diamond geezer

 Monday, April 24, 2017

Why is London still building flats with empty spaces underneath?

Here are some.

This is Azura Point on Warton Road, adjacent to the Olympic Park. It was built in 2008, before the Games, where a decaying industrial area rubbed up against the Carpenters Estate. Up top there are lots of flats. And underneath is a space for commercial development which, as yet, nobody's wanted to rent.

Three of the units at the far end have been let, one a very minor general store, one a dry cleaners and one an office for a interior design consultancy. But the other units, and there must be at least six, are unoccupied, even after all this time. One of these is to let, for a mere £12500 per annum, should anyone be in need of its 64 square metres. But the rest are inelegantly boarded up, in sharp contrast to the pristine timber slats above, and with a large volume of wasted space behind.

2008 was perhaps not the best year to launch a housing development onto the London market, so maybe that explains the unfounded optimism and subsequent neglect. Another block just round the corner was built with a Tesco Express underneath, so maybe that's sucked out much of the retail potential. But when the capital's in desperate need of new flats, it does seem perverse to have wasted space underneath flats that could be flats but isn't.

Here's a more recent example.

This is Santiago Court on Ben Jonson Road in Stepney. It was built in 2014 as part of the regeneration of the Ocean Estate, one of Tower Hamlets' largest residential lowspots. The affordable flats at the end of the street were flogged off under the brand name So Stepney, and some of these have businesses underneath, but pictured is the social housing, and it has nothing.

Graffiti and part-painted boards welcome those walking along the street, because somebody misjudged how much commercial space would be necessary beneath the new development. There was a parade of shops here previously, but when the new units were made available the businesses didn't come back. There is a parade of shops across the road, of post-war vintage, but this has all the chicken shops and Costcutters that central Stepney needs.

Most of the rejuvenated Ocean Estate has flats at ground floor level, because planners recognised there's no need for commercial underlay across entire residential zones. But in innumerable spots across London, particularly on main roads and around the perimeters of new estates, flats are being propped up above a commercial layer that isn't filling as quickly as investors hoped. Why don't we fill them with people?

I wondered if the answer was in the Mayor's Housing Design Guide, first published in 2009 and repeatedly updated since. It's this document which has brought us the 'New London Vernacular', that boxy brick style of architecture which seems ubiquitous across the capital today. It's also this document which decrees that new flats should have "a minimum of 5 sq m of private outdoor space" with a minimum depth of 1500mm, which explains why every development now features a slew of identikit balconies. Are there any similar rules about shops under flats, perhaps?
"Mixed use development provides a way in which different uses can be accommodated on the same site or neighbourhood, helping to reduce the need to travel; optimise the use of scarce land available for new development; and make the best use of infrastructure capacity."
That makes sense. If we're not careful, a capital packed with flats would have nowhere left for work, so we need to fit in commercial spaces somewhere, as appropriate.
"Long contiguous stretches of inactive frontage facing the public realm reduce perceptions of pedestrian safety and can attract anti-social behaviour, and should therefore be avoided."
Active frontages, the guidance says, include ground floor flats with doors out onto the street and non-residential land uses with windows directly fronting onto the public realm. A row of shops ought to provide an excellent active frontage, unless they're empty, in which case the inactive frontage drags the area down.
"While encouraging mixed use development is an important strategic principle, its application in locations which may be marginal or unviable for commercial activity should be informed by realistic assessments of the viability of the commercial components of a scheme, taking into account location, anticipated footfall and likely demand."
So it turns out no, there is no Mayoral insistence that flats in London be built with commercial units underneath. Instead developers are asked to use economic common sense and only add them in where there's genuine hope of renting them out. Alas it seems many developers may have misjudged.
"Over provision of commercial ground floor units in inappropriate locations can undermine existing town centres and neighbourhood parades and may lead to sub-optimal provision of housing/affordable housing within a scheme."
That's a strong nudge not to stick too many commercial units under flats, particularly when there are other retail premises about, for fear of destabilising the local economy.
"Ground floor residential units can be provided as an alternative to mixed land uses to maximise active frontages within a scheme."
And the clincher. You don't have to build ground floor mixed-use units, you can build ground floor flats. So why don't we do that more?

Update - the best answer we've had: When former commercial properties are redeveloped as flats, this only gets through the planning process if it's a mixed use development, which generally means having a ground floor that isn't flats.

For example, this used to be the Britannia pub on Bow Common Lane.

Since 2012 it's been the Rockland Apartments, with an empty commercial unit underneath which nobody wants to pay £35000 a year for. Nextdoor, which wasn't formerly a pub, the new flats continue down to ground level with front doors that open out onto the street.

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