15 July 2017

Designing the town centre

On Friday I joined a group touring the High Street with members of the council's design and development team, an event that was designed to show off the many development sites in the area. The most interesting discovery was that the council have an office on the top floor of the Scene, a corner flat with great views across London. We met there for coffee and introductions before setting off to look at the quiet private courtyard for residents of the Scene. It's a car-free development. Is it true that (as rumoured) after three years tenants can get a parking permit? Nobody knew the answer but they thought probably not.

I spent two hours with an assorted bunch of architects and a contractor or two without really discovering what the purpose of the tour was or who it was aimed at. But as a resident it was at least a chance to make a point or two about the Mall proposals. We got to discuss (briefly) the loss of public space, 150 year old trees likely to be cut down, and the lack of joined-up strategy for the overall space including the bus station and Natwest. Vague plans for an overall strategy were mentioned but it certainly isn't at the stage of hiring designers to work out an acceptable solution, an alternative to the Mall's commercially driven proposals.

Isn't the value of the current square and garden their scale, large spaces flexible enough for all sorts of activities? No, the response was that a smaller space could be better designed and would provide somewhere to arrive at rather than just passing through. No, the trees are suffering from being too close together. The Scene is obviously a nice place to live and enhances the end of the High Street, tall but not too tall. But surely tall towers without their own public space are not going to enhance anything? I missed my chance to mention Grenfell Tower, but in any case we didn't get any response on that as far as I could tell. But it was pretty noisy, maybe I missed something when a refuse truck pulled up alongside our little group.

We looked at the shopfront improvements at the St James end of the market. Nothing to criticise there (except that whoever designed the new shopfronts ought to know that window sills need to slope so the rain runs off, otherwise they will go rotten). It's paid for by the council and lottery money about 50-50, about £3 million overall. Looks like money well spent (except for the window sills).

Lastly we walked over towards the South Grove site. Interestingly, there was talk about developing the dire bus park area behind the High Street, bringing that to life with new uses. Then the tunnel under the railway brought us into the old industrial area. The garages were all busy, and demolition of one large block is well under way. Nothing decided yet about the long-derelict pub. This site between the railway and South Grove is earmarked for tall blocks, which will be perhaps a bit like Tottenham Hale. What about the loss of business premises? Yes, they have to move further and further out. Could the small garage inits be turned around so they don't face the new residential area? NO, they are part of the land designated for development. Aren't there any plans to provide affordable business units elsewhere in the borough, perhaps where industrial areas could become denser? Well yes.. sort of, nothing definite though.

I would have liked to know more about the new requirement for significant planning applications to go to a design panel, but discovered nothing useful except that it happens. It was a frustrating morning. The team have obviously considered all the issues before, but the event (which to be fair wasn't designed for that purpose) provided only a hint about the reasoning behind the current official policies. Walking around provides immediacy but it's not really the best situation to discuss and understand the pros and cons of complex issues.