These days, Royal Arsenal is a big, block pattern of heavy duty heritage and Berkeley Group residential work-in-progress that rolls out from Woolwich Market to the downriver south bank of the Thames. It has a hard, clean, slightly antiseptic look, a mix of sandblasted and new. The water here is wide and from the riverfront path you can look north across the water towards London City Airport and the Royal Docks or west past the free Woolwich Ferry routes that have been running since the 1890s towards a whole new piece of what has been lately dubbed the Royal Borough of Knight Dragon.
Waterfront Woolwich is part of the long, slow story of outer East London’s post-industrial reinvention and a new chapter now has permission to unfold. Last Wednesday, Greenwich Council gave itself the go-ahead to transform a cluster of buildings that formed a “secret city” producing munitions for World War One into what it calls “a new creative district for London”, with concert venues, studios, rehearsal spaces, a quadrangle performance area and a restaurant looking out on to the Thames.
Four leases have been purchased by the council and, ten years after the Ministry of Defence agreed to release the Royal Arsenal land, a budget for the first phase of the necessary work on five buildings has been agreed. Open public access must be maintained in line with the terms of receiving £5m from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The former ammunition factory will be renovated into a 4,000-seater venue; there will be a theatre to hold 450; a Woolwich Crossrail station, heavily trailed on site, is due to open at the end of next year; council leader Denise Hyland says the new hub will “cement Woolwich as a destination in its own right”.
Walking in spring Sunday morning sunshine around the listed buildings among runners, wanderers and Peter Burke’s cast iron statues it’s easy to imagine what she means. The Firepower Royal Artillery museum moved to Wiltshire last summer, but the various Woolwich buildings are in degrees of current use. The Greenwich Heritage Centre still operates during the week and, facing on to another side of Artillery Square, the old Royal Military Academy building opened up while I was there to receive dancers polishing their moves. The Arts Council is putting £270,000 towards turning Woolwich into a “cultural destination”. A number of local performing arts groups are already confirmed as staying on when the makeover is complete.
They seem to have much to look forward to. In their decision documents, the council’s officers describe the total useable floorspace available as “comparable to, if not larger, than the creative space provided in the South Bank Centre” and say that over time the Royal Arsenal creative hub “has the potential to stimulate the economy in a similar manner,” replicating the cultural and consumer activity that now spreads all the way from County Hall to Borough Market.
When it was in the ordnance business, the Royal Arsenal employed 80,000 people. The creative district it is to become is predicted to produce 400 local jobs post-construction. Royal Arsenal Riverside dwellings are on the market starting from £322,000, heading north of £2m. It is the council’s hope that renewal and upgrade, the vast scale of London’s creative industries and the artery of Crossrail, will drawn in more wealth, nourish more employment, provide more local pleasures and fortify local pride in Plumstead, Abbey Wood and Thamesmead. Such are the mechanisms of regeneration east of the Isle of Dogs. Wish that new South Bank vision well.