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Victorian Society joins call-in clamour against demolition of old Foyles building

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The Victorian Society has joined SAVE Britain’s Heritage in demanding that the secretary of state call in Matt Architecture and SODA’s proposed demolition of a former Soho bookshop

The plans include replacing the former Foyles store and several adjoining buildings with a new build containing offices, restaurants and an art gallery.

The scheme for Ilona Rose House at 111-119 Charing Cross Road has already been approved by Westminster City Council and London mayor Sadiq Khan has also refused to step in. 

Last month, SAVE wrote to communities secretary Greg Clark urging him to stop the proposals and to hold a public enquiry into the local authority’s approval. The heritage organisation has also launched a petition and written an article explaining its position (see below).

Now the Victorian Society has added its weight to SAVE’s demands, asking Clark to ’take a strong stance and call in the decision to ensure this important conservation area is preserved.’

The Victorian Society’s senior conservation adviser, James Hughes, said: ‘Neither Westminster Council nor the mayor has addressed the fact that demolition is not the only way to achieve the suggested public benefits for the site.

’This area has already seen swathes of historic buildings destroyed including the Astoria and the handsome Victorian blocks on both sides of Charing Cross Road. Many Londoners have happy memories of the old Foyles building and struggle to see why it is being demolished rather than redeveloped.’

In response Soho Estates – the project’s developer – argues that it ‘understands the historic nature of Soho and actively supports it’ (see full statement below).

The developer highlighted its recent restoration work at 76 Dean Street in Soho and said that it preserved the site’s historic features.

It also said that the listed building on the site will be renovated and the historic facades to Greek Street repaired.

In addition, Soho Estates disputes SAVE’s claim that the building was ’the country’s oldest purpose built bookshop’, arguing that there are ’better claimants to this title’ like Daunt Books at 83 Marylebone High Street or Hatchards on Piccadilly.

The company has said that the development will ’deliver outstanding commercial and retail space’ retaining the film and creative industries in Soho – and that without the project these groups ’might otherwise be lost to Soho forever’.

Foyles moved its flagship store on 107 Charing Cross Road in 2014. Last year, Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands’ £9 million creation of the ‘largest bookstore to be built in the UK this century’ inside a former Central St Martins college building won the AJ Retrofit of the Year Award.

Khan has decided not to oppose proposals for the site, despite the opposition from heritage groups and Historic England.

A statement from his office said: ‘The mayor has carefully considered this finely balanced application on its merits and he is persuaded that the benefits of the scheme outweigh the heritage loss of the existing buildings, which are not listed.

‘He understands and appreciates the heritage value of the former bookshop, but in this instance he believes the addition of much-needed commercial space, including space suitable for small creative businesses, and the potential to create 1,500 jobs will help ensure this vibrant part of London continues to thrive.’

Other proposals for the project include a nightclub, eight residential units and shops.

Construction is due to begin in autumn 2016 and to be completed by winter 2020.

SAVE’s argument against the demolition of the former Foyles bookshop

The headline here may be ‘Foyles War’, but there is far more at stake than just the country’s oldest purpose built bookshop. At the heart of all this is the battle for Soho – its special character, its unique identity, and its architectural integrity. More broadly, it is a test of Conservation Area protection.

Once again we find ourselves up against a type of proposal we see all too often – the demolition of buildings of merit in Conservation Areas, and their replacement with corporate blocks. This time it’s Soho’s turn.

The application site is a large one. Bounded at one end by Greek Street and at the other by Charing Cross Road, it includes all of the south side of Manette Street, and all the buildings to the rear of the street frontages, including Wedgwood Mews. The existing buildings are a handsome bunch, an eclectic mix in brick and stone, dating from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The three fronting Charing Cross Road are acknowledged by Westminster City Council as unlisted buildings of merit, and they are fine examples of the character and diversity of the Conservation Area as a whole. It is these kinds of buildings, nestled up against each other, that make Soho’s streetscapes so architecturally rich and exciting.

While the buildings currently sit empty (Foyles moved several doors down Charing Cross Road in 2014) and consequently look somewhat forlorn and unloved, they are clearly attractive, and deserve to be retained. They are eminently capable of reuse.

Proposed is a singular nine-storey office block. A drab monotonous box of a building, it is far larger than those it will replace, and far larger than those around it. It is wholly out of place in Soho, and ignores everything that gives the area charm and character. Gone is the fine grain of the existing site, gone is the varying roofline, gone is the variety in materials and styles, gone is the human scale.

Soho is characterised by its domestic scale and its range of architectural styles, set on narrow building plots on a 17th century street pattern. It is known nationally and internationally for its vibrancy and diversity, and for its independent businesses, bars and restaurants; it hums with life at all times of the day and night. Its historic townscape is an integral part of this strong identity. This however is under immense pressure as a result of inappropriate development proposals, not only on this site, but elsewhere in the area.

Historic England and the Victorian Society strongly objected to this application, as did many members of the public. The GLA considered that the demolition of the Charing Cross Road buildings would constitute substantial harm to the Conservation Area. Despite clear, compelling reasons for refusal, Westminster City Council approved the plans last month. In June Sadiq Khan also gave the scheme the thumbs-up.

