Friday, 26 October 2007

Smithfield’s Bloody Battle

Developers and conservationists are about to clash over plans to demolish part of London’s historic meat market.

On 6 November a public inquiry will begin into plans to demolish a large part of London’s historic Smithfield meat market to make way for 350,000 sq ft of offices.

The inquiry will pit developer Thornfield against English Heritage and the campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage, as well as several smaller conservation groups. It is likely to stretch into January.

The stakes are high. Thornfield managing director Mike Capocci says his development will cost £175m to build and has taken seven years to get this far.

The scheme has been through three incarnations, all designed by Lee Polisano, founding partner of architect Kohn Pedersen Fox. The latest version (opposite, above) was approved in principle by the City of London in April. However, the application was called in by the government in June 2006 and the final decision will be taken by the planning minister, advised by planning inspector Ken Barton, next summer.

Capocci is eager to get to work, and says the developer is already arranging the demolition contracts. Thornfield owns the site on a 1,000-year lease from the City of London. Capocci says that, even if permission for this scheme is refused, the developer will simply come back with another. ‘We have staying power and commitment,’ he says. ‘We have a good case and we are not going to go away.’

The central issue is whether the existing buildings, which date back to the 1880s and form part of the wider Smithfield conservation area, can be preserved or should be demolished. For the most part they are empty or derelict, but English Heritage and its supporters say they could easily be restored and put to a mixture of retail and leisure uses.

Capocci argues that a restoration would not be commercially viable and that the buildings would not work as a leisure and retail destination in any case.

Much of the inquiry will centre on engineering questions. Busy railway lines pass beneath the existing buildings. Thornfield says the tunnels are in poor condition and in urgent need of repair. The railway was there before the building was laid over the top, so the building’s owner, not the train operator, is responsible for maintaining the tunnels.

Capocci argues that a high-density development with plenty of lettable space would be needed to cover the cost of repairing the tunnels. The presence of the railway has therefore had a big influence on the density and massing of Thornfield’s scheme.

‘You have to create a building that has sufficient volume to create the value and pay for these exceptional costs that wouldn’t occur in a normal building,’ says Capocci.

In many ways, Thornfield’s building is designed more like a suspension bridge than an office building. Foundations would be laid in the gaps between the railway lines to support two huge structural beams. These would hold up a vast deck, from which the rest of the building would hang.

‘It is significantly more expensive to do it that way,’ confirms Capocci. ‘But we have to deal with the tunnels. We have come up with a scheme that we are proud of.’

Thornfield proposes to erect a second, smaller office building within the walls of the listed cold store and old market buildings next to the main building.

Capocci says: ‘This is not just an office scheme,’ pointing out that there will be bars and cafes on the ground-floor sections at the rear of the main building.

Conservation concerns
English Heritage will focus its arguments on the fact that the scheme lies within a conservation area. It will say Thornfield has ignored basic planning rules that prohibit demolition until the owners of buildings in such areas can prove the sites cannot be used in their existing form.

‘There has been no serious attempt to market these buildings as they are,’ says Steven Bee, director of planning and development at English Heritage.

‘If that had been done, there would have been a number of people who would have been interested in taking them on.’

One of English Heritage’s star witnesses at the inquiry will be Eric Reynolds, the managing director of Urban Space Management, who played a key role in the rejuvenation of Spitalfields and Borough markets in London. Reynolds will argue that the Smithfields site could be put to similar use without destroying the existing buildings.

English Heritage believes that the last thing Smithfield needs is a large new office block.

‘It is a very diverse area and we think it is important to introduce uses that reinforce that diversity,’ says Bee. ‘There is scope for retail, restaurant and similar uses that would allow the public to use that building as a market.’

Lines of enquiry
Bee dismisses Capocci’s argument that high-density development is needed to cover the cost of renewing the canopy over the railway lines.

First, English Heritage will argue that this is the site owner’s problem and should not be a material consideration for the planners. It will also argue that the City of London should be held to account for allowing the buildings to fall into decay before selling the site to Thornfield.

Second, and perhaps contradictorily, English Heritage has commissioned its own engineering study that it says shows that the tunnels could be repaired relatively cheaply if the existing building were preserved.

‘It is only because such a large building is proposed over the top that such a substantial reconstruction of those walls on either side of the railway would be necessary,’ says Bee. ‘If you kept the existing building, you could repair rather than completely rebuild the substructure.’

This analysis is contradicted by Thornfield, which will present its own engineers’ reports.

‘The tunnels need urgent attention,’ says Capocci. ‘You can’t do anything with the tunnels unless you take the majority of the building down. We have demonstrated without question that a new building needs to be put there, because you can’t viably retain the old one.’

English Heritage will be aided at the inquiry by Save Britain’s Heritage, the conservation group that campaigned successfully for part of the Smithfield site to be listed in 2004. The group agrees with English Heritage that the existing site could be preserved and used for leisure and retail.

‘We believe a far more sensitive scheme could be put together for the site, which would respect the character of the area and carry on the revival that has gone on in the last 15 to 20 years, rather than just plonking down a great big office block,’ says Adam Wilkinson, secretary of Save Britain’s Heritage .

It will be for the inspector and the secretary of state to disentangle the arguments about whether Thornfield has any choice but to demolish and start again. In the meantime, the battle lines are drawn.

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