South Kensington station: heritage, upgrades and development tensions

South Kensington station: heritage, upgrades and development tensions

The planning committee of Kensington & Chelsea Council (RBKC) was due to meet last night to consider proposals from Transport for London and Native Land for developing TfL property around and within South Kensington London Underground station, that famed arrival point for millions of visitors to the great museums of Exhibition Road. But yesterday morning it was announced that the meeting had been cancelled “due to lack of business“. What happened?

As Building Design reported, the applicants withdrew their plans very late in the day, even though the five-member committee had been advised by RBKC’s Director, Planning and Place to approve them. It seems the applicants had the feeling that the committee – four Conservatives and a single Labour member with a history of scepticism about developer viability claims – might say no, so they decided on a tactical retreat – a temporary one, they hope.

This is but the latest chapter in a very long-running saga, going back to at least 1993, when consent was given for a demolition and refurbishment scheme, including new offices, shops and a whole new station. It was never implemented. The latest phase began around 2013, when TfL was starting to look hard at how it could make the most of London land it owns to help its finances and get more housing built through joint ventures with developers. In the case of South Ken Tube, there was a related need to improve the ticket hall and the state of the station in general. But getting permission for any sort of scheme was always going to be difficult.

Though the station is scruffy in parts and, in the words of the Director’s report, its very creation in 1868 produced “a broken townscape” resulting in “dead facades and visible rear elevations that were never designed to be so,” it is now Grade II-listed, has an elegant arcade addition dating from the turn of the 20th century, a Leslie Green ox-blood tiled entrance added in 1905, and surrounding streets whose sanctity is watched over by a host of conservation groups. Save Britain’s Heritage urged the planning committee’s members to reject what it called the “harmful plans” and to “save this gem of Bohemia from greedy developers”.

Those developers foresee the arcade shopfronts being refurbished, the ticket hall rejuvenated and lifts put in. New, mixed-use buildings of up to five storeys in height would be built along the side of Pelham Street which borders one side of the station tracks. Down the other side, Thurloe Street, an existing building would be demolished behind its facade with historic ground floor shopfronts smartened up and reinstated. At the far end of these two streets a new five-storey residential block, Thurloe Square, is intended. A new office building is envisaged as replacing “the Bullnose”, a curved structure at the front of the station.

The economics of the plans would see the housing, shops and offices produce sufficient profit to pay for the station improvements. Is that “greedy”? Do the proposed new designs honour the South Ken “gem of Bohemia” or threaten it? As adjudicators of these tensions, which way should RBKC’s officers and its planning committee members lean?

The Director’s report praised many aspects of the scheme but, while recommending consent, also expressed many reservations. Although stating that redevelopment provides “an opportunity to enhance the character and appearance” of the site, all of which lies within a conservation area, it also observes that the new Bullnose vision “does read as overtly modern in the townscape” and that its increased height compared with what’s there now “relates poorly to the listed station building”. The conclusion is that demolition of the existing Bullnose would be “a harmful element of the proposals”, albeit “less than substantial”.

The same level of harm is attributed to the Thurloe Street facade ideas, with new features reproved for not “responding sensitively to the rhythm of elements within the existing building and the surrounding townscape”. Thurloe Square “would not harmonise with the neighbouring buildings”. The new Pelham Street buildings would be “over-dominant”.

Confronted with these negatives, the developers’ planning consultant, DP9, sent an email on Tuesday lunchtime, highlighting the “substantive criticisms” in the Director’s report and arguing that had these issues been discussed in advance “our architects [Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners] would have been in a position to promote a series of significant amendments” to address them.

Possible amendments listed include a reduction of the height of the Pelham Street buildings, though only by around one metre, and re-evaluating the “solid to glazing ratio” of the top floor of the replacement Bullnose. “The proposals for this sensitive site have been many years in the making,” say DP9. “We feel that there is an opportunity to pause, reflect and respond.” A few months’ delay would be “a price worth paying”.

Save Britain’s Heritage are not impressed and haven’t been since the plans were unveiled a year ago: they consider them “over-scaled” and claim that the principles of a Development Brief produced by TfL in 2016 for consultation have been “abandoned”, with “much historic fabric to be destroyed” and replaced with buildings “completely out of character with the area”. Will Native Land, come back with something RBKC’s officers are more serene about, with the planning committee members following suit? Will the conservation grouping be appeased?

The latter looks a tall order, but from the developers’ side there is a feeling that RBKC as a whole wants them to succeed. This cautious confidence is buttressed by something that is now more obvious than ever in the light of the government’s latest “conditions-based” funding provision for TfL – that the upgrade of South Kensington station, gateway to some of Covid-battered London’s most precious visitor attractions, can only be paid for from the proceeds of a sizeable development. But not everyone is hopeful. Peter Bill, one of wisest property journalists around, said this: “South Ken station – the development that will never happen.”

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