Yesterday evening, along with fellow Ward Councillor Clare James, I attended a meeting at 200 Aldersgate, arranged by DP9 & Helical Bar, when new preliminary designs for the external appearance of the building known as NBC3, & part of the proposed Barts Square development, were presented to residents, as part of an informal consultation exercise.
The proposals for Barts Square have been a source of contention from the outset, but this is no case of ‘nimbyism’. There is general agreement that a major development is needed on this site, to replace disused former hospital buildings & to enhance the Smithfield Conservation Area at a time when, with the advent of Crossrail set to turn Farringdon Station into a vital transport hub, footfall is likely to increase dramatically and the character of the area will inevitably be subject to change. The issue has always been that residents, local business owners, councillors, local health professionals, clergy, congregations, historians – the types of people who care about Smithfield & its environs are limitless – that all these people want the very best development, something consonant with the Conservation Area, that will make us proud of 21st-century architecture, that will both integrate with & relate to the architecture of previous centuries. Second to that overwhelming collective desire both to protect & enhance the area we love, & love to live in, are the very legitimate concerns of existing residents about potential loss of light & overlooking.
The original planning application submitted by Helical Bar attracted many objections – they can still be read here – including significant concerns raised by bodies such as The Victorian Society and the Design Council. It was the subject of two (well, actually one & a half) Planning Committee meetings, during which the committee became depleted (though remaining quorate) as more & more councillors had to leave for other pressing engagements. In the end the matter was decided by 11 members of the (33-strong) committee, & Deputy Richard Regan encapsulated many people’s views when he stood up to declare that the process had been a ‘travesty’.
Nevertheless, the volume & quality of objections did achieve something – though quite what that achievement was remains open to interpretation. When consent is officially given (& this is expected to happen within the next couple of weeks), a condition will be attached which, according to the minutes of the adjourned Planning Committee meeting of 20th November, requires that ‘the external appearance of [Buildings BC1, BC4, LB1, LB2, LB3 and NBC3] be redesigned and brought back to Committee for approval’.
Unfortunately the recollections of most people at the Planning Committee meeting, particularly the observers, recollections in some cases bolstered by subsequent discussions with City Planning Officers, do not entirely tally with the terse wording of these minutes. The crux of the matter lies in the words ‘external appearance’ & how that phrase is to be interpreted. We, the objectors, including the Ward councillors, believed that the re-designs in question were to include aspects of scale, massing & height. The developers are quite clear that this is not the case, & that they have consent for what they call the ‘envelope’, & that ‘external appearance’ refers only to ‘facades’, with nothing else up for discussion.
So there’s something of a stale-mate here. Having said all that, I must stress that yesterday evening’s discussions were extremely amicable & that, on first presentation, the designs for the facades of NBC3, as presented by the architects Piercy & Company, appear to be a considerable improvement on the earlier efforts by Sheppard Robson – both more imaginative & more sympathetic to the existing buildings. We were somewhat dismayed to discover that Sheppard Robson remain the ‘executive architects’ for this part of the project, as for all the rest, & the argument over the precise meaning of the condition will continue – but we still have progress of a sort.