Saturday, 1 March 2014

We need to talk about Crystal Palace

It would appear that those behind plans to 'rebuild' Crystal Palace have underestimated levels of interest. The Mayor of London's office, Bromley Council and consultants Arup hosted a day long 'drop-in' event for local communities to hear an update on plans to redevelop the top terraces of the park, on the site of Joseph Paxton's original building. But, with a talk scheduled for 11.30am, the doors of the meeting room at the Lodge - inside a modern tower within the park - had to be closed as it was already bursting with at least a couple of hundred people (indeed, I only managed to squeeze in waving a toy to give to my wife to keep our daughter entertained!). 

While the planners may have the best of intentions, the event didn't seem to satisfy most attendees. There wasn't an enormous amount to update as there remains a lack of information and detail as to what is really intended. And, significantly, there was not, as far as I was aware, a representative from the Zhong Rong group, the Chinese firm who are eager to pay for the £500million redevelopment.

As soon as James Lough, associate director of Arup, began his speech, he was interrupted by challenging questions:

'Where is the brief for this? There is no brief that says, we want this. You don't have a brief you don't have a concept. You have got six disparate firms of architects, how can they come with a concept for Crystal Palace?

'A lot of us were under the impression that the Chinese organisation were going to rebuild Crystal Palace. A lot of us thought this would be according to Paxton's own design and now it seems that this in fact something completely different.'

Another lady exclaimed: 'We don't buy it, it's a sham and it's shameful.'

Mr Lough did his best to respond. The brief 'is being developed for the competition and the project'. Yet, it is clear the six short-listed firms have not been set any parameters within which to work. This is their opportunity to show off with flamboyant designs that will never be built.

The new building, Mr Lough admitted, 'isn't going to be a slavish adherence' to Paxton's design as that was of its time and the new building will have to conform modern building regulations.

An ambitious timetable was laid out. From the six firms, three will be selected later in Spring to submit more detailed - and presumably realistic - proposals, with the winner chosen in the Summer. Assuming all goes smoothly in planning (!), work would commence in winter 2015 with the final building opening in 2018.

There is nothing firm about what might be in the new palace, though the questionnaire they have distributed gives an interesting insight into what the local community thinks.

Would you like to see a new Crystal Palace developed in Crystal Palace Park?

Yes - 54% No - 19% Not sure - 28%

What uses would you like to see in the new Palace?

                                           Yes          No
Hotel                                    32            45
Cinema                                 52            31
Museum                               86              7
Art Gallery                           85              8
Shops                                    25            52
Artist studios                        72            12
Restaurant/cafes                  81            13
Conference facilities            44            33
Viewing platform                  85              7
(The above figures are estimates. The only precise percentage given was for the 'yes/no' question, all the other figures are my interpretation of block graphs. I'm happy to be corrected)

A world class hotel is a crucial aspect to any development of this scale so the hostility to this is already striking. There is also strong opposition against the venue hosting shops. The backers say they will not compete with what is already available in Crystal Palace, but it's hard to imagine this project going ahead without shops, bars and restaurants.

The Q&A afterwards developed something of theme. There were repeated complaints about the failure to alert people about the exhibition, though I did wonder if this was perhaps a bit unfair; while I only found out the night before, the event was packed and I gather the later, similar, meeting was heaving too.

Were other councils being involved? Yes, but none were there at this session. They are being kept updated apparently. It is significant that, while Bromley Council control the park, those most affected do not live in the borough.

Concerns were raised over the funding of the project; how could it be guaranteed that the Zhong Rong Group would be committed to the project for the entire course? And what about the potential sale - the 'privatisation' - of a significant proportion of the park? A representative from the council said lawyers were already looking to securing funding and they would ensure open access to land is guaranteed for the future.

I don't want to give the impression there was only opposition to the scheme. It clearly has robust support. One man described it as the 'most exciting' of the various schemes he had seen over the 30 years he had lived in the area. Another called for prominent water features to be part of any new development, reminding the gathering how the park's fountains had once been the size of Nelson's Column.

The fountains of Crystal Palace
But overwhelmingly, there was a feeling of frustration at the lack of detail. Labour London Assembly Member Val Shawcross asked about the footprint of the planned building, saying it appeared to be way beyond was what allowed - presumably based on the current artist's impression which sees the an enormous structure covering spots like the bus station. The answer was no limits had been given to the architects to give them as much freedom as they needed to come up with their design. When Ms Shawcross begged for consultation to 'be cranked up' she was met with a round of applause.

The redevelopment of Crystal Palace has been dogged for decades by politics at all levels; local, council level, regional and in government. Indeed, I have heard the various Crystal Palace groups compared with the People's Front of Judea. Consultation so far has been dogged by a lack of information. Arup made no guarantee that the planning brief will be made public but they are looking at opening a shop in the Crystal Palace Triangle to try and keep people more directly informed. Perhaps that will help.

Those behind the project will surely hope so. The scheme will only have a successful outcome with careful negotiation. There is a vocal body of opposition which will only get stronger and louder if the current inadequate state of affairs continues.

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