elements and the extent to which the two elements will be constructed together, including. the implications for townscape due to any time lag between the retail/leisure element being constructed and the residential element being constructed.
The original plans had provided for between 400 and 600 new homes on the site. The revised scheme wants 1,000 “luxury apartments”, including a 35-storey tower proposed as student accommodation or a hotel, with three other towers with heights varying from 40-45 storeys – almost twice the height proposed in the original plans.
The report cautions: “Careful consideration needs to be undertaken by the developer to ensure that these towers do not coalesce in viewpoints, especially when viewed from the almshouses. The height of the tower on the site of Green Park House (currently proposed at 40 storeys), needs to be carefully assessed in the context of the Grade I listed St Michael’s Church to ensure that there would be no significant detrimental harm on this heritage asset. Further work and discussion with officers is required by the developer in this regard, and further information has been provided by the developer recently.
“Further work is also required in relation to how the heights of the towers relate to one another.
“The additional bulk across the site that is currently proposed by the developer would be visible from most of the viewpoints that have been presented to officers. There are concerns that the scale and form of development in its current iteration would not be appropriate and there is concern regarding the impact on adjacent heritage assets. There is also concern that the bulk, massing and form of development as currently shown may be more led by internal space requirements (for the internal layouts of retail and leisure uses and the car parking), as opposed to the form of development being designed in consideration of and in response to the wider urban context. Clearly an appropriate balance needs to be struck and further discussions will continue with the developer.”
Not only do Hammersfield want to over-shadow heritage buildings, under their latest scheme, they want to demolish others.
“The existing Marks and Spencer building that is proposed for demolition is located within the Central Croydon Conservation Area… This building is considered to be of heritage value and along with other buildings that make a positive contribution to the conservation area, collectively contribute towards the Conservation Area‟s special interest.
“The developer will need to justify why this building needs to be demolished in the interests of the comprehensive redevelopment of the Whitgift Centre (which was discussed at the CPO inquiry) as the planning policy position is that demolition of buildings that make a positive contribution to the special character of the Conservation Area should be resisted,” the report states.
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