diamond geezer

 Thursday, November 17, 2016

Public consultations are dull, aren't they? But often eye-opening in terms of how your local environment is about to change, and whether or not you like the proposed outcome is generally unimportant.

So this one's for you if you live in or near Bromley-by-Bow, or do your shopping in the big Tesco here, or ever drive down the A12 to get to the Blackwall Tunnel. Nearly 2000 new flats are to be built, at least 35% of them affordable, which is nice. But the big Tesco is being replaced by something considerably smaller with no car park, and expect your journeys down the A12 to get slower as a result. Progress, huh?

The eastern edge of Bromley-by-Bow between the A12 and the River Lea, north of the railway, falls under the planning jurisdiction of the London Legacy Development Corporation. This is a mostly industrial zone, unloved for decades, covering unwanted land cut off behind a major dual carriageway. Nearest the Bow Roundabout are a Calor Gas depot and several commercial units, their residential fate already decided but held up due to land ownership issues, followed by an area already transformed into over 200 flats. It's the remainder of the site (within the green border) that's up for grabs in this particular consultation, including a van hire depot, a furniture wholesaler, a printers, a nightclub, a scaffolder's yard, a derelict office block, the aforementioned Tesco superstore and a couple of car parks. All utterly doomed, in the grand scheme of things.

Bromley-by-Bow has long been pencilled in by Tower Hamlets as a 'district centre', a new retail hub for the emerging community along the Lower Lea Valley. Back in 2009 Tesco had plans to expand here big-time, in a pioneering scheme nicknamed Tesco Town, which would have seen a megastore, hotel, library, school, gym, shopping centre and flats built on the site, including a 20 storey tower. But recession saw this plan swiftly relegated to the scrapheap, and now the LLDC gets to decree what's built here instead, which means a much smaller supermarket, a much needed primary school and a lot more flats.

You can see from the masterplan documents than Tesco's card is marked. Its superstore is labelled on maps as "poorly orientated within site context", for which read "gets in the way of the residential grid we want to build". The building is described as "poor in urban design terms", for which read "doesn't have any flats on top". One of its two car parks is labelled "currently underused", for which read "why isn't this flats yet?", which given the current housing crisis is a good question. And the report concludes "a lower level of retail floorspace than this coming forward would be easier to accommodate on the site", for which read "if we have a smaller supermarket without a car park we can build more flats".

The current Tesco superstore has an area of 5710m², which equates to about four-fifths of a football pitch, and is a fantastic resource to have on one's doorstep. The proposed replacement will have an area of only 1341m², which is less than a quarter of the size. It's described in the consultation documents as a 'Metro' store, which means it'll stock a lot less than the current supermarket, and offer considerably less choice. That's fine, says the LLDC, because the store only needs to be "of a sufficient size to provide for the existing communities to the west of the A12 and new residents at Bromley by Bow and Sugar House Lane." It'll be a walk-to, not a drive-to, hence the seeming abandonment of any significant car parking provision. Essentially one of Tower Hamlets' largest supermarkets is to be downgraded to a local facility, for local reasons, and the substantial clientèle who currently drive here from the wider hinterland will have to find somewhere else. Thanks for nothing, LLDC.

Development of the site is complex, thanks to land ownership issues, so the new masterplan is proposed to be delivered in three phases. First up is the strip of land overlooking the District line, all of which is destined to be highrise flats. Expect a 15 storey block (and two 10 storey blocks) facing the station, a 26 storey tower behind, then blocks of 6, 9, 13, 6 and 9 storeys along the railway, ending up with another 10 storey block beside the river. Phase Two would cover the north of the site, featuring towers of 12, 13 and 18 storeys, and it's at this stage that the replacement supermarket would be built. Then the old Tesco can be knocked down, its footprint incorporating hundreds more homes including a 15 storey block and a primary school. There's no specific timeline for all this, but the end result should deliver 1700 new homes, as Tower Hamlets continues to be one of the fastest-growing parts of the country.

Which brings us to the A12. Driven through Bromley-by-Bow in the 1960s, this dual carriageway creates a serious disconnect hereabouts, the concrete chasm's sides linked by occasional unwelcoming subways. Enough of this, says the masterplan, let's add pedestrian crossings. It's currently possible to drive for six miles from Redbridge almost to the Blackwall Tunnel without passing a traffic light, but these plans for Bromley-by-Bow will add two, one hundred metres apart, so that we locals can get about on foot more easily. There'll also be two at-grade road junctions, allowing traffic to turn right into (and left out of) the site for the very first time. This is despite the fact there won't be a supermarket car park, that new residents won't be getting parking spaces, and there's no way out for general traffic across the river. It could be seen as madness.
"Vehicular access into and out of the site will be significantly improved with the delivery of the junction improvement works along the A12. Vehicle movements into and out of the site will be relatively low. It should be noted that there is no proposed vehicle movements associated with food store customers or the proposed school."
There is one genuine reason for the addition of a decent road junction, and that's to improve local bus services. A new bus-only bridge is being built to the north of Three Mills across the Lea, providing a shortcut through the new Sugar House Lane development, and this is only feasible if left and right turns are available on the A12. The D8 bus will be diverted through the new district centre and will no longer reach the Bow Roundabout. The 488 will still start here, but will no longer have to detour on a loop round Twelvetrees Cresecent. And a new bus route is proposed, starting at Pudding Mill and heading to Limehouse via Three Mills Lane and Devons Road. I'm target audience for these improvements, particularly the doubled-up pedestrian crossings, but I worry they're an over-reaction which will slow hundreds of thousands of journeys by people who merely want to drive straight past.

What else are we getting? More retail stores than just a Tesco - one illustration shows a bank, a newsagents, a florist and presumably several coffee shops. An improved setting for the heritage buildings at Three Mills, assuming you think a dense cluster of flats is a better backdrop than a car park and a scaffolder's yard. A new canalside park, freely accessible, but hitting a dead end where it reaches the railway. A space for a community facility, which might be a library or might not, funding permitted. A collection of service sector workspaces to help make up for the hundreds of jobs scheduled to be lost. And a better tube station at Bromley-by-Bow with improved access, indeed the much-delayed work on adding step-free lifts has just begun.

And what of the consultation itself? Full details are on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park website, including sixteen supporting documents, of which this is the big one. Responses have to be in by 5th December, in writing or by email or via an electronic form so plain it suggests they're not expecting much feedback. Or you can attend one of two drop-in sessions held after dark in easy-to-miss locations, the first of which is tonight at Three Mills between 5.30 and 8, and the second at the Bromley-by-Bow Centre next Thursday at the same times. I should mention there's also a simultaneous consultation on plans for the Pudding Mill neighbourhood, but unless I've missed something that's rather less controversial.

This is merely one stage in a lengthy stakeholder engagement process, and hasn't yet reached the planning permission stage. But it's an important stepping stone on the pathway to revolutionary change in Bromley-by-Bow, and all good apart from the very bad bits, and yes, most likely unstoppable.

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