Monday, 27 February 2017

Walthamstow's 29-storey monument to greed




When I first moved to Walthamstow 10 years ago it was a scruffy place, full of local colour, and a smidgen of middle class gentrification (I appreciate I contributed to that in my own way). You could walk down the high street in your pyjamas and no one minded. There wasn’t much point in keeping up with the Joneses because there simply weren’t many Joneses about.
I had found my perfectly distant haven, an ungreedy place away from the thrust of central London where I could shuffle to the cornershop in my slippers.
Cormorants and herons flapped overhead for everyone, both rich and poor, to enjoy. There were friendly shopkeepers, shabby but adequate public services, a well-meaning Labour council and rather too much dog poo (let’s not romanticise this too much).
Just after the 2012 Olympics, I welcomed the influx of small organic bread businesses, craft markets and general hipsterdom. Who would begrudge a man with a beard the right to launch a craft ale company on a run down industrial estate? I was not a denier of gentrification. I feel the area is better off for a few extra pizza places to break up the chicken shop monotony.
However, then the estate agents picked up on it all and started to “sell” the area to people without the wit or imagination to find it or appreciate its charms unaided. It was great for my house price (I say this without pride or delight). But I am vaguely sickened when agents send a postcard through my door featuring a piece of street art on the side of a house. They are keen to cash in on every pleasant detail of the area. No mobile kebab van is safe from exploitation, no mid-century clock tower escapes the estate agents’ graphic design software.
This is where it all started to go wrong. Please understand, I am still in love with the place and appreciate the need for more housing - especially of the "affordable" and social kind. I know it is easy for me to say I don’t want people to move here because Walthamstow is mine all mine. I know that is unfair. I was an interloper not so long ago and welcome our new residents, as long as they are tolerant, friendly and love the area as much as I do.
So I reluctantly accept the many blocks of flats popping up. They aren’t particularly pretty, but these low rise developments are probably an inevitable change.
But this weekend, the owners of our local shopping “mall” – a modest shopping centre containing modest shops – showcased their plans for an extension. Like almost everyone in the area, they are keen to “add value” to their property. I have mixed feelings about much of it. Plans to introduce “active shop fronts” in the form of cafes could improve the town square and gardens (which, worryingly, will shrink). There will be more big chains, which I despise, but I appreciate many will welcome them.
But there is one plan that is clearly unacceptable – I suspect even the owners of the mall know that it is so. They are due to lodge outline planning permission for two 29-storey blocks of flats towering above the mall. This beast, which is utterly out of scale with the rest of the area, will be built by the highest bidder for the site and the mall owners and developers will be laughing all the way to the bank.
The whole thing is particularly galling as we are expected to tolerate this greed and physical invasion on our public space and open sky as we watch the quickening collapse of our public services. For example, I recently learnt that the community-run swimming pool where my sons have their swimming lessons is under serious threat of closure.
If the plans for a tower go ahead, our human scale town will suddenly become another Stratford, where vast, aggressive and misshapen towers dwarf the people, homes and businesses in the area. The promised regeneration of that part of East London has become a sort of grim Gotham-ification of a poor but vibrant neighbourhood. It is a kind of obliteration where the less well-off are left to scratch at the shining windows of Westfield or stare up towards the shadow of looming concrete, glass and steel. We do not need these buildings. We are not the banking district and nor do we want to be. Create homes for people. Let the developers make money and contribute to the community, by all means. Just know when to stop. But I fear that they don't.

2 comments:

  1. I went at the weekend and thought the plans looked pretty good. That area is one of the grubbiest in Walthamstow and a magnet for the local drunks as soon as it gets dark and I know plenty of women who aren't a fan of walking through there late at night. This should transform the area.

    I can't imagine they'll get permission for 29 floors either as they always aim higher than they expect, but they'll probably sign off on something around the 20 mark. The plans reminded me a lot of Dalston Square, which ended up at 20 floors too and I don't think looks out of place there and has also transformed that area of Dalston.

    I think your worries of us turning into another Straford are unlikely to materialise either, especially the central area as it just doesn't have the swathes of land that Stratford had, with most of it already built upon by rows of Victorian terraces. We might see something higher pop up Blackhorse way, as it has the industrial area required for that, but as long as they're high quality buildings (which we seem to be attracting more of recently) I'm not that worried. I'd much rather have a few high quality high rises (like the Lloyds build to rent going in at Blackhorse Road or this one at the Mall) than loads of cheaply made and nasty looking low rise blocks that we have dotted around.

    Not that I don't have concerns about the scheme, but they tend to centre around service provision such as schools and doctors (as they're already at bursting point yet I rarely see mention of additions when reading about these developments) rather than the bulk of it.

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    1. good points, yes, I see what you mean, but I really don't trust council or developers to "do the right thing" to benefit everyone...I agree the extension and redeveloped gardens could work...but why extend?

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