AS THE proposals to redevelop Greenwich Market start their journey through the planning process, we need to be clear about two things.
Firstly, the current plan is not substantially different from Greenwich Hospital’s discredited 2006 scheme to demolish the Market, dropped after a public outcry. The main difference is that this time the PR operation has been smoother.
Secondly, the plans – whether you like them or not – represent a fundamental transformation, changing a nineteenth-century market into a 21st-century shopping precinct with added market stalls.
“But it’s not nineteenth-century,” I hear you say. The buildings lining the two longest sides of the market are from the 1950s.
That is, of course, perfectly true. But somehow, despite that. the market feels old. The key to that feeling lies in two things – the low ceiling, and the cobbled floor. In the new scheme, both of those things will be destroyed.
Artists’ impressions of the scheme show what is now the central market area covered with a high, contemporary, plastic or membrane translucent roof, supported by at least sixteen thick stainless-steel pillars.
The current roof hides the Fifties buildings. The new roof would be at least two to three storeys high, exposing the new contemporary buildings to be constructed either side.
It looks like a closed-sided version of Stratford bus station – a building I admire, and which works well in a modern setting like Stratford, but which is wholly out of keeping with the historic centre of Greenwich. It is a world heritage site, folks – you do know we’ve only got four of them, don’t you?
The lowness of the current roof contributes greatly to the intense, warren-like atmosphere of the market, a place which feels like a hunting ground for hidden treasure, or at least scented candles. The new version has as much intensity and excitement as the central square at Bluewater.
The other thing that makes the market feel old is the cobbles. These, too, will be ripped up, in favour of standard setts and slabs. Health and safety, that evergreen answer to every blandifier’s prayers, is being cited in support of this vandalism.
The brochure promises to “increase the total amount of retail space" - not necessarily a bad thing, and it does seem from the plan that the new shops will still be quite small. Good; but I have a nasty feeling that they may not stay small in the finished scheme.
The main difference from the 2006 scheme is that instead of being “luxury flats,” the new buildings around the market are now to be a 100-room “boutique hotel.” A hundred rooms is actually almost 25% more than at the existing town centre hotel, the Ibis, which has 82 rooms. A hundred rooms isn’t a boutique, chaps – it’s a department store.
What will the new hotel buildings be like? If they are supposed to be in place by the Olympics, that doesn’t leave much time for niceties like decent design and careful construction. They are high, at least four storeys, potentially overshadowing the listed buildings on Church Street and King William Walk. My concern is that they will be the same kind of blank structures that line the pedestrian passage at Cutty Sark DLR station, and that the public spaces between them will be as charmless as that passage.
The hotel, in fact, could be where the Hospital’s grand plans prove, in the end, unworkable. Greenwich Council may never have shown much concern for the town’s heritage – but I don’t imagine (I could be wrong about this) that they want Greenwich to be an even worse traffic jam than it is already.
The main entrance of the hotel could cause just that. It will be right on the busiest part of the one-way system, on King William Walk. The Hospital claims that most guests will arrive by public transport – surely nonsense. Few people carrying luggage for a stay in an expensive hotel (I think we can assume this hotel will be expensive) want to, or can, carry it on public transport. Most will arrive by car, by taxi or perhaps, if they are in a party, by coach.
There is nowhere to unload such vehicles except right in the middle of the traffic flow (and the hotel entrance also has the distinction of being opposite a bus terminus, further narrowing the available space.) Rather like the fluttering butterfly wings in South America which caused the proverbial earthquake in Japan, the arrival of a coach containing fifty tourists and their luggage in Greenwich will be felt all the way back to Tower Bridge.
The other main difference from 2006 is that Greenwich Hospital has made a better fist of its PR. Back then, Nick Raynsford, the local MP, told me that the plans were a “fundamental change to the character of the area” which would make people “up in arms.”
That fundamental change, as I’ve suggested, remains. But Mr Raynsford now seems less unhappy about it. He’s one of the “stakeholders” that the Hospital’s PR firm has managed to butter up.
Ray Smith, from the Greenwich Society, is quoted by the PRs as saying that the proposal will “help revitalise Greenwich town centre.” But it is impossible to see how the market - teeming, buzzing, thronged - could be any more vital than it is already. Indeed, in 2006, a certain Nick Raynsford told me: "The market is hugely popular. You only have to go down there at the weekend to see that it's absolutely packed and it makes a big contribution to the character of Greenwich."
So what's changed? Perhaps the local worthies have been persuaded by the results of the “consultation” the Hospital conducted. They shouldn’t be: the questions were so loaded as to be almost worthless.
The lack of fuss, so far, can also be explained by some of the core reassurances being made about the development. The latest brochure claims that “the overall objective of the plan is to maintain all the principles of Greenwich Market.” There’s only one problem with this: it is just not true.
But the Hospital’s need to say it does unwittingly reveal another truth: that it knows most people in Greenwich do want to “maintain the principles of Greenwich Market.” If you are among them, it is time to start objecting to this principle-destroying development.