6 February 2016

Town centre consultation

Last weekend I caught the tail-end of the Walthamstow Town Centre Consultation event at the Mill. These events are a rare opportunity to understand the scope of the changes simmering below the surface, which you would otherwise only know about from snippets in the local press and on social media, or when hoardings and scaffolding go up. It's also a chance to say what you think. This exhibition shows, not specific proposals by developers, but a masterplan summary of all the sites that are opening up for development. The plan was produced by Cambridge architects Fifth Studio, who produced the information boards on show - they are still available online here, and the feedback form is here. Local consultation is a planning requirement and to some extent it's just a box-ticking exercise, but development on this scale is too important to just sit back and see what happens. The following is more or less what I wrote on the forms on the day.

1. Town Square and gardens, the Mall and library
Proposal: expand the Mall into a substantial part of the the gardens. Demolish the bank to open up a view of the old library and make more open space on that side.
Of course the Mall would like to expand, but reducing the open space is going to be unwelcome. The open spaces work well at the moment, with a nice variety of large and small spaces. This would make the gardens into a neat rectangle, not necessarily an improvement. The side of the library already has a rather nice modern entrance, but opening up the side of the building would probably mean replacing that with a bigger structure to cover the whole side. The playground would of course be relocated, but this sounds very disruptive and would really only benefit the Mall. As an alternative, the garden entrance to the Mall is pretty awful and could be replaced with something modern, perhaps taking in Poundland and going to an upper shopping level, without taking more than a narrow sliver off the gardens.

2. High Street and Market
Proposal: Shopfront improvements.
This has been done to many shopfronts in the borough, and it's generally very successful. Affordability must be the most important factor here, to keep a thriving economy of independent businesses.

3. Hoe Street / High Street
Proposal: New 'luxury' apartments already under way on the Church Hill corner, future redevelopment of the flats and clock tower
The aim here is a cluster of relatively high-rise buildings to go with the Scene, a development that has had a hugely positive influence on the town centre. It's difficult to argue with, as long as the new buildings have retail uses at ground level. Two-storey Hoe Street is going to look increasingly quaint as this kind of development takes off, and eventually no doubt most of it will be replaced. The clock tower is quite a local landmark and I'm not alone in hoping the council be make clear undertaking to preserve it. The wavy canopy is, sadly, almost bound to go. I hope at the very least the Specsavers advertising hoarding will be banished.
4. Station / Hoe Street
Proposal: Replanning the traffic intersection to become a pedestrian-friendly street.
This is an ambitious town planning proposal that is extremely sketchy at present, but would link the two parts of Hoe Street that are currently separated by a sort of mini spaghetti junction. Can only be positive. Although the proposal I've seen for the site alongside the station is appallingly clumsy bit of identikit architecture. It's hard to see why the station itself isn't redeveloped as a proper modern building. At the moment, despite the recent half-baked restoration, it's still a crappy suburban station, hardly the pride of the Victoria Line as it ought to be.

5. Mission Grove
Proposal: Multi-storey blocks of flats, general improvements.
There isn't much to be said about this. The main site for redevelopment is the old cinema on Buxton Road, which is likely to become a tall residential building. I don't know how the planning department decide how many storeys to allow: generally the developers want at least five, which is going to tower above the poor old Warner houses alongside. The council car park is among the sites simply highlighted a redevelopment potential - which should be uncontentious once everyone has seen sense and decide to cycle to the shops.

6. St James Street / South Grove
Proposal: shopfront improvements, massive redevelopment on the car park and industrial estate.
Again, a massive hoarding that should have no place in a decent town centre, and ought to go. Riley's snooker hall is going to be developed as flats but I don't think plans have been submitted. It's a wonderful Art Deco building and surely it will be converted, not replaced. There's a planning proposal for what was called the Morrisons site, until they pulled out. This is even taller. It may not be a bad thing to create a cluster of taller buildings here, but the plans show the entire industrial estate wiped out. Planning policy used to be entirely opposed to removing anything that provided employment, but now the mantra is housing, housing and more housing. But it's not just about jobs. Walthamstow is just starting to attract creative enterprises of all kinds, the sort of thing that needs affordable space to get started, and where is the space for that in the plans? The only sort of buildings that can provide that are exactly the old, neglected properties that are being systematically eliminated from the whole of Walthamstow. Nipped in the bud?

Local group Architects E17 are working hard to become a regular influence on local planning decisions, regularly reviewing planning applications and local policy documents, like the one that formed the basis of this consultation event. They send out a regular newsletter which is a useful way to keeping tabs on developments.