Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Let Smithfield start the urban village revolution

If you're looking for London's liveliest urban village, it's hard to beat the streets around Smithfield Market, full of cafés, bars, pubs, pie shops and sushi bars. It's come to life, like Covent Garden before it, through natural regeneration. The only thing holding it back are the boarded-up Victorian market buildings at the western end, left to moulder for 12 years.

And who's to blame? The City Corporation, which built them. They were designed by the City's own surveyor, Sir Horace Jones, who gave Tower Bridge its lifting arms. He liked lively architecture, and at Smithfield Market there are cleverly turned corners, bulls' eye dormer windows and a charming fretted canopy over the street linking the old General Market with the Fish Market, where boys sit on dolphins above the doors.

The interiors are a still bigger treat, with cast-iron columns and glass roofs supported on flying ribs. This could be our answer to Milan's Galleria, with almost as many places to eat and shop as there were market stalls.

Plans to replace all this with a £250million office block were resoundingly refused following a hard-fought public inquiry. London's leading market entrepreneur, Eric Reynolds, has a £20million refurbishment plan at the ready. Reynolds is the man behind Camden Lock and other markets such as Gabriel's Wharf and Spitalfields.

Recently he's signed an agreement to take up all the unused space in the Shell Centre at Waterloo. He says: "They don't want hoardings. They want public access and lots of small businesses and employment opportunities. We hope to get planning permission in June."

Ian Lerner, the leading property agent in Smithfield, says: "The empty market buildings would fill up immediately. There's no prospect of major building work until at least 2016 as Crossrail is in the basements at work on tunnels for the new line."

Henderson Global Investors, the new owner, could cover itself in glory with London's liveliest new venue in the Olympics year. The firm has let just two units since it took over six months ago. All politicians, planners and developers have to do is to let it happen.

Battersea Power Station has been in a similar Catch-22 situation for 30 years. Successive owners have concentrated on getting ever-more-valuable planning permissions on the 35 surrounding acres. Then, instead of starting work, they just sell it on.

Yet when the previous Chinese owners put on a big art and photographic exhibit in the Power Station there were queues thousands of yards long over several days. The riverfront, with the great column chimneys, is potentially the best outdoor stage in London. It could be a fantastic venue for concerts, product launches, fashion shows.

Let's celebrate Olympic year by pulling down the hoardings around blighted building sites. It's insufferable that places such as Middlesex Hospital in Marylebone should be no better than Second World War bombsites. There's a huge hole in the ground at Aldgate and acres of barren land around Bishopsgate goods yard, where railway arches were demolished, driving out small businesses.

But the place to get the urban village revolution moving is Smithfield. Leaving it empty when others would rush in to take space is just selfish.

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