The south London borough is an urban Cinderella about to go to the ball, says Paul Finch
I have been attending the annual Develop Croydon conference for the last five years, and did so again last week. How things have changed - for the better. For one thing, construction is now taking place next to East Croydon station on a huge site blighted for years by an absurd dispute between local authority and site owners about what should be located there. Rival teams would feature on the London stand at MIPIM, both with models and displays. It didn’t do anything for the borough’s reputation.
That is all behind us, and the presence of multiple cranes on the Stanhope/Schroders site (architects ShedKM and AHMM) is encouraging evidence that after years of talk, action is now the order of the day in what is possibly London’s largest borough, with a population of 350,000-plus.
The biggest change of the past five years has been finalisation of a ‘grand plan’ for Croydon’s shopping centre, sparked by the agreement between Westfield and Hammerson to join forces. The resultant Allies & Morrison masterplan, partly informed by Will Alsop’s urban strategy drawn up in 2007/8, will result in a piece of city rather than an alienating fortress.
Croydon was La Défense 20 years before Paris picked up the idea
A sense of direction in respect of architecture and planning policies was very evident in the conference sessions last week, reinforced by Edward Lister, deputy mayor of London. He noted that without good architecture, all good intentions ‘will come to naught’; certainly the range and variety of designers now working in the borough gives some cause for comfort, as does the enthusiasm of the local authority planning team to promote excellent public realm and landscape ideas.
Croydon was an extraordinary place in the 1960s, when Modernist ideas about the future of cities created a high-rise, car-welcoming environment, a back-office facility for central London. It was La Défense 20 years before Paris picked up the idea.
However, the seeds of decline were inbuilt in what proved to be a flawed vision. Too little respect was paid to character and heritage; too little attention was given to parking amenity compared with road-building; there was far too much ‘space left over after planning’. Flawed urbanism is not why Croydon suffered a decline in recent decades, though it didn’t help; the real reason was the extent to which east London became the political favourite and recipient of Treasury largesse.
To an extent, Canary Wharf took over as the back-office centre (‘Croydon-on-Thames’), transport investment went anywhere except south London, and ministries ceased to locate staff there. Things are changing: Croydon’s tram system is being extended; there is talk of extending the Bakerloo underground line; even Crossrail is discussed as a potential connection. HMRC is about to lease space for a huge number of staff. Office development will continue if Ruskin Square’s quoted rents of £35 per square foot are achieved. Office-to-resi conversions have helpfully reduced a low-quality office surplus.
Residential towers are sprouting, especially since the Westfield/Hammerson deal was struck. Public realm improvements are in the pipeline, particularly around the Fairfield Halls cultural venue, about to undergo a £30 million retrofit programme. Chinese investors are backing a 65-storey mega-tower.
In short, Croydon has rediscovered its past as a dynamic and progressive urban centre. If I were a planner there, I would be looking at the anticipated population increase in the borough with a sceptical eye: the figures are far too conservative. A good long-term plan would accommodate a doubling in population by the middle of this century, combining density with amenity. Fortunately there is plenty of space.
College Road Tower by Darling Associates