A public meeting tomorrow at Crystal Palace National Sports Centre aims to outline the plans for a £200m refurbishment – and work is already underway. By STEVEN DOWNES
Early arrivers for a presentation tomorrow about the future of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre will get to see a real statement of intent. The all-weather track, where the likes of Usain Bolt, Dave Bedford and Sonia O’Sullivan all strode to victories in their time, is finally being relaid to make it fit for purpose once more.
There’s much more to be done, of course, to bring what was once the home of British athletics back up to the kind of standard that it deserves, and that current and future generations of sportspeople need. But it is an important start.
The interest in the Palace project is so keen that places on the formal presentation with the project team quickly filled up this week. Another, ad hoc session, has been arranged from 1pm tomorrow (meet at the reception area), for the public to learn more about the redevelopment of the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre.
“Whether you’re a sports enthusiast, a local resident, or simply curious about the future of Crystal Palace, this event is an opportunity to find out more,” said the organisers.
“Join us for an informative session where our team will share the latest updates on the project and answer your questions. You’ll have the chance to meet the project team, connect with community members, and get involved in shaping the future of this historic landmark.”
For 50 years, the Palace was at the heart of British, and world, athletics, staging some of the first international all-star events that were to be the template for grands prix and Diamond League meetings, as well as European and World Cup events, plus other sports including American football, music concerts and even hosting a Papal visit.
The Palace’s decline can most accurately be traced back to the winding up of the old GLC, which had overall responsibility for the sports centre as well as the wider Crystal Palace Park, and them being handed over to Bromley Council. Then came 2012, and the unkept promise from sports officials and politicians that Crystal Palace would become part of the London Olympics’ legacy.
Instead, it was allowed to decay, while Boris Johnson and Seb Coe tried to come up with excuses to bulldoze the stadium (they could never touch the pool and indoor arena: it is a listed building) and hand over a chunk of valuable south London heritage and real estate to a dodgy property developer from China.
The paralysis at City Hall over what to do with the sports centre and, most importantly, how to pay for it, has lasted a decade. The swimming and diving pools were forced to be emptied during lockdown, in dire need of serious repair. The indoor training hall is in a similarly decrepit state. Last winter, the stadium’s floodlights, which had stood since the centre opened in 1964, were declared a safety hazard to the public and hurriedly torn down.
Then some real plans were announced, real money was found and a real appointment was made, with Ben Woods being put in charge of the regeneration programme by London Mayor Sadiq Khan.
The total project cost is reckoned to be £219million, approved by the Mayor in December, with the decision to “upgrade and consolidate” the Grade II-listed main building. Part of the budget – with hefty input from the aforementioned Bedford and his association with the London Marathon – has been earmarked specifically to revitalise the 18,000-seater stadium.
Tomorrow’s consultation session is expected to outline the timetable for how a worn-out stadium with 60-year-old crumbling concrete will, no doubt slowly, be brought back into use.
Woods was part of the team that helped deliver the successful Birmingham Commonwealth Games last year. An architect by profession, with a record of working on sports facilities, Woods has experience from the London Olympic Park, and from 2014 had been the Civil Service’s head of capital projects.
Woods was brought up in Upper Norwood, and he counted himself among the tens of thousands of spectators who used to fill the Crystal Palace Stadium on those halcyon nights of big-time track and field.
In an interview with a small circulation monthly magazine earlier this year, Woods outlined his vision for the restored Palace.
“I swam here, ran on the track and watched events here, so this project is as much to do with my heart as it is my head,” Woods said.
“Even today I live relatively local and bring my kids down around the park. I see such history and potential going forward. It’s the only show in town and we should all strive to see it looking good again.
“The unique thing about Crystal Palace is that the centre is a multi-sport venue and it has a sheer range and depth of sports. We’re focusing on athletics but we also have swimming, the indoor and outdoor sports. You don’t have that anywhere else and it’s right in the heart of London. We have to embrace its uniqueness and this is a world-renowned stadium.
“I went to a few of those Grand Prix meetings dating back to the 1980s. Steve Cram was one of my heroes as a kid and then you’ve got the likes of Merlene Ottey and Michael Johnson in the 1990s up to the Jessica Ennis0Hills. I’d love to get Dina Asher-Smith back here running in this stadium.
“It’s always had that pathway from community to elite sport as well. Even today, we’re not working from scratch. There’s still a lot of fantastic events and a network of clubs and coaches. We have to build from that base.
“There’s no denying that it needs a lot of TLC and major investment. There is capital funding available and we’re not talking about the patch and repair that it’s had over the last 20 or 30 years. We’re talking about comprehensive refurbishment.
“This is a once-in-a-generation chance. We need to get it right when upgrading these facilities.
“The Mayor has the aspiration to make London the most active city and the sporting capital of the world for events. The fact that the GLA owns Crystal Palace means that this is a chance to practice what we preach.
“A team has been built under the GLA and I am a piece of that jigsaw. Consultants have already been brought on board. Funding is in place and now it’s about moving forward.
“People have heard stories and masterplans around Crystal Palace before, so one of the things that I was very keen on was to get started on the early works.
“It’s a complex project. The listed building requires detailed planning permission and that will take a number of years with a contractor on-site.
“In the interim, what can we do around the stadium? We’ve got people training down here but the track is uncertified. Let’s repair it and get it certified. Let’s get the floodlighting back. That’s the visual change that we need to do in the early days.
“In the short-term, can we do things that don’t inhibit what’s going on now but makes life a lot more pleasant for athletes? Yes.
“We’ve got to set a vision for this place. The No1 fundamental point is that athletics is staying at Crystal Palace, come what may. All of this has to be underpinned by a viable business plan and right now we’re in listening mode.”
Discussions have been on-going with floodlighting companies, with the aim of having the stadium available for training during the dark winter months. The re-laying of the track is distinctly a departure from the “patch-and-repair” approach that has done things on the cheap for the last 20 years. Woods talks about “a Class 1, World Athletics track”.
He reckons it could take five years to develop all the centre’s facilities. “The first part of the phasing will be the main centre. We’ve got to get that swimming pool working and making the centre work in a sustainable way. Then we’ll flip to the stadium and then the rest of the estate.
“But are we going to leave the stadium for the next three of four years before the diggers arrive? No. That’s the whole purpose of having short and long-term options. Those short-term options include track certification, floodlighting, the indoor track, the changing rooms and improving the West Stand.
“I don’t want a masterplan sitting on a shelf in five years time. Everything that I have worked on in my career has been built.
“If you were an alien and were dropped into any sports centre in London, Crystal Palace is the perfect one. You’ve got the intersection of five London boroughs. The potential to draw people in here is immense. We’ve got excellent transport links with four lines to central London and the outreach to Kent and Sussex. It’s in the perfect spot.
“It’s not just about the sport but the financial sustainability of Crystal Palace. We want to look back and think we are set here for the next 20, 30, 40 years.”
SAGA OF THE PALACE’S NEGLECT
From 2013: Chinese government has role in £500m Crystal Palace scheme
2014: Coe’s company was given brief to bulldoze sports stadium
2018: Is the bell sounding for the final lap at Crystal Palace NSC?
2021: Mayor Khan agrees to repair Crystal Palace swimming pools
2022: Customers at Crystal Palace stadium could be left in the dark
2023: London Stadium deal could give Crystal Palace new lease of life
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