A history of the Kings’ Cross railway lands is a sorry tale. Early schemes by British Rail in the 1960s and thereafter where quickly abandoned, eventually making way for perhaps the highest profile failed attempt to get development moving on the railway lands; the Foster Associates masterplan of 1988. The scheme included a dramatic oval open space and high rise towers, but ultimately failed because of:
- Uncertainty about the viability and location of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link (CTRL)
- Unfavourable market conditions
- Local opposition to the scale and mix of development.
The first of these resulted from the decision of the Government to switch the London terminus of the CTRL from Kings cross to St Pancras; a factor only finally resolved following the passing of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link Act in 1996. CTRL is now being constructed along these lines, so removing one key barrier to progress.
The second barrier has effectively been removed by the recent stable economic climate, but also by the steady move from the late 1990s onwards back to a pattern of investment in urban areas, rather than on our urban edges. A strong emphasis on residential development throughout the latest masterplan is undoubtedly a result of this change.
The final barrier has been the subject of significant efforts by the current developers – Argent St George – to win over local hearts and minds, through three years of pre-application community consultation, including the production of four separate public consultation documents. The lodging of this application will trigger a further round, this time led by the London Boroughs of Camden and Islington within whose patch the railway lands lie.
It seems then that all the necessary conditions are in place to see the current proposals move forward to realisation, and to finally fill this immense hole in the city. So what of the substance of what is being proposed?
The first point to make is that the details are decidedly sketchy, because the application (or applications – three planning applications have been made) are outline in nature, largely in recognition that the development will take fifteen years to deliver, and that in that time the market context is highly likely to change. The proposals nevertheless attempt to fix issues surrounding site layout, aspects of the public realm, broad development zones and phasing, access and circulation, heritage issues, building heights and massing, strategic views, and the broad mix of uses.
A second observation concerns the surprisingly low plot ratio of 3:1 across the site, perhaps reflecting the high proportion of open space (one third of the site) and retained historic structures. Significantly, this ratio falls far below the 4.5:1 envisaged in the Mayor’s London Plan for Opportunity Areas generally. Nevertheless, if the statistics quoted by Argent St George are to be believed, the 11,400 new jobs and 1,250 new homes envisaged for the site in the Mayors plan will be far exceeded by the 30,000 jobs and 1,800 housing units now promised (up to 50% of the latter affordable).
A related observation concerns the extent of existing heritage features retained on the site. This includes the famous gas holders (re-erected), granary complex, goods and transit sheds, and coal drops, as well as the rather unfortunately positioned Great Northern Hotel. The latter sits between the existing St Pancras and Kings Cross terminus buildings, and visually blocks access to the site along this important vista from the Euston Road and Kings Cross concourse. Personally I would have liked to see the latter demolished, but the general approach to the obvious historic significance of the site is to be welcomed.
This historic core to the scheme (including the canal), largely sets the scene for a traditional piece of urban form. The real benefits of this strategy will come in the way that the designers have been able to stitch the scheme back into it surrounding context, so instead of being the island that it has been for so long, the development will benefit from 20 new routes in and through the area, and from ten new public spaces. The latter vary in scale, but avoid the one ‘big bang’ space that the Foster scheme proposed. The implication is that the surrounding mix of uses will need to be intensive enough and varied enough to animate the new ‘urban’ public realm. The planners will have to carefully consider whether the densities, phasing and mix of uses proposed will in fact deliver this objective.
Given its fantastic location with six underground lines, three mainline stations and the proposed CTRL in the immediate area, if mixed use can’t be made to work here, there is little hope for it anywhere.
Reader in Planning & Urban Design
The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL