The Crossrail conundrum towering over Woolwich
You might not know it, but the park above’s days are numbered. Opened in 2000, Royal Arsenal Gardens in Woolwich, which sits on the site of the old power station, has always been a temporary park, but since 2008 Berkeley Homes, which is developing the old Royal Arsenal site, has planned to build tower blocks on the site.
It’s currently applying for planning permission for the latest alteration to its plans – which will, if approved, dramatically change the shape of Woolwich, and the riverside. It wants to build a series of tower blocks between 14 and 21 stories high, blocking Woolwich town centre off from the river, and reducing Royal Arsenal Gardens to a narrow strip between the towers.
Berkeley is holding an exhibition of its plans today from 3pm-8pm at Royal Carriage Mews, on Duke of Wellington Avenue in the Arsenal site. You can also view the plans online. It really only seems aimed at current Arsenal residents, though, despite the huge consequences of this scheme. I went along on Saturday and was taken by how confident the Berkeley reps were.
As is the way in the borough of Greenwich, this is hardly brand new news, but few people are really aware of the ramifications of all this – the debate seems to have taken place behind the walls of the Arsenal, and not in the open. Only here could a debate about a scheme to add 10,000 new residents go completely unnoticed in the wider community.
Of course, this all suits developers like Berkeley, largely operating outside public scrutiny. At the exhibition, a flyer was pressed into my hand with details of “how to support the scheme”. Support? Huge tower blocks replacing a park and looming over Woolwich? It’s made my mind up to oppose it. There’s a campaign against it from Royal Arsenal residents – and if you want to join them, your objection needs to be with the council by tomorrow (Tuesday).
Of course, the real interest will be in seeing whether the Labour councillors who make up a majority of the planning board will vote against a scheme from the council’s closest redevelopment partner – Berkeley is also redeveloping the Ferrier Estate as Kidbrooke Village, of course, and joined the council in its Bridge The Gap campaign to build a third Blackwall Tunnel. Council leader Chris Roberts, who sits on the board, bought a home in the Arsenal from Berkeley in 2009. Will he sit this one out?
To further highlight the close links between the council and the scheme, architects Allies and Morrison put together the wider masterplan for Woolwich town centre – which envisages demolishing the Waterfront leisure centre (and opening a new one further into Woolwich) and extending Hare Street to the river – as well as one for the Charlton riverside.
There’s one big elephant in the room, though, which could scupper all of this – Crossrail. The “box” which will contain the station, which Berkeley has paid for, has been finished, and the developer’s rightly making a big song and dance about it, holding an open day and fun run inside the box next Wednesday. It’ll make the money back by building homes on top of the station.
But at present, Berkeley’s not paying for the £100m station to be fitted out – meaning that it could just stand empty when Crossrail opens in 2018.
Without that Crossrail station, the viability of the whole Royal Arsenal project would be put into doubt – so you have to detect a certain amount of bluffing from the developer. Negotiations are ongoing between the government, Greenwich Council, Berkeley and Transport for London on finding the cash.
Ideas have included a levy on local businesses or Greenwich Council, which has well over £100m in cash reserves, borrowing the money on the markets and then taking a proportion of the fares at the new station. So far, though, there has been no joy – and if the station is to open when Crossrail does, work will have to start soon.
A similar situation occurred with the extension of the East London Line to Clapham Junction, when Lewisham Council wanted to see a station at Surrey Canal Road, close to Millwall’s ground, to help kickstart redevelopment there. Despite backing from the mayor, the government refused to cough up and there’s a space where a station should be. The stakes are higher in Woolwich, and nobody wants to see the same situation repeated.
Does the Crossrail conundrum put Berkeley Homes in a prime position to get its tower blocks approved? Would these too tall, too dense blocks end up being the price to pay for securing Woolwich’s stop on the line? A refusal isn’t going to help the case for Berkeley to cough up for Crossrail, after all.
All this is conjecture, of course. Such thoughts are not meant to enter councillors’ minds – but the Olympics proved deadlines can put shotguns to their heads, and the very real consequences of failing to get the station built are inescapable. Unless a rabbit is pulled out of the hat very quickly, you wouldn’t want to be in their shoes when the matter comes up in a month or two.