Earls Court: alternative masterplans for controversial scheme

Opponents and critics of the vast and controversial Earl’s Court project have been promoting alternative visions for the 77-acre site’s development. Students at University College London’s Bartlett School of Planning have exhibited their own masterplans for the main part of the area, while research institute Create Streets has produced a proposal for a section of it, which avoids the demolition of historic buildings. Between them, they demonstrate how the word “regeneration” might be made to lose some of its less attractive connotations.

The Bartlett output comprises eight pieces of work, some from third year undergraduates and others from MA course scholars. They vary substantially, with the MA output encompassing both the complete demolition of the existing social housing on the site – two adjoining estates comprising 760 homes – and its full retention with additional homes worked in. All seemed very concerned that their efforts respect to the style, layout and scale of surrounding buildings and generally fitted in. None envisaged densities as great or buildings as tall as those in the original project masterplan, drawn up for Capco by Sir Terry Farrell’s practice.

Create Streets concerns itself with a short turning off Lillie Road called Empress Place. This lay outside the masterplan boundary at first, but a revised element suggests demolishing it and some adjacent buildings to make for new housing and a public square. Local residents have raised a petition to save the Victorian workers’ cottages, shops and a pub that would be knocked down. Create Streets director Nicholas Boys Smith says the existing buildings could instead act as a “physical and emotional link” between the new development and the wider area if they formed the basis of an extended Greater Empress Place which curved elegantly into the planned newer buildings. Comparable or ever greater housing densities could be achieved by different, more pleasing means, he says. Local people would be happier.

The value of these contributions is that they highlight the sorts of principles that might better guide how parts of London are re-made to meet its numerous growing demands. The Bartlett plans do not take into account the economic considerations that would be involved or the mesh of planning permissions, land deals and interested parties that would have to be negotiated. The ones I looked at most closely – with the kind help of some of the students – proposed fewer homes than Capco obtained outline consent for under Boris Johnson, and fewer still than it has since suggested to Sadiq Khan. They do, though, shows that a harmonisation of continuity and change has much to be said for it. The same is so of the more cost-minded work of Create Streets, done for them by architect Francis Terry.

The Earl’s Court project still has a long way to go. While a standalone section of it, south of Lillie Road, is taking shape, the remainder – the bulk of it – is described as being “under review”, a term whose meaning seems to have become looser as the year has gone on. In December, Capco told Mayor Khan that the area as a whole could accommodate at least 10,000 residential properties – a good 2,000 more than were originally planned under Boris Johnson – and that it envisaged “moving forward” with him and other interested parties on re-visiting the original masterplan, drawn up

However, earlier this month Capco told On London that no decision had been taken about submitting a new masterplan or any new planning application. A large crane has been erected on the site of the former Earls Court exhibition centre buildings and Capco says things are progressing well. Yet the Financial Times has characterised the company as “squarely in the eye of the storm buffeting London’s prime building boom”. Create Streets has offered to discuss its ideas with Capco and Hammersmith and Fulham Council, the borough containing most of the project area. Time for creative thinking on all sides?

 

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