Property development at Kings Cross railway lands

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The intention to create the second international high-speed train terminal of the British capital at King's Cross (the first, already in use, is at Waterloo) has prompted a variety of redevelopment proposals for the area. Two distinct waves of plans can be identified, corresponding to the first and second rounds of negotiations discussed above.

Fig. 9.7 The LRC plan designed by Norman Foster, July 1990 version. (Architects: Foster Associates)

9.4.1 The first wave

In the first wave, on the table was the review of the outline planning applications (OPAs). These were submitted by the developers and minority landowners, who jointly formed the London Regeneration Consortium (LRC) and were contractually linked to British Railways (BR, the main landowner), and by the coalition of local groups gathered in the King's Cross Railway Lands Group (KXRLG). A third proposal had been put together by the King's Cross Team (KXT) for the local 'enlightened' developer Clarke, but it was not formalized in an OPA. The plans for King's Cross sponsored by the LRC and designed by Norman Foster (Figure 9.7) have long been featured on the pages of specialized and less specialized magazines. Those plans have been the object of numerous conferences, workshops, and field trips. In contrast, little attention has been given to the alternative hypotheses that have been advanced since the beginning of the process. In trying to sketch a balanced picture of the transformation prospects, these should be analysed too. Their relevance has been underscored by recent insights and orientations emerging on several points.

Table 9.2 Property development proposals for King's Cross (flot>r space in m )





Social housing (units)

50 321

130 000

153 750

149 186

(+575, -77)




Housing for the market

100 641

65 000

51 250

74 593






544 858

180 000

22 000

373 665


18 850

39 000

39 000

35 855


27 870

30 000

30 000

20 758


16 752

22 255

22 255

. 21 337


16 772

22 255

22 255

21 334


9 290

10 000

10 000

15 000


785 054

498 510

350 510

711 728

Source: Parkes and Mouawad (1991)

Source: Parkes and Mouawad (1991)

The first-wave proposals, as they were formulated in 1991, are summarized in Table 9.2. The LRC proposal, designed by Norman Foster, envisaged a circle of buildings between eight and ten storeys high and two 44-storey towers around a central park. Access to the international terminal underground was located between the two existing railway stations, and the plan reserved (limited) surfaces for housing and light industry at the northern end of the site. The LRC pursued 'a mixed development, combining a living with a working environment and with shops, social and leisure facilities to match' (King's Cross Extra, 1989). Such a declaration does not, however, appear totally coherent with the actual functional programme and area layout. The share taken by the office component, following a recurring philosophy in the redevelopment of railway stations in central London in the 1980s, is overwhelming. Furthermore, most other uses, and most notably housing and light industry, are pushed to or concentrated on the margins of the site, making the achievement of a 'mixed' district problematic. Also, the projected number of users is somewhat deceptive: 25 000 office workers and only 5000 inhabitants.

The balance of uses put forward by the KXRLG is radically different, mainly because the share of offices is much lower. The KXRLG presented two proposals (KXRLG1 and KXRLG2 in Table 9.1). The second proposal assumes a political and economic context where urban regeneration is not dependent on real estate profits (and thus not London of the 1980s and early 1990s). The result is that offices become a secondary element, to the advantage of housing, space for small businesses and social facilities. These are the priorities that emerged from consultation with the local community.

In the first round, the visions for the future of the area appear to be irreconcilable. For a concrete example of what the LRC might have had in mind, one can, as the LRC itself invites the public to do, visit Broadgate. This is an office complex that the same developers, in partnership with BR, have built above and around Liverpool Street station. Broadgate contains about 300 000 m2 of offices, plus a few shops and restaurants and other facilities catering for about 25 000 employees. All of these functions have been inserted in a carefully designed network of pedestrian streets and squares. From a strictly real estate point of view, the success of Broadgate is difficult to contest. Bordering on the City, being highly accessible, offering up-to-date office space, realized in record time, and employing advanced construction and financial techniques imported from the USA, it did not have any trouble finding tenants in a market that was (at that time) in full expansion. Part of the profits has permitted the reconstruction of Liverpool Street railway station, providing a model of cooperation that the developers and the railways would in all probability have wanted to apply to King's Cross. The balance sheet is more uncertain, however, from the perspective of another actor: the local population. The overwhelming majority of the people working in Broadgate come from faraway suburbs, while the restaurants and shops are totally out of the range of local people. Of course, the station has been renewed, and each traveller can find convenient shopping opportunities. But the barrier separating the railway station from the derelict neighbourhoods nearby could not be more striking. Not even the pavement tiling runs across the property line! The overcrowded Bangladeshi ghetto of Brick Lane is just a few blocks away. That area, plagued with the highest unemployment and deprivation indexes, could not offer a more striking contrast with its up-market neighbour.

