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Gateway of opportunity

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An entire terrace of Victorian shops in Forest Gate, east London, has been refurbished as the first phase of an ambitious scheme to regenerate the high street

This project, beginning with upgrading a whole terrace of 1890s shops in a conservation area, is said to be a first.While using conservation to drive regeneration has been a focus of English Heritage of late, a key difficulty has been delivering this more than piecemeal, building by building, in areas where properties have mixed ownerships and tenancies.

Woodgrange Road Conservation Area, in Forest Gate, east London, is a high street in a deprived area. London is sometimes said to be a city of villages, but often the local cores are corridors, the high street particularly important in perceptions of the locale. This one is felt to have potential for recovery as perceptions of desirable areas change. That was one argument for the public funding of nearly all of this scheme. Almost 50 per cent (£200,000) came from EH as a HERS grant (see box), and a similar sum came from local authority Newham through the Local Environmental Strategy Fund as part of the Forest Gate Action Plan for regenerating the town centre.

Only about 5 per cent came from building owners and tenants. Even that small sum was hard to deliver, given the marginal finances of several of the shops and the lack of precedents to demonstrate the benefits of the approach.

In essence this is an 'enveloping scheme', plus street improvements. The statistics are:

improvements to 22 homes and 1,000m 2ofcommercial floorspace, plus 2,050m 2ofenvironmental enhancements. The buildings were substantially intact but in need of a facelift.What you see is a complete Victorian terrace of shops refurbished, including the front roof planes, repairs to front and end walling and windows, removal of one illegally-added dormer, restoration of the cornices, decorative consoles and polished granite pilaster frames to shopfronts, including new signage and lighting, replacement of most shopfronts and refurbishment of the rest. For new elements of signage, lighting, shopfronts and security shutters, and their colours, a restricted palette was created by Jake Stafford, an architect/planner who has also managed the process for the funders.

There could be no certainty at first that everyone would want to cooperate, as they have eventually, though there was a generally positive response. The process began with the development of a local plan, setting priorities and funding expectations by Newham planners. Stafford discussed the project individually with each owner and tenant in terms of the desired outcomes - he provided graphics of how it could be and explained the availability of grants and the process to be followed. The council architect for the project, Ralph Barkway, surveyed the buildings. Each occupier received drawings of the whole and of their particular building, together with a schedule of works and costs. People were given time to revise their plans. Probably the biggest headache was obtaining all the legal agreements from the owners and tenants, as well as their financial contributions. These were fixed prices, whether actual costs subsequently went up or down. Some closure was necessary, especially for food shops (and in Phase 2 that might be done more generally, for example for a day or two, to make the works run more smoothly).

With Phase 1 complete, perceptions are favourable. To quote Mr and Mrs Patel of the Karuri News shop: 'It's great. People are seeing the quality and history of their street for the first time. Individually we could never have improved our properties like this. It has also inspired us to spend our own money.We repaired the back of the building at the same time. If this had not happened, we were thinking of closing down. Now we'll be here for years to come.'

This Phase 1 terrace, Nos 15-39, was chosen for its architectural potential. A similar, second phase has now started for Nos 1-13 and 60-66, which ought to be more straightforward, given the success of Phase 1. Phase 3 could follow the same management process but is more of a design challenge.

The site for Phase 3 is further along Woodgrange Road at a busy intersection encircled by 34 buildings, mostly shops, but including two pubs. They are much more heterogeneous than the Phase 1 and 2 buildings, as Stafford's physical appraisal drawings illustrate. They vary in size and massing, and a few have had major changes such as '60s strip windows.

Design possibilities include road layout changes to create a more friendly public space for pedestrians and more sense of a node in the town.

Stafford proposes treating the buildings as seven groups, applying similar enveloping measures as before but in a more group-centred way, rather than trying to create one overall architectural set piece. Shopfronts and signage would still be key. But for some groups it could be better to go with the flow of changes already well established, he suggests, 'for example, frameless glass to shop fronts and doors, neon/hi-tech fascias and signage'.

Again Stafford will have to sell owners and tenants a new vision.He relishes the challenge.

CREDITS PROJECT TEAM English Heritage: Charles Wagner. Newham council: Shelley Sourgin, Amanda Peck, Jackie Morrison, Ralph Barkway Frederick Stafford Planning: Jake Stafford MAIN CONTRACTOR Apollo London SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS Shopfronts, roller shutters Ring-Gard; shop awnings Dean Blinds;

principal signage Wards of Bristol; painted signwriting, hanging sign Signwork

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