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McAslan's Smithfield plans win English Heritage backing

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English Heritage has thrown its weight behind John McAslan + Partners’ contentious proposals to redevelop Smithfield Market

The conservation body said it supported the planning application for project backers Henderson Global Investors which would see elements of the historic market pulled down and replaced with a retail and office-led scheme.

In a letter to the City of London’s planning department, English Heritage (see attached) said the plans represented a ‘realistic long-term proposal’ to bring the Victorian buildings back into a viable use.

The letter reads: ‘We are persuaded that an amout of new development on the site is required. [The] repair costs associated with the large size and very poor condition of the buildings, added to the need to repair the tunnel structures beneath part of the site, mean that long term viability is unlikely to be achieved without additional subsidy.’

Letter writer, Michael Dunn, English Heritage’s principal inspector of historic buildings said: ‘Although the new development at the centre of the General Market Building will result in the loss of elements of moderate interest (the 1960s concrete dome, the timber roof and parts of the of the interiror of the market hall), this needs to be balanced against the benefits through the proposed repair and restoration of most of the richly decorated red brick perimeter buildings, which are the most significant elements on the site.’

However SAVE Britain’s Heritage, which has been campaigning to keep the threat of bulldozers away from the market for a second time (see below), said English Heritage’s letter marked ‘a shocking volte face’.

According to the conservation lobby group, English Heritage had been ‘one of the chief bodies opposing demolition’ when the previous plans to flatten and replace the market by KPF had been lodged six years ago.

David Cooper, the solicitor who acted for SAVE in the subsequent 2008 public inquiry, said: ‘At the public inquiry English Heritage were totally opposed to any scheme that didn’t retain the buildings particularly their magnificent glass roofs. Their response to the Henderson proposals doesn’t fulfil the inspector’s conclusions in any shape manner or form. 

‘Their position is a complete volte face without any justification at all.’

Previous story (AJ 14.11.2013)

Battle for Smithfield: developer hits back at SAVE criticism

The developer behind the contentious proposals to redevelop Smithfield Market has said he is ‘baffled and saddened’ by SAVE Britain’s Heritage’s response

Last month SAVE’s Clem Cecil slammed the all-new proposals for the historic market drawn up by John McAslan + Partners, claiming they ‘merely nodded towards conservation’ and retained only elements of the ‘facade while sacrificing the roof structure’ (read SAVE’s full critique of the plans here).

However Geoff Harris, director of property development at Henderson Global Investors, has hit back at SAVE which today revealed its own rival plans (14 November) for the central London site. He said: ‘It seems that the facts about our proposals are being misrepresented.  We’ve adopted a balanced and pragmatic attitude to finding a solution to these buildings and it would appear that SAVE are not willing to consider our proposal with the same degree of pragmatism. 

SAVE are not willing to consider our proposal with the same degree of pragmatism

‘Henderson’s custodianship of these buildings, and the proposals that have been made by our team, have been created with care and in a collaborative approach with English Heritage and with the City of London planning authority over the last two and a half years.

He added: ‘Our proposals are a thorough and legitimate response to the challenges of putting these buildings back into long-term sustainable use, both in terms of heritage and in terms of the very real issue of commercial sense. It is not credible to imagine that a viable solution can be found by simply leaving the buildings as they are and without adding density.’

Henderson’s took over the scheme following the demise of developer Thornfield which had failed with an earlier, highly controversial office-led proposal drawn up by KPF. Before its collapse Thornfield hired John McAslan to look at a more sensitive plan in a bid to appease heritage groups which had objected to the wide-scale demolition proposed in the KPF plans (pictured below).

KPF’s rejected proposals (2008)

Harris added: ‘The key to our proposal is adding enough density without being excessive, and in a way that is sympathetic to retaining as much of the Victorian fabric as possible. We are proposing less than half the density of the scheme proposed in the previous [KPF] application that was submitted before our involvement in the buildings and no wholesale demolition of the Victorian buildings.

We are proposing less than half the density of the KPF scheme

‘I fear that a failure to recognise this reality, seemingly based upon a lack of understanding of what investment is needed to restore the existing buildings will condemn the buildings to remain as they are. A sustainable long term future that can be enjoyed by the surrounding community is not possible without significant investment.

He concluded: ‘It is alarmist and incorrect to suggest that our proposals put doubt into the safety of the famous meat market buildings to the Eastern side of Smithfield.  They do not. The actual buildings in our proposal sit on the Western end of Smithfield and have not had a proper use for over a decade, one has remained unused for much longer.’

John McAslan + Partners' proposals for Smithfield Market

John McAslan + Partners’ proposals for Smithfield Market

Henderson’s Global Investors rebuttal in full (and see attached)

1.    We are apparently “destroying the grandest parade of market buildings in Europe” according to SAVE.  Two of the buildings do not feature in the “parade” of buildings moving West to East.  For the third, the General Market building, it remains in place and the additions to the existing building have been designed to recognise the view from Holborn Viaduct.  To suggest that these original buildings are unimportant to us is not accurate.

The buildings that we are dealing with are not used by the meat trading activity of the area.  The actual buildings in question, those to which our proposals relate, have not had a proper use for in excess of a decade, one has remained unused for much longer Our proposals do not put doubt into the safety of the famous meat market buildings to the Eastern side of Smithfield.  It is alarmist and incorrect to suggest otherwise.

2.    SAVE apparently say about the General Market Building that our proposals “yet again propose its destruction, bar a token nod towards conservation”. Our proposals do not put forward wholesale demolition.  The proposal is for a mixed use scheme of which a significant part provides retail space configured to provide critical mass and a range of retail unit sizes that will offer space appropriate for independent retailers as well as multiples.  The addition of office space delivers the sustainability that mixed use development brings as well as the financial viability that is necessary to fund the renovation of the retained parts of the existing buildings.  