The Interim Uses Initiative elaborated by the KXRLG (Parkes and Mouawad, 1993), while formalized at a later stage to fill a vacuum in the development process, is possibly the best representation of the different sort of environment envisaged by the local groups. The proposals (Figure 9.5) include a City Garden Festival, anticipating the creation of permanent park and other 'green' initiatives; areas and facilities for sport and recreation; a documentation centre on the environment and on local history, with connected commercial and tourism facilities; space for events in the arts and entertainment spheres; and temporary housing. Other proposals call for a market, craft workshops, the rationalization of existing storage and distribution activities, the expansion of production (both existing and to be promoted, such as a recycling centre), and a job training and employment promotion centre. Most of these are temporary uses, in the spirit of the Interim Uses Initiative commissioned by Camden. Nevertheless, the KXRLG believes that the proposed activities could be a first step towards more permanent uses. Eventually,

The traveller arriving on the TGV from Paris or Milan in 2003 should thus expect to emerge from St Pancras into a many-faceted, thriving district, combining a wide variety of both temporary and permanent activities. Such offices as there may be are likely to be spin-offs from the University, the British Library, contemporary dance or the dozens of charities and trades unions in the area—rather than corporate headquarters. The resident population may have increased, making a contribution to reverse commuting and to benign pedestrian and cycle trips, helping to support all-day and year-round activity and sustaining a strong multiethnic culture. (Parkes and Mouawad, 1993, p. 7)

The Borough of Camden appears to be torn between these two contrasting visions, lacking the means to force through its own middle way, as envisaged by the community planning brief. However, the dramatic changes in context, which distinguish the first round from the second round in the negotiations, seem to make more space for such a third option and a second wave of initiatives.

9.4.2 The second wave

The shift in emphasis that accompanied the transition from the first to the second round of negotiations is well documented in the differences between the original 1988 community planning brief (CPB) of the Borough of Camden and its revised version of 1994. The first brief (Borough of Camden, 1988) basically sets a loose framework for the negotiations of community benefits in exchange for planning permission to develop the commercial parts (following the planning gain approach). While the 1988 CPB contained a rather detailed list of the desiderata of the community, the definition of the commercial elements was left up to the developers. The second brief (Borough of Camden, 1994) stressed and specified the need for housing (930-1000 units, of which 25-50% would have to be affordable), the conservation of present economic activities as long as possible, space for light industry and workshops (15 000-20 000 m2), diversified small-scale shopping, social and community facilities, and leisure facilities exploiting the architectural and natural features of the area. Most importantly, it also explicitly indicated a maximum of 150 000-185 000 m2 of offices, going along with LPAC's advice (LPAC, 1993). Furthermore, while a concentration of commercial activities around the station node was suggested, integration of uses across the whole site was also advocated. Temporary uses were also promoted, in order to counteract the mounting dereliction that persisting uncertainty had been bringing to the area, but also in order to initiate a more incremental development strategy. One more point is the orientation towards broader partnerships. Alignment was promoted not only with the private sector, but also with other public bodies (the bordering Borough of Islington, for instance) and with the local community.

The CrossMillennia and SRB bids of 1994-1995 are the direct results of a more proactive approach by the local authority, a stance implicitly encouraged by the new CPB. The borough has been able to get the support of all the relevant public, private and community actors to these initiatives. The second—and successful—SRB bid was the most important one as it outlined the path that is currently being pursued. The September 1995 bid envisaged the railway lands as a lively and successful urban quarter, capitalizing on its unique access to Europe but also on its local heritage. The station complex is to become a 'spectacular new gateway to Britain', profiting also from the adjacent new British Library. To ensure that local people will benefit from the project there will be accompanying programmes in the domains of education, training and employment, business support, housing, public health, and crime reduction. Most projects (41.5% of SRB funding) are geared towards creating a framework within which the new quarter and gateway could develop, opening key sites for development, and attracting private investment by establishing a clear and positive identity. The bid is seen as adding value to government plans 'by accelerating and coordinating redevelopment, and providing opportunities for local businesses and residents'. The focus of the economic development strategy will be on the cultural, entertainment and tourism sectors. In itself, this will represent a clear shift away from the office city. The creation of local jobs and the tackling of social problems in the area is seen as a condition of development, also in view of the security implications.

