LIKE the admiral it's named for, Nelson Road is looking rather one-eyed these days. When Joseph Kay rebuilt the town centre for its owners, Greenwich Hospital, in 1829, he made it south London's most elegant shopping street. Even a few years ago, it still rose some way above the general tat lining the three other sides of the one-way system.
Today, however, the Roman-lettered shop-signs have been ousted by corporate screamers in orange and pink. The art galleries, florists, antique dealers and second-hand bookshops of the 1990s have made way for noodle bars and a teen fashion store.
Frank Dowling's Inc Group has gobbled up half one side of the street, with three neighbouring Bar du Musee franchises (see right); a fitting symbol of the unstoppable spillage of Inc that is blotting our town. Most of all, there are the four empty shops - including both the two which bracket the passageway to the market. One of these has been vacant for around eighteen months.
Ah yes, you say - the market. Could all this have anything to do with Greenwich Hospital's grand masterplan to redevelop the place, which was briefly "consulted on" last year in one of the empty shops? They said they would make their planning application by this summer. But just as the summer weather went missing this year, so did the application. Nothing, so far, has gone in.
So what actually is happening? Does Nelson Road's decay mean that the masterplan is drifting? Or is it some devious scheme to make the new development look less bad by comparison?
Neither, says David McFarlane, the Hospital's spokesman. "There is no intention to keep shops vacant," he insists. And the planning application for the market redevelopment is "still very much full steam ahead." It has, however, been delayed. "It is now more likely," he says, "that the planning application will be submitted in spring 2009." Sounds like a little bit of drift to me, David.
The reason for the delay, says Mr McFarlane, is that the scheme's had to be revised "as a result of the consultation and trying to keep the cost base down." In last year's blueprint, they wanted to demolish the 1950s buildings immediately surrounding the market, replacing them with new shops and a "small hotel." The roof over the stall area would be raised two storeys in height and made of glass, creating more of a shopping-mall experience.
In the revised scheme, the 50s buildings still go, the new shops still come, but the hotel becomes very far from "small." It will now be around a hundred rooms, a very substantial size - with all the traffic, pickups and dropoffs that that implies. The roof over the market will no longer be glass, says Mr McFarlane, but a sort of translucent canvas, rather like that used in the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. None of this is final, he says, but "a work in progress."
Two other key issues have yet to be settled. Where do the market stallholders go for the two years the place is being rebuilt? It's not yet clear. Cutty Sark Gardens, one option for a temporary site, appears to have been blocked by the council.
The application for the new market, and the application for the temporary one, were to have been submitted together. Now, it seems, they may be separate. Could that imply no temporary market? No, insists the Hospital. "If there isn't a temporary market, there will be a question mark over the whole development. The Hospital can't shut down the market for two years, lose the income and not make it up somewhere else."
But the biggest unsettled issue of all, of course, is the banking meltdown and the credit crunch. Redevelopments are being cancelled all over London. And if shoppers stop shopping, which retailer will want to take space in the new, larger shops that are planned for Greenwich?
McFarlane is upbeat, saying the Hospital is unusually well-capitalised, with substantial reserves. But if that's so, why rework the scheme to reduce costs? I have a feeling the tangled saga of the market could have another few twists to go. Nelson might not get his eye back any time soon.