3.    New space in the General Market Building is arranged in 3 “blocks of space” that range between 2 and 4 storeys above ground floor.  The highest point of the design proposed for the General Market Building is within 1 metre of the adjacent poultry market roof.  SAVE’s suggestion that 20m is extreme, appears disingenuous.  Modern insertions are one of a number of recognised ways to ensure the viable restoration of old buildings in need of significant investment and being able to see them should not be assumed to be detrimental.  The task is to respect the contribution the buildings make to the conservation area. 

4.    “It’s another scoop-out job,” says Clem Cecil of Save Britain’s Heritage, referring to the common strategy of retaining the façade of an existing building and “mining out everything behind.”  Our proposals are not based upon façade retention, the intention is to retain and renovate the entirety of the Old Fish Market and the old Engine House, to renovate and put into proper use the vast majority of the perimeter buildings of the general market and to retain street facades to the Red House, a building that has no modern use available to it.  We keep the most important parts of the Red House facades and integrate them into the remodelled space. We remove an entirely underwhelming 1960’s corrugated metal warehouse element that sits between the Red House and the Old Fish Market and replace it with new commercial office space that works with the new retail uses that can then be delivered to the Old Fish Market and the ground floor space created within the Red House principal facades. For the General Market Building we remove the roof to what is currently an open internal space and reuse the original Victorian columns as well as reclaiming and reusing as much of the historic materials that we can.  The open market is replaced by two new public piazzas that are activated by the retail space and by public flows into this new civic space.  For the internal piazza natural light is introduced by atria that offer a modern interpretation of the original roof lights.   

5.    A lot of public perception of these Smithfield building is felt at pavement and street level, where pedestrian and traffic flows occur. For the General Market Building alone we retain and renovate entire swathes of the perimeter buildings, in the order of 300 metres of Victorian buildings along three streets in just this one building of the four that will be regenerated as part of the proposed scheme.  The street frontages to all buildings will deliver interest and activity through retail use and create interconnection with the internal spaces of the remodelled buildings.

6.    In the Guardian blog of 16 October Oliver Wainwright reports that  “it is also knee-capping the existing buildings: the entire ground floor will be replaced with glass, front and back, leaving the first floor floating in a strange parody: “a token nod towards conservation”, says Cecil.”  One can only assume that this comment refers to the General Market Building and in relation to indicative shop front design that is shown on our visualisation. This appears to show a lack of understanding of the design. For the parts of the General Market Building that front Farringdon Road, West Smithfield Street and Charterhouse Street, the columns that support the Victorian buildings are expressed at ground floor level of the principal elevations and are clearly visible right now should one walk the surrounding pavements. These columns are currently “in filled” with an assortment of shop fronts, some that reflect a traditional style of shop front, some much more underwhelming and that are later additions.  The heights of these existing shop fronts currently vary as they are determined by the changing levels of the pavements (some quite considerably).  The shop fronts that exist are non-structural and will probably historically have been chosen to suit the business of the retail unit occupier, hence their partially eclectic styling.  We are retaining the columns exactly as they exist at the moment and so there is no change in height of the ground floor treatment nor in spacing of the columns. We are yet to agree with the statutory consultative bodies how the shop fronts will be treated and it could be a range of styles though we expect them to be mainly traditional, and they will be installed as part of the renovation works in order to allow the approving bodies control of the final appearance of the ground floor shop fronts.   We think that the introduction of awnings that are in keeping with the history of the area will add more tradition though for now our visualisations are intended to demonstrate intent not final detailing. Our renders show a mixture of shop front types and are for indicative purposes right now.

7.    SAVE says that “the rendered image of the remodelled interior by McAslan is beguiling but plays fast and loose with the building’s historic elements and fittings”.  We really do not understand this comment as the Fish Market will be renovated to its original style, including the roof structure, and that is what the imagery shows.  For the General Market Building the visualisation of the internal space represents our current design and our intent to reuse as much of the historic elements as possible in a way that actually has a use that the public can enjoy within the two new piazza’s.

8.    “It’s all very pretty, but it’s just throwing sparkly dust in our eyes,” says Cecil. “Look closely and it’s just hashed-together conservation detailing.”  One can only assume that SAVE is looking at different design details to us, the historic parts that are retained are returned to their former detail and in significant portions.

9.    “SAVE believes that the site lends itself perfectly to re-use as it is. At present the late 19th-century market building has a beautiful roof structure of iron, wood and glass that lets natural light in and would serve as an elegant canopy for small shops and cafés as in Covent Garden.”  We wonder if SAVE has a proper understanding of the repairs that are necessary to the buildings in order for them to function properly and safely as these buildings require significant repair.  In the previous Public Inquiry, the Inspector acknowledged that the cost of repair alone made a full retention proposal unviable.

10. SAVE says “The scheme retains only elements of the facade while sacrificing the roof structure”.   Actually, the scheme retains the majority of the perimeter buildings that form the curtilage of the General Market, the entirety of the Fish Market and the toilet block and the principal elevations of the Red House.  It is accurate that the roof structure to the existing general market central area is removed but not the roof structure to the Fish Market.   The majority of the chimneys are retained and put into use.

11. “The opportunity to create a fantastic public space at Smithfield has been overlooked by the City Corporation that appears happy to see the market sold off piecemeal.” according to SAVE.   It is for the City to speak for itself but in our experience their intellectual rigour has been of the highest order throughout our work with them over the last few years.  We are concerned with only the western buildings that make up Smithfield; the others that form the meat trading market are in active use and are unaffected.  Our proposals do offer fantastic public space that is not currently available in any case.

12. We remain committed to the preservation of as much of the historic content as we believe feasible.


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