The estimates show a potential for developing 200 000 m2 of commercial floorspace in the area, and the prospects for collaboration with the landowners (L&C, Railtrack, and the National Freight Corporation) appear good. The list of projects already committed in the bid includes:

• 46 000 m2 of shops and offices that P&O will develop on a 3.2 ha site next to the railway lands;

• a 14 000 m2 hotel partly in St Pancras, to be developed by L&C;

• a new concourse in front of King's Cross station, to be built by Railtrack;

• environmental improvements to be made by the Borough of Camden;

• refurbishment of around 1500 council or housing association homes;

• improved pedestrian access.

Furthermore, at present 94 up-market apartments are already being developed at Battlebridge Basin overlooking the Regent's Canal, just outside the perimeter of the railway lands.

The vision has been further elaborated by the board of King's Cross Partnership (KCP), the board installed in April 1996 to administer the SRB funds. The KCP seeks to create at King's Cross 'an important and successful part of a world city, an interchange for travel, information and culture and a destination'. The area 'must be of high quality and safe and pleasant to live in, work in, visit and travel through' (KCP: brief précis). 'King's Cross is now an interchange, we aim to make it into a destination' (our interview with KCP). One of the initial activities of the effort to turn this vision into reality has been to carry out a series of studies: for example, on mobility issues and activity development thresholds. The purpose of the studies is to provide a foundation for the incremental definition of a 'strategic framework' for development—not to formulate a master plan, as all actors emphasize. Development is expected to be evolutionary rather than cataclysmic. In any event, the development will be carried out step by step until the CTRL works are completed. The idea is to progress towards such a framework by identifying thresholds, or the critical mass, for each activity, and by understanding the role of each activity in building the new urban quarter. The current direction also deviates from previous approaches in the role given to feasibility studies. These are seen as an ex ante tool to help shape a programme rather than an ex post tool to test an existing one.

A particularly important tool is the site implementation study (SIS), which got started in September-December 1996 and was expected to be ready in May 1997. The SIS was an initiative of the Borough of Camden, which saw it as a means to test the new community planning brief. Once under way, the SIS fell within the framework of the SRB, under the supervision of the Borough of Camden, the Borough of Islington, L&CR, English Partnerships, the Government Office for London, the KCP, and the KXRLG. Its objective is to 'clarify, analyse and assess the development constraints and potential of the King's Cross railway lands and provide advice on the practical steps that should be taken to secure the earliest possible comprehensive regeneration'. It is supposed to set out 'the tasks and stages which should be followed to allow the Council and the KCP to best achieve their regeneration and urban planning objectives for the railway lands'. From the legal point of view it will become a 'material consideration', alongside the planning brief, the UDP, strategic planning guidance, etc. when considering planning applications. Its most important function could be that of allowing the actors to take their first steps in concert towards a more specific shared vision for the area. At that point, conflicts may emerge again, however, especially when specific quantities have to be indicated. For instance, the local community gives priority to affordable housing and workplaces. L&C, in contrast, appears to be more interested in luxury housing and commercial accommodation, to complement a conference and hotel centre. Conceivably, there might be physical space for both, but will there be enough room in the budget?

The most important question of all concerns the interaction with the CTRL works and its related developments, which L&C will be initiating. L&C maintains that its first priority is now the construction of the line and stations. It sought control of the land around stations essentially in order to support the firm's transport activities. Of course, the land has a potential value, but profits from property development would provide only a fraction of the revenues needed from CTRL ownership and operation to make the whole viable. Ownership of land is seen as necessary for reasons other than extracting profits from it. With an eye to CTRL development, property ownership ensures that infrastructure construction can proceed smoothly: the projects would not be obstructed by fragmented ownership of the land. With an eye to CTRL operation, ownership ensures that stations would not become 'islands in the middle of nowhere'. A stake in projects for station areas would help to ensure that stations evolve into attractive places, well integrated in their surroundings. The latter is seen as particularly important because the 'travel experience' is a whole set of activities that include getting to and leaving a station. L&C will not develop the land by itself. Instead, the firm will look for property development partners when the time comes (that is, 'infrastructure is in place, policies are in place'). L&C has also declared its intention to work closely with local authorities, private interests and communities along the line 'in order to identify early projects' and 'develop strategic frameworks'. Indeed, L&C is involved in partnerships at railway stations, including the KCP. On the other hand, as no major land development is likely until the bulk of CTRL works are completed (in the year 2003, if all goes well), a 'wait and see' attitude is the most advantageous for L&C, allowing the firm to ensure that 'options are left as open as possible'. But how does this relate to the aim of the KCP to have the 'new urban quarter' in place by 2003, when the partnership's mandate expires?

The future of the King's Cross railway lands is still uncertain. However, accountable land and transport development frameworks seem finally to have emerged. The main instances are in the first case the KCP and in the second LCR. Both frameworks are summarized below.

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