diamond geezer

 Monday, October 14, 2013


One day maybe, even probably, the Northern line will be extended west from Kennington to Battersea. All sorts of government and commercial pressure is coming to bear to ensure that the line gets built, with the earliest date of operation now 2020. The entire project is inextricably linked to the development of the Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area (or VNEB OA as the official documents have it), a swathe of riverside along the southern bank of the Thames. It's rare to have so large a development zone so close to central London (less than a mile from the Houses of Parliament), so a radical transformation is planned. Acres of warehouses and industrial units will be (or have been) swept away, and in their place will rise a new district of enterprise, diplomacy and high rise accommodation. I thought I'd go for a walk (from V to B via NE) to see how it's coming along.

Vauxhall: Or Vauxhall Cross, as estate agents know the area between the bridge and the station. The major development here is St George Wharf, its owl-like apartments having stared down the Thames for many a year now. This is now firmly embedded into the neighbourhood, with offices, health/fitness facility, restaurant units and a Tesco Express helping to ensure its residents don't have to walk too far to do stuff. Expect many more such mixed-use complexes, with very similar facilities, to spring up over the kilometre between here and Battersea over the next few years. Already up is The Tower, a 52-storey cylindrical pillar of glass that's wildly out of scale with existing local buildings, but much more in tune with what's coming next. The crane on the top's come down now - the crane a helicopter flew into back in January remember - but the interior's not yet complete and the ground floors remain behind hoardings. Sorry pedestrians, you'll have to cross the road until they're done. Meanwhile, that new-ish swooping bus station everyone likes is destined for demolition if plans for Lambeth's "Heart of Vauxhall" come to fruition. They want to "transform Bondway into a two sided high street, with new buildings on the west side and regenerate the existing buildings on the east", then "activate with shops, cafes, restaurants and other town centre uses." There'd still be a transport interchange but more a boulevard with bus stops, and long-term even the surrounding gyratory might be swept away. The Northern line extension will not be stopping here.

Nine Elms Road: Two roads head southwest from Vauxhall Cross, one on either side of the Flower Market. Head away from the river, as I did last year, and you'll soon reach an existing community down the Wandsworth Road. The new Nine Elms tube station is due to be built here, at the foot of Sainsbury's car park, requiring the demolition of the petrol station and the head office of burglar alarm company Banhams. But on this occasion I'm heading down the other side of the railway viaduct, down Nine Elms Lane, which is a completely different prospect. Few people live here, yet, apart from a couple of riverside courts that squeezed in over a decade ago. Instead this is most definitely a building site corridor, with cranes poking up all along the left-hand side. In case you're thinking of buying property, a brightly illuminated set of letters beneath some trees announces "Embassy gardens" "By Ballymore". This is the largest development opportunity hereabouts, covering 15 acres surrounding the new US Embassy. At the moment all there is to see is a concrete lift shaft, not yet 19 storeys high, and of course an Eg: Marketing Suite (if sir and madam would like to come this way, thank you). Later a linear park will swish through, running all the way from New Vauxhall to New Battersea, but picturing that takes a considerable leap of imagination at present.

As for the US Embassy itself, nothing's poking up above the hoardings but a lot of cranes and lifting equipment, plus a sign (with a US seal) announcing this as the domain of "Overseas Buildings Operations". Liz from builders Sir Robert McAlpine provides a monthly newsletter update, pasted into a frame on the wall, with news that they're busy continuing the main piling work to the Diaphragm Wall. A photo reveals what passers-by can't see, which is that the security moat has been dug, and the foundations of Obama's Cuboid are rising on the island within. A new road has appeared, named "Private Road" according to the street sign, which can only get less welcoming as development continues. And Ponton Road has been relocated to make way, continuing to provide access to the Royal Mail and Yodel depots behind, but soon to be lined by a canyon of glass with stacked balconies. Ultimately this'll lead to Nine Elms station, pedestrians only, through "an arcade of retail/commercial units" beneath the railway viaduct. Lambeth and Wandsworth councils are already rather excited.

Back on Nine Elms Lane, up next is the Royal Mail's main South London sorting office, employing over 1000 staff. But maybe not for long because this site's earmarked for 1900 new homes - undoubtedly nothing the existing posties will be able to afford, but ideal pied-à-terres for foreign investors. Meanwhile on the Thames-side flank, six octagonal blocks are already rising under the brand name Riverlight. This is "an exciting new residential development", "an architectural classic of the future" with "exclusive residents' clubhouse" featuring "private cinema and virtual golf". On the edge of the site is a Sales and Marketing Office, probably bigger than your house, resembling the prow of a liner with an electric blue hull. You can't just turn up and request a look, oh no, visits are "by appointment only". I watched yesterday as the salesman welcomed a chauffeured Mercedes bearing potential customers, then ushered the group inside before securely closing the car park gate behind them. If the new Northern line extension benefits the existing community on the other side of the viaduct, all well and good, but the project is really being driven through for wealthy residents such as these.

Battersea: One concentrated pocket of rundown industrial units remains. Follow Cringle Street to discover gated yards, empty warehouses and the hideaway HQ of combustible London Duck Tours. Thames Water are eyeing up one plot as a Thames Tunnel worksite - nobody would complain - while at the far end is the none too fragrant Cringle Dock Solid Waste Transfer Station. I've not seen any mention of this in any of the promotional videos praising the ideal location of the Nine Elms site. And there, beyond a locked gate, stands Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's magnificent power station. It still looks forlorn and at risk, but its brickwork awaits transformation into "the real estate investment opportunity of a lifetime". A cluster of planning notices are tied to lampposts on Cringle Street requesting alcohol licences for the final flurry of events to take place before construction begins. But what's planned for Battersea puts the rest of Nine Elms in the shade, as a Malaysian consortium hopes (finally) to build 3500 homes, 157,777m2 of office space and 14,681m2 of retail. You might well get to work here, they'll need waitresses and cleaners, but the majority of the influx will be the already-rich and foreign investors.

Forgive me if I state my case a little more strongly than usual, but what the hell is happening to London's property market? The city's crying out for affordable places to live, and yet we seem hellbent on building high-end apartments and then flogging them abroad. Great for profits, if you're a shareholder in the construction company, but a lunatic policy for the future wellbeing of London's existing residents. The Vauxhall Nine Elms Battersea Opportunity Area could work wonders for the local area and its surroundings, but threatens instead to create an exclusive enclave of privilege in SW8. And the proposed Northern line extension is merely stoking the flames, a runty two-stop diversion created solely to link an investment opportunity to the West End. All hail the New London... assuming, that is, you can afford to stay living here while it's built.

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