Will Alsop tells me that in the ’60s and ’70s ‘Croydon was the English version of Manhattan’.
While today that comparison seems amazing, Alsop is adamant that Croydon’s proximity to London – it is 19km from Charing Cross; the planned arrival of the East London Line in 2010; and the burning ambition of Croydon Council will at least make it London’s ‘third city’ after Westminster and the Square Mile.
But before that dream can be realised Alsop sets out a number of prerequisites. The most pressing of which is the creation of greater permeability across the five north-south barriers that currently stifle movement east-west across Croydon.
SMC Alsop project architect Amanda Marshall describes Croydon’s Wellesley Road, the four-lane Roman Way, the Croydon Flyover, East Croydon Station’s railway tracks, and the imposing mass of the Whitgift Shopping Centre as ‘catastrophic’.
She says: ‘People cannot reach their parks. They can only cross Wellesley Road in three places and at the moment you can only exit East Croydon Station at its south end.
‘The Whitgift Centre,’ adds Marshall ‘is closed at night, which creates another barrier’.
The masterplan would see the Whitgift Shopping Centre bulldozed to make way for blocks of ‘permeable’ retail, on top of which will be a ‘living layer’ of residential towers. However, the Whitgift – a mainstay of Croydon’s retail district – could prove to be Alsop’s Achilles heel.
The sprawling centre is part-owned by Howard Holdings (HH), and despite Alsop’s claim to the AJ that ‘they know it has to come down’, the firm’s investment director, Geoff Sparrow, says HH has no intention of seeing its prize asset turned to dust.
Sparrow says: ‘Will Alsop and the council do not own the shopping centre. He may say it as a barrier, but the rent rolled out on the centre is £26 million a year and it is the heart of Croydon’s shopping. Its demolition is not an easy commercial argument to make. It will take five years to develop and in the mean time people will go to Bromley and Kingston. Will they come back?’
Alsop’s bold vision also includes the bridging of East Croydon railway tracks with a huge pipe-like building and a transparent tower described as a ‘vertical Kew Gardens’. And an Alsop commission for New York also makes an appearance on the masterplan, although the architect says the real thing will only be built in Yonkers. ‘I don’t like to repeat myself,’ he says.
Jon Rouse, the chief executive of Croydon Council, accepts that many will scoff at Alsop’s vision and is aware of the problems that have beset the architect’s previous masterplans for Bradford and Barnsley, the latter of which has almost certainly been sidelined.
But, Rouse says HH cannot predict the future and that forthcoming schemes, including Minerva and Lend Lease’s Park Place retail scheme, due to be built next to the Whitgift, will change Croydon’s prospect.