Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Simon Jenkins: We mustn’t allow greedy developers to kill Smithfield

Sympathetic redevelopment of the site of London’s ancient meat market could be a fantastic asset for us all

Looming threat: part of the Henderson Global scheme to regenerate Smithfield Market

This is the last big one. Westminster has Covent Garden, Tower Hamlets has Spitalfields, Southwark has Borough. The City of London has only Smithfield market to bank on — but for how long?

A public inquiry opens at Guildhall today into whether a sizeable chunk of Smithfield market, the part no longer used for selling meat, should be redeveloped, primarily for offices. It is the last chance to see if the City can set aside short-term commercialism and embrace a “Covent Garden” of its own.

Most of London’s ancient markets have slid either to the suburbs or into oblivion, but a few have been born again, exuded magnetism as neighbourhoods of character and public resort. In such cases their appeal has been phenomenal. Even poor, battered Borough has recently emerged as an Aladdin’s cave of gastronomic delight.

There can be no argument. The key to the revival of these places lies in keeping their old market buildings and linked spaces. Wherever they have been demolished, attempts to recapture lost appeal fail, most spectacularly at Paris’s Les Halles. The magic lies in the stones.

At the centre of Smithfield stands the old meat market, soldiering on where the old slaughterhouses stood, to which live cattle were once driven down the Fleet Ditch, now Farringdon Road. I assume one day this will close and follow Covent Garden (fruit and vegetables) and Billingsgate (fish) to Battersea and the docks respectively.

Meanwhile half the old market lies derelict on the slope down to the line of the Fleet. Its buildings, including a magnificent glass-roofed interior, were designed by Sir Horace Jones of Tower Bridge fame. For 15 years they have been left empty and decaying by the City of London, in the hope of one day demolishing them for offices.

It is hard to imagine a more crucial London site. To the south lies St Bartholomew’s church and hospital, to the east the enclave of the Charterhouse, to the north the slowly reviving neighbourhood of Clerkenwell. The area could go the way of much of the new city centre, to office slabs and plutoflats. Or it could become a truly new Covent Garden. This is the last quarter of the city still to await its fate in death or glory.

The scheme before the Smithfield inquiry is the work of developer Henderson Global. It retains most of the Jones façades on its perimeter but the stately 23,000 sq ft interior is to be gutted and replaced by offices and a food hall. The site will be “scooped out” and filled with modern boxes while the retained street façades encircle them as if a film set.

Conservationists led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage and the Victorian Society have countered with a rival proposal from the market developer Eric Reynolds. This retains the lofty iron columns and glass roof, as with Reynolds’s successful Spitalfields renewal. Henderson retorts that this scheme is “not economically viable” — it has hired consultants Knight Frank to prove it — and is “a stunt”. Reynolds bitterly disagrees. Battle royal is joined.

I vividly recall the rescue of old Covent Garden from demolition in the 1970s. The arguments were identical. The then Greater London Council was adamant that the area had to go. Quantity surveyors were retained at large fees to declare the area between Holborn and Charing Cross “life-expired”. Traffic engineers said that Maiden Lane had to go and the Strand become a dual carriageway, or “gridlock” would ensue.

It all proved self-serving garbage. The saving of Covent Garden from going the way of London Wall and the Barbican was a victory for conservation and, eventually, for creative town planning. The multiple uses in a jumbled streetscape of market buildings, factories, warehouses and tenements played a major part in London’s emergence as the most dynamic European capital.

This was achieved in the teeth of the same lobbying, and the same arguments, now being deployed by Henderson and the City Corporation at Smithfield. We were told that conserving Covent Garden was uneconomic and that office blocks were the future. The plans were stopped just in time, though an early fragment was completed at the top west side of Drury Lane.

Needless to add, Covent Garden is today boasted as a jewel in London’s crown by the same city fathers whose predecessors tried to destroy it. It is among the most profitable areas of retail real estate in Europe. Likewise the preserved section of Old Spitalfields Market, one block of which was recently sold for £100 million.

These are the ghosts of the past with which the Smithfield inquiry must wrestle. Future cities derive their prosperity from their human appeal, not from office towers or luxury flats. People come to a city to live and work because of its magnetism, a magnetism that depends not on demolition, clearance and rebuilding but on the steady evolution in the uses to which old buildings are put. Witness Paris’s Rive Gauche or New York’s Greenwich Village.

Such neighbourhoods are killed by commercial monoculture, where the developers’ concern is not long-term profit but short-term gain. The current inquiry scheme may be an advance on a previous Smithfield proposal by KPF, a building so awful that even Hazel Blears turned it down. But we are not there yet.

This is a major London decision. The inquiry should go walkabout in markets elsewhere in the metropolis and abroad. The Smithfield site has been a derelict scandal for too long to waste on a second-rate scheme. The inquiry should give Reynolds his head and the City its soul. It should bring Covent Garden to the banks of the Fleet.

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