Last week the Mayor proposed moving City Hall from the South Bank to the Royal Docks. Officially a consultation will decide, but when your finances are scuppered some decisions make themselves.
The current City Hall, designed by Foster and Partners, opened in 2002 as part of the More London development. This meant that the Greater London Authority never owned the building but were instead tied into a 25 year lease. The original landlords were London Bridge Holdings, a Bahamas-based company led by an Armenian businessman, but in2013 they sold up to Kuwaiti firm St Martins Property Group for a tidy profit. St Martins are currently charging £11.1m annually, a tidy sum which could instead be plugging holes in London's budget, and this is due to rise to £12.6m next Christmas. Sadiq Khan is therefore hoping to take advantage of the only break clause in the original contract and get out five years early... which'll entail moving City Hall elsewhere.
His intended destination is The Crystal, an environmental folly overlooking the western end of the Royal Victoria Dock, and thereby hangs another tale.
The Crystal was conceived during Boris Johnson's first Mayoral term as a means of kickstarting development at the Royal Docks. German technology company Siemens liked the location and agreed to construct a landmark eco-building to be used as a conference centre, research hub and "showcase for infrastructure solutions". The resultant steel-framed glass-covered structure had two wings, one for the business function and the other to contain a sustainability exhibition with Siemens' name dripfed throughout. The new cablecar would bring punters, and the buzz around London 2012 would guarantee success. Alas The Crystal opened the month after the Games finished, so missed the boat, and its sustainability exhibition never really made a splash.
Where it did succeed was with its environmental credentials. Solar panels helped to ensure the building was fully powered by renewable energy. Rainwater harvesting was used to provide drinking water. Ventilation was regulated naturally using motorised vents. Air conditioning was taken from a reversible ground source heat pump. The Crystal duly became the first building worldwide to earn top BREEAM and LEED ratings for energy efficiency. It won't be quite so cutting-edge when City Hall moves in ten years later, but these are still impeccable green credentials.
For the first couple of years The Crystal's public side was free to visit. There were films to watch, buttons to push and pumps to pump, as well as eco-objects to admire and worthy screeds to read. You might well have brought a child for a look-round, but you wouldn't have brought them twice. So it was a surprise in 2014 when Siemens introduced a £8 admission charge, because thecontents definitely weren't worth that, and even a later cut to £5 didn't stop visitor numbers dropping to almost nothing. Those much lauded conference facilities in the other wing weren't packing them in either, but at least the downstairs cafe was doing OK.
In April 2016 Siemens expressed an interest in selling their long-term lease but remaining tenants. In October the new Mayor agreed to purchase the site outright and lease the site back to Siemens for the next seven years, securing the building's current use until at least 2023 [MD2035]. Although this might have seemed an unusual purchase, a further strategic intention was that public ownership would control an important regeneration hotspot in a key Enterprise Zone. The 2016 deal also tidied up some of the rights to parcels of adjacent land, delivering Newham council half a million very useful pounds.
Last year Siemens threw in the towel, and in June 2019 the Mayor agreed to an early surrender of their leasehold interest in exchange for a lump sum payment [MD2476]. The Crystal's exhibition quietly closed its doors, confirming that promoting sustainability wasn't itself sustainable, and @thecrystalorg hasn't tweeted since. Catering company Sodexo stayed on to support conferencing and events facilities, which it was hoped would generate some income, and the Royal Docks regeneration team moved into the office space. The pandemic has scuppered their plans to open an Enterprise Zone exhibition in the main hall, but if you peer through the glass you can read some of the panels and see the architectural model at its heart. It looks even less interesting than what was here before, to be honest, but that's because the target audience is now investors rather than families.
At no point in last year's Mayoral Decision is there any reference to moving City Hall to E16. It seems someone's been doing some creative thinking recently, matching City Hall's upcoming break clause to a large empty building already in the GLA's portfolio. In many ways The Crystal is ideal, already blessed with office space, seven meeting rooms and a large central auditorium seating 270. But the exhibition wing feels like wasted space, a glass cavern far too costly to retrofit to hot-desking, which'll be why several City Hall staff are destined to end up on a floor in TfL's Palestra building instead.
The building's going to need better security. The current City Hall is a defensive cocoon, whereas anyone can wander round the back of The Crystal and lurk menacingly beside the Tesla electric charging point. The access road's going to need a new name. London's mayoralty can't possible have an address on Siemens Brothers Way, but might this become Livingstone Passage, Bozza Drive or something with a ghastly uplifting buzzword up front? It's also going to need careful media framing. A Mayor who's used to giving press interviews with a Tower Bridge backdrop may not be quite so keen to appear in front of a row of empty Dangleway pods while a plane taking off from City Airport screams overhead. At least the building still delivers some architectural oomph, in a spiky rather than testicular manner.
However much the move to the Royal Docks is heralded as a boost to regeneration, nothing hides the fact it's really a massive geographical downgrade. Relocating your regional seat of government to the edge of a post-industrial wasteland beside a wakeboarding centre and a Thai restaurant, when it used to be in the heart of the city opposite a World Heritage Site, speaks volumes about your city's economic outlook. But how fortunate that the previous Mayor agreed to build a shiny bauble the current Mayor could escape into when his financial squeeze became too much.