Heritage vs height: the battle for Shoreditch
The urban hipster, often clad in majestically patterned shirts and sporting a bushy beard, has become a familiar sight in East London. The sub-culture, borrowed from our transatlantic neighbours, has seen Shoreditch become instantly recognisable at street level. But another of New York’s specialities may soon make the area become recognisable from the sky as well
An area rich with heritage, both Shoreditch and nearby Hoxton are full of low-rise brick exteriors with vintage features like sash windows. Modernised with vibrant street art sprawled across shutters and disused tube carriages perched on roofs, the area is known for standing out and unique invention.
This invention seems to have reached breaking point, because joining iconic structures like ‘Boxpark’ and ‘Village Underground’ are a host of skyscrapers that are set to further blur the line between the City and Shoreditch.
Beginning with the completion of the Avant-Garde Tower development in 2013, the area’s skyline is set to only go higher – the 25-storey development will now potentially be joined by eight more high-rise buildings, set to cast a brand new shadow on the streets of Shoreditch.
Adding to the already completed tower on Sclater Street will be Principal Tower, due for completion in 2017. It will stand 50 storeys and be situated on Worship Street, a short walk from the Bishopsgate Goodsyard, where an £800 million project of seven buildings is proposed.
Currently you’re more likely to find shin pads than shovels at the Bishopsgate site, as football pitches have been erected to allow the community to make the most of the site whilst plans are finalised for development.
But, within five years, the site could go from a historic ruin to a neighbourhood on the same scale as the Olympic Park, with as many as seven high-rise developments ranging from 17-48 stories built on the site.
Surrounded by Shoreditch Highstreet Overground Station and a host of two- and three-storey flats, the plans would ring in a massive change in style for the area, making it one of Shoreditch’s most controversial developments to date.
Alistair Polson, Green party candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, has written to officially object to the plans. He said: “The application is based on a false premise. It represents an encroachment into a vibrant commercial, social and residential area of buildings only suitable for the highly unusual and site specific developments characterized by the City of London and Canary Wharf.
“It has taken twenty years or more for Shoreditch and Brick Lane to develop into the areas they are. It has been hard won, and is now something which brings economic and social success to the local community. This development promises to severely damage all of that success in a way which cannot be overturned.”
With specific regard to the size of the proposed plans at Bishopsgate Goodsyard, Polson said: “The proposals incorporate buildings with 48, 46, 30 and 34 storeys. This is a wholly new style of development for this area. If granted, how could any future applications for such developments be opposed? The buildings in the immediate area comprise residential level and low commercial level and will be dwarfed.”
This sentiment is echoed by the East End Preservation Society, an anonymous group who object to plans that are believed to ruin the heritage of London’s East End. Their website claims that “43% of the existing surrounding buildings surveyed by the developer’s consultants will suffer major loss of sunlight” and that “a large amount of 19th century historic fabric surviving on the site will be demolished” if current plans for Bishopsgate go ahead.
They also offer a stark warning to planners: “Should a development of this size and scale be permitted, it will mark a new and disturbing chapter in the expansion of the City into the east end, expansion that threatens to destroy the life, character and diversity that makes this area special,” according to their website.
What do the public think?
With developers and campaign groups at odds, I asked members of the public outside Shoreditch Highstreet Overground station what they thought of the planned development of the Goodsyard.
The poll, conducted with 22 members of the public, showed a resounding theme with over 60% of those surveyed admitting they were against the proposals. Among the concerns voiced were fears for the future of the site’s famous railway arches as well as the garden that has naturally grown over the years on top of the site, providing rare foliage in a largely built up area.
Almost everyone who rejected the proposals though agreed that something had to be done with the site, in order to restore the Grade II listed arches but also to bring commerce back to an area that used to be a bustling market.
The market was of specific concern to one well-known market trader in the area, who goes by the name of Pickles and had been trading around Bishopsgate for 30 years until she was forced out by developers.
With a sense of helplessness, she pointed towards a set of arches and said: “I used to trade out of this one. But one day I came to the pitch to find out that the generators had been moved in.They were too loud and so had been moved into the arches to muffle the sound, a move that proved detrimental to the market traders.”
She now plies her trade in nearby Aldgate but would like to see greater public involvement in the planning process and a public consultation before developments have drastic effects, like they had for her.
“The plans were already decided and the structures were already in place long before we were told. It was playing pawns with people,” she said.
Is the sky the limit?
The battle looks set to rage on between heritage and height despite a U-turn of sorts by developers Hammerson, who said they might consider cutting some of the storeys. However, the land is not suitable for multiple buildings and height would be a necessary feature.
The future of Shoreditch now lies at the door of Tower Hamlets council, which still hasn’t approved the Bishopsgate Goodsyard plans. And with a long planning process ahead, the public landscape may have altered drastically by the time the diggers actually move in.