As the US Embassy plans its move to Nine Elms, Merlin Fulcher looks at the extensive regeneration planned for this underdeveloped area of London
The US Embassy will be the first embassy in London to move south of the River Thames. Currently located in salubrious Mayfair, the embassy is to due to move to Nine Elms, an underdeveloped area of London between Vauxhall and Battersea. Will its new building be a drop of world-class architecture in an ocean of urban wasteland? Or is this grey, post-industrial district about to become a beacon for quality design-led regeneration?
Nine Elms is currently carved into six large land parcels, each declared to be in full ‘development mode’. Ravi Govindia, councillor with Wandsworth Council and cabinet member for communications and strategic planning, thinks the new embassy will kickstart regeneration at Nine Elms. ‘The American government has resources to build a building of sufficient grandeur and quality to suit their needs, and that should set a significant design benchmark for neighbouring parcels of land,’ he says.
The new building will be surrounded by Embassy Quarter, an 8.5ha mixed-use development by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, Allford Hall Monaghan Morris and Flacq, currently being masterplanned by Farrells for developer Ballymore. John Letherland, partner at Farrells, says: ‘We’ve started with the public realm because it’s the thing that is going to knit the whole area together. As a commercial district, it had become very isolated and introverted and our imperative is to open it up.’
There are plans underway elsewhere in Nine Elms. The Covent Garden Market Authority (CGMA) intends to modernise its existing facilities, with Neil Tomlinson Architects designing a public square and Foster + Partners working on three residential towers at the New Covent Garden Flower Market. Nearby, Sainsbury’s has commissioned Rolfe Judd to work on a potential mixed-use redevelopment at its Vauxhall Cross supermarket, and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners is conducting a feasibility study for a £325 million mixed-use scheme at the Tideway Industrial Estate.
Next door is the hulking Battersea Power Station. Developers Real Estate Opportunities and Treasury Holdings have the only major live planning application in the area, and Rafael Viñoly Architects’ £5.5 billion scheme for the building is due to go before a planning committee this summer. Finally, the National Grid has commissioned Make to design a mixed-use scheme for its 2ha gas holders site.
The population of Nine Elms could increase by 40,000, with 16,000 new homes and up to 25,000 new jobs
The 2008 London Plan threw open the doors for large-scale redevelopment in Nine Elms. A rigid Strategic Industrial Location designation was lifted and at the same time as London’s Central Activities Zone expanded, driving up local property values. Since then, Greater London Authority planners Colin Wilson, Tava Walton and Yogesh Patil have been working up the comprehensive Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area Planning Framework (VNEB OAPF) to control development in the area.
The draft consultation recommends a ‘multi-modal’ strategy. It suggests the population of Nine Elms could increase by 40,000, with 16,000 new homes at a density of 255 dwellings per hectare and up to 25,000 new jobs. Regeneration is to be structured around two high-density poles: an emerging cluster of tall buildings at Vauxhall in the east and the Battersea Power Station redevelopment in the west. Industrial uses will be intensified and consolidated at the modernised Stewarts Road Industrial Area, currently a spin-off project by Design for London and Wandsworth Council. The New Covent Garden Market will be intensified and integrated with the surrounding area, where existing low-income housing will be retained.
The GLA’s planners are also backing a new linear park, strategic river links to existing green spaces, a river walk, road-environment improvements and a pedestrian-cycle bridge linking to Pimlico on the north bank of the river. Colin Wilson says: ‘Hopefully we pitched it to a point where there is something in it for everyone, with both sufficient quantum for developers and enough public space to keep people happy.’
However, current Public Transport Accessibility Levels at Nine Elms fall woefully short of London Plan requirements. The GLA recommends an extension of the Northern Line, with a new breakaway spur at Kennington leading to underground stations at Nine Elms and Battersea Power Station. ‘It’s essential,’ says Jeremy Castle, planning director at Treasury Holdings. ‘The only way you get this area redeveloped is with this line.’
But the estimated £430 million cost of the line extension has to be met by contributions from developers, who, fortunately for them, look likely to be made exempt from Crossrail contributions. The GLA has just tendered a contract for a detailed study of the costs implied by the VNEB OAPF’s vision of transport and social infrastructure, and a rough figure of how much needs to be raised should be released this summer.
Meanwhile, the emerging cluster of tall mixed-use buildings around Vauxhall station includes the 180m Vauxhall Tower by Broadway Malyan for developer St George, which is on site, and the 120m Vauxhall Sky Gardens by careyjones with Amin Taha Architects, which is currently in public consultation. Make’s 149m Octave Tower was submitted for planning last June, and Squire and Partners is reviving Vauxhall Island, a stalled scheme for a grassed-over traffic island.
Foster + Partners’ proposal for three towers (the tallest of which measures 85m) on Albert Embankment won planning permission two years ago, but building has yet to start on site. And the iconic 1987 Marco Polo House designed by Ian Pollard, is earmarked for mixed-use redevelopment. The Cooper Group bought the site for £63 million back in 2007 and could demolish the post-modern building after home-shopping TV channel QVC’s lease ends in 2012.