What has become very clear very quickly is just how much the public values these kinds of buildings – modest but handsome historic buildings, human in scale, not necessarily eye-catchers, but the backdrop to much of London – buildings that Conservation Area legislation is designed to preserve and enhance, and which local authorities such as Westminster should be doing more to protect.

A petition launched last week has already attracted over 4,000 signatures, and it continues to grow.

It now falls to the Secretary of State to decide whether to call in the planning application. Failure to do so would set a dangerous precedent, putting buildings of merit in Conservation Areas at risk up and down the country. For Soho it would mean further erosion of its uniqueness.

Last year SAVE led the campaign to save a terrace of buildings on the Strand. There, King’s College was proposing to demolish five buildings of merit in a Conservation Area, for replacement with a larger, bland block. Westminster City Council had approved planning, and we were told the buildings could not be reused and incorporated into a new scheme. Demolition, we were told, was the only solution.

Thanks to a concerted effort and huge public support, these plans were called in by the Department, and then subsequently withdrawn. Proposals to reuse and revive these buildings are, we understand, now in the pipeline.

The Secretary of State saw the importance of Conservation Area protection last year when he called in the King’s College application. We sincerely hope he will do the same in Soho.

Soho Estates’ statement 

1. Summary of the proposals for Ilona Rose House

The proposals put forward by Soho Estates are for a new scheme at the former home of the Foyles bookshop and adjoining buildings at 111-119 Charing Cross Road. The new 310,000 square feet Ilona Rose House will feature studio space and offices, shops, restaurants, a nightclub and eight affordable apartments to rent across a nine storey block with rooftop gardens. The listed building on the site will be renovated and the historic facades to Greek Street repaired.

2. On background: Inaccuracy in the SAVE statement

 The former Foyles bookshop building on Charing Cross Road was not “the country’s oldest purpose built bookshop”.

This is based on a claim originally made by William Foyle when he opened an extension to the shop at 113-117 Charing Cross Road in 1929 (source: http://www.foyles.co.uk/about-foyles) There is little evidence to support Foyle’s claim, however. Even in London there are better claimants to this title: e.g. Daunt Books at 83 Marylebone High Street (which occupies a beautiful Edwardian bookshop originally custom-built for the antiquarian bookseller Francis Edwards) or Hatchards on Piccadilly.

 The buildings are also not the original Foyles bookstore; the business was founded in 1903 and moved to its first premises in Westminster in 1904 and its first premises on Charing Cross Road (at 135 Charing Cross Road) in 1906. It later moved over time to some of the buildings on the south side of Manette Street which now form the site for Ilona Rose House.

3. Statement on behalf of John James, Managing Director of Soho Estates, regarding proposals for 111-119 Charing Cross Road

Soho Estates understand the historic nature of Soho and actively support it.

We recently restored 76 Dean Street, the 2nd most historic building in the area, which had fallen out of use following a devastating fire in 2009. Working with expert architects, we made substantial renovations to the building, and brought it back into use as a new Soho House Club, all the while preserving the historic features of the site, including an 18th century seascape mural above the main staircase.

The Foyles bookstore moved from 119 Charing Cross Road into new premises in 2014. We were left with a building which is no longer fit for purpose, in an area which is being transformed as a result of the new Crossrail Station at Tottenham Court Road.

We are invested in the long-term future of Soho, and the proposals for 111-119 Charing Cross Road exemplify our considered approach to development. This site offers a once in a generation opportunity to create modern, usable spaces, while protecting the best historic features. 14 Greek Street, a listed building at the rear of the site, will be restored for use as an art gallery and education space. Westminster City Council has provisionally approved our plans, and acknowledged the public benefits of the scheme.

We are currently working with major players in the creative industries, and only by demolition can we achieve a building in which we can offer bespoke technical spaces and studios. The new building will deliver outstanding commercial and retail space, and provide purpose built accommodation to anchor the film and creatives industries in Soho - industries which might otherwise be lost to Soho forever.

4. Statement from the mayor of London’s office

The mayor of London Sadiq Khan decided not to ‘call in’ the proposals for Ilona Rose House in June 2016, despite objections from Historic England (a new organisation formed in April 2015 following the split from English Heritage). The body felt that the plans to replace the Charing Cross Road building with a new build with offices, shops, restaurants, art gallery, night club, and eight flats, would damage the conservation area.

A statement from Mr Khan’s office said: ’The mayor has carefully considered this finely-balanced application on its merits and he is persuaded that the benefits of the scheme outweigh the heritage loss of the existing buildings, which are not listed.

’He understands and appreciates the heritage value of the former bookshop, but in this instance he believes the addition of much-needed commercial space, including space suitable for small creative businesses, and the potential to create 1,500 jobs will help ensure this vibrant part of London continues to thrive.’

(Source: West End Extra http://www.westendextra.com/khanfoylessnub)


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Readers' comments (1)

  • Replacing a variety of 4-5 storey buildings in a conservation area with one lumpen 9 storey building of little architectural merit (if any) can surely not be considered OK except purely in terms of making the maximum possible return on investment .
    'Possible' is the key word, and that's thanks to Westminster City Council and the Mayor of London.
    It's not really a Conservation Area at all, is it? It's the 'Emperor's new clothes' - courtesy of a list of 'must have' benefits (without which Soho will, of course, collapse in a cloud of dust) that seem to have proved irresistible to the politicians.

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