The David and Go­liath bat­tle to save Smith­field

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - Front Page -

have been de­mol­ished 10 years ago, re­placed by a glass-and-steel re­tail and of­fice development – all at the bless­ing of the City of Lon­don.

One of these com­mit­ted cam­paign­ers is Eric Reynolds, the founder of Ur­ban Space Man­age­ment, which spe­cialises in re­gen­er­at­ing mar­ket build­ings. He was in­volved in two “bruis­ing” in­quiries, in 2008 and again in 2014, that pit­ted ac­tivists against the fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal weight of the City of Lon­don, the Mayor, big-name ar­chi­tects and wealthy de­vel­op­ers. “If you’d been there on the dramatic days you’d have seen that there was maybe 30 peo­ple on their side of the room,” he says. “And on our side there was me. In the first inquiry I was on the stand for three days.”

The Gen­eral Mar­ket was de­signed by the ar­chi­tect Sir Ho­race Jones in 1883, who also de­signed Smith­field’s Meat Mar­ket, Poul­try Mar­ket and Fish Mar­ket, cre­at­ing a unique and uni­fied group of build­ings; last week it cel­e­brated the 150th an­niver­sary of the open­ing of one of the Vic­to­rian mar­ket build­ings. The Gen­eral Mar­ket was in­tended for fruit and veg but be­came an­other meat mar­ket, nick­named “the Ja­panese Vil­lage” be­cause of a pago­da­like dome; this was re­placed by the cur­rent dome in the Fifties. While the meat mar­ket on the eastern side is still in use, those on the west­ern side have been empty for decades.

Sur­rounded by a wall of shop fronts – now shut­tered – and con­structed over the slope to the buried Fleet river, the build­ing was in­no­va­tive, sit­ting di­rectly on top of a train line so live­stock could be brought di­rectly into the mar­ket build­ing. Thames­link trains still trun­dle past the vast sub­ter­ranean space that Ament will use for the mu­seum’s per­ma­nent gallery. “Peo­ple on the train will be able to see into the mu­seum and vis­i­tors can see them too,” says Ament. “It will give the mu­seum a real sense of be­ing in Lon­don.”

Reynolds’s re­la­tion­ship with the build­ing be­gan in 1996, when the City asked him to re­vi­talise a space fall­ing into dis­use. Reynolds had re­gen­er­ated Spi­tal­fields by pop­u­lat­ing it with small traders, and a sim­i­lar plan had been con­ceived for Smith­field.

But the City changed its mind and brought in a developer, Thorn­field Prop­er­ties, which wanted to de­mol­ish the site and re­place it with a seven-storey of­fice block, de­scribed by Prince Charles as “an act of van­dal­ism”. The scheme was op­posed by English Her­itage, SAVE (a group cam­paign­ing to pro­tect Bri­tain’s her­itage), the Vic­to­rian So­ci­ety and Ur­ban Space Man­age­ment, and was ul­ti­mately re­jected af­ter a pub­lic inquiry by Hazel Blears, the com­mu­ni­ties sec­re­tary, in 2008.

In 2014, a re­vised plan was sub­mit­ted by new own­ers Hen­der­son Global In­vestors, so the old team got back to­gether. This time, ar­chi­tect John McAs­lan wanted to re­tain the façade and build an of­fice block inside, which would have oblit­er­ated out­stand­ing fea­tures such as the great cen­tral dome and the roof sup­ported by rare wrought-iron Phoenix col­umns. “It was a real David and Go­liath case,” re­calls Christo­pher Costel­loe, di­rec­tor of the Vic­to­rian So­ci­ety. “We were fight­ing the City and a very well-re­sourced developer. The par­tic­u­lar chal­lenge is that our lawyer fell ill in the mid­dle of the inquiry so we had to rep­re­sent our- selves and cross-ex­am­ine wit­nesses.”

To add to their woes, English Her­itage switched sides and backed the development. Eric Reynolds, now chair­man of SAVE, knew that if the cam­paign­ers were to be taken se­ri­ously, they needed a re­al­is­tic sub­sti­tute. “We wanted a cred­i­ble al­ter­na­tive to de­mo­li­tion, which is nearly al­ways the sim­plest, cheap­est and fastest thing to do,” says Reynolds.

“That means we are not just pre­serv­ing a wreck, or a tomb­stone, we are giv­ing it vi­able life. That’s the ba­sis on which we won. We were dis­missed as fluffy­heads who couldn’t make it hap­pen, but my team had read the spread­sheets more care­fully and found a £12mil­lion gap in their rev­enue… Our scheme ac­tu­ally looked as if it would pro­duce a profit whereas theirs would lose money.” Eric Pick­les, then the com­mu­ni­ties sec­re­tary, sided with the cam­paign­ers. The City of Lon­don was ticked off for al­low­ing the build­ing to de­te­ri­o­rate, and had to pay the de­vel­op­ers be­fore set­tling on an al­ter­na­tive use – a new home for the Mu­seum of Lon­don. Reynolds was the first per­son to in­tro­duce Ament to the mu­seum’s fu­ture home. “Eric grabbed me out the of­fice and took me round, peek­ing through key­holes and cracks in doors,” re­calls Ament.

The mu­seum is now fundrais­ing and fi­nal­is­ing plans with ar­chi­tects Stan­ton Wil­liams and Asif Khan. It is also work­ing with her­itage ar­chi­tect Julian Har­rap to record the his­tory of the build­ing as it is be­ing re­fur­bished.

Should the City of Lon­don be ap­plauded for agree­ing a proac­tive so­lu­tion to their predica­ment fol­low­ing two hu­mil­i­at­ing re­ver­sals? Ament, ex­cited by the po­ten­tial of a site that will give the mu­seum con­sid­er­ably more space and a far bet­ter lo­ca­tion, de­scribes it as “vi­sion­ary”. Reynolds is less im­pressed. “Have they redeemed them­selves? Not in the least,” he says. “It’s still de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, there’s still bud­dleia grow­ing out­side and shop fronts that are shut­tered.

“A nor­mal per­son would have said these shops are ca­pa­ble of be­ing in use, so let’s re­cy­cle that money and do sim­ple main­te­nance to slow down the dam­age. The only long-term vi­sion they have is that they must main­tain peo­ple in the City so they don’t leave and go to Ca­nary Wharf.” The City of Lon­don de­clined to com­ment on the two failed schemes it backed.

If ei­ther inquiry had been lost, the Gen­eral Mar­ket would have gone for good, cost­ing the coun­try not only a mag­nif­i­cent and im­por­tant his­toric build­ing, but also a chance to en­joy its al­ter­na­tive fu­ture.

What ad­vice would Reynolds of­fer for cam­paign­ers fac­ing sim­i­lar odds? “Do your home­work,” he says. “If we’d gone in armed only with emo­tion, we’d have lost straight away. We did the num­bers and we worked hard to show that our scheme could be done for less money, there was vi­able rent, and some­body pre­pared to do it.

“We were also very for­tu­nate that the in­spec­tor was care­ful and con­sid­er­ate, and spent time in the area to un­der­stand the con­text. And we were lucky we had a min­is­ter who wasn’t just say­ing, ‘Let’s have an­other tower.’ That was just tim­ing.”

The Smith­field Mar­ket com­plex was de­signed by Sir Ho­race Jones

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.