South Quay Think Tank

Wednesday 21 May 2014

It is crucial for London and the creation of good, sustainable places that the public realm and social facilities such as schools and hospitals are not forgotten in the rush to try and provide much-needed new housing for the capital.

That view emerged as a central theme during a special NLA think tank session co-hosted by LB Tower Hamlets on the subject of South Quay last week.

The borough is producing a masterplan for the area to ensure that opportunities are not lost as some 20,000 more people are projected to come into the Isle of Dogs area over the next 15 years.

Michael Bell, strategic planning manager for Tower Hamlets, said there could be a ‘real tension’ between the scale of the development at Canary Wharf and that of the communities further south such as Millwall and Cubitt Town. And while the authority believes it has a good local policy on tall buildings building on that in the London Plan, it is not quite sufficient, said Bell, to deal with particular challenges at South Quay.

The area is home to London’s tallest residential consent site; a 75-storey residential tower on the former City Pride site of only 0.3 hectares amid an overall masterplan area of 23 hectares in 25-30 different ownerships. ‘It’s much easier under single or smaller ownerships’, said Bell. ‘Different owners are looking at the City Pride site and saying if they can build at 75 storeys, why can’t we?’ If that happened on every site across the area, the level of density of development will far exceed what Tower Hamlets is planning for in its Local Plan, with social, economic and environmental impacts. There is also a need to plan well and proscriptively for new local schools, health and other community facilities as well as affordable housing. ‘We’re worried that if we don’t get developers working together and we don’t take the lead we will end up with a very bitty, incoherent public realm’.

Gerard Maccreanor of Maccreanor Lavington, who is helping to create a flexible design parameter approach rather than a rigid masterplan for the area, said that developer aspirations for schemes could potentially bring a significant population increase and that there is definitely not the kind of infrastructure in place to support those numbers. Constraints on the area include that there are only two road points of entry and that roads are narrow, plus there are limited pedestrian connections north and south and although the perception is that it is a well-connected place, PTAL ratings do not follow. Even with current council predictions of an extra 13,000 people by 2025, that requires four new primary schools. And proposals for tall buildings in a cluster represent something of an impermeable wall, a datum that cuts off abruptly at the edge. Recently built densities are emerging at 8.4 fsi or 703 units/ha, roughly twice that proposed in the London Plan, compared with 8 fsi in New York’s Upper East Side and 15.4 fsi at Hong Kong.

Managing director of Berkeley South East London Harry Lewis said that his firm has submitted an application for South Quay Plaza, including towers of 73 storeys and 36 storeys by Foster and Partners, but that it crucially delivers over half of the site to public realm, a rare thing in this area. ‘I think the impact of buildings of 40-80 storeys is very remote compared to the benefits that you could bring by delivering public realm in this area’, he said. Foster’s fresh approaches to masterplanning in terms of stepping away from the existing rectilinear grid should be welcomed, Lewis added.

Foster and Partners’ Patrick Campbell said the scheme aims to open up the ground plane and improve pedestrian connections in an area which has, said Robert Maguire Project Director - Wood Wharf at Canary Wharf Group, a large number of disconnected streets, cul de sacs and dead ends. ‘There is a sense that there isn’t a clear coherent public realm strategy for the site…yet’, he added, with a need for developers to get together to collectively share value. David West of Studio Egret West said that was needed in the area was more in the way of schools provision and playgrounds to build on the changing demographic, and a treatment of Marsh Wall itself to ‘glue’ neighbourhoods together. ‘I do worry that all the mixture of red lines will leave Marsh Wall rather left out’, he said. The site and unique set of circumstances, moreover, is taking the strain in terms of its scale and the levels of its density for the whole city in a sense, said Tony Travers.

Central Park offers New York a relief from high density, said Jason Syrett of Allies and Morrison, so where could a similar level of open space be delivered here for such a quantum of residential? Perhaps, suggested Matthew Carmona, some of the underutilised dock areas – which are owned and managed by the Canal & River Trust – could be the locale for floating structures, unlocked by a vision as part of a wider strategy. Or, added Syrett, they might even be partially filled in for play provision. What we have inherited at South Quay from the LDDC, said Peter Bishop, is ‘non-planning’, with no clear hierarchy of streets or movement. ‘I think there has to be a role here for planning and laying down the principles of how circulation happens. But actually it’s about looking at a wider area and producing a piece of city here that links in, and keys in, both the north and the south.’

David Taylor, Editor, New London Architecture

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