This is the tale of two Hackney hubs, both at different stages of empty.
Hackney Walk has its roots in the riots of 2011, after which funds were made available to affected boroughs for regeneration projects. Hackney sank most of its £2m into 12 railway arches on Morning Lane, supported by Network Rail and a private investment company, with the intention of creating a fashion retail destination. This wasn't quite such a bonkers project as it might seem, given that Burberry has long had its outlet shop in neighbouring Chatham Place, but the idea of luring fashionistas to a gold-plated parade in E9 always seemed optimistic.
Soon after opening in 2016 just nine of Hackney Walk's arches were occupied. Brands taking the plunge included Colombo, Ugg, Gieves & Hawkes and Nicole Farhi, while Nike agreed to become the anchor tenant in the larger freestanding unit at one end. Customers proved harder to source. Locals weren't generally interested in fluffy boots and designer cashmere, while international tourists were hard to prise away from Bicester Village. Nike seemed to do OK because pristine trainers are a must have across the economic divide, but most of the other tenants quietly cut their losses and moved out.
Unsurprisingly Hackney Walk is even deader today. Just one business remains within the railway arches, a store called Joseph, although they've cut their hours by two-thirds and now only open Friday to Sunday. Turn up midweek and all you'll see are two mannequins in an unlit window, one of whom appears to be dressed in a plastic net, behind a sign announcing a Sale with Up To 70% Off. Nextdoor at Matches Fashion only the shop fittings remain, sparse and unhung, because all the stock was moved back to Mayfair when the pandemic started. All the other arches are empty, some with a name on the window identifying a previous tenant, others pristine white boxes awaiting their first sniff of business interest.
Nike is still trading and has punters, even on a Tuesday morning, although there's zero danger of the maximum capacity of 40 customers being reached. Across the road the long-standing outlet stores for Pringle and Aquascutum remain shuttered, although the Burberry outlet is back open, its window stocked with dubious accessories and its cavernous interior entirely unfrequented. Hackney's fashion quarter was always reliant on brand-conscious jetsetters for its success and they may not be coming back, if indeed they ever came in the first place. Meanwhile Overground passengers rattle over empty arches they never knew were full, and Hackney council can but watch their investment being frittered away.
We're back in the Olympic Park, this time the western fringe between the Copper Box and Hackney Wick. One substantial waterfront plot isn't required for housing until 2026 - that's Development Parcel 5.3A - so the plan is to construct temporary buildings for a multiplicity of non-residential purposes. Originally the project name was Clarnico Quay, a reference to the huge confectionery factory that used to exist hereabouts, but some branding dullard has instead decided to rename it Hackney Bridge.
The site's five new buildings are substantially complete, and look a tad more permanent than their five year lifespan might suggest. They have that jagged roofline that architects currently favour, and wouldn't look out of place around a Scandinavian lake. Between them they're due to contain workshops, studios, 'maker space', event space, retail, community meeting rooms and a food hall. The idea is to provide a temporary springboard for budding creatives, as well as a meeting point for those who like to sit at big tables grazing on noodles and churros sourced from different sides of the room.
If you're interested in moving in, expressions of interest are still being taken. I think I saw somebody being shown around yesterday behind a ring of barriers. But we live in challenging times, so I suspect the smaller studios and workshops will fly better than larger co-working spaces and multiple refreshment opportunities. I also hope someone tidies up the scrappy waterfront and scrubs the graffiti off the gabions, because it's not an especially alluring spot at present. Does graffiti get your goat? Tell us all about it.comments
The project is, of course, well behind schedule. Originally the first section was due to open in April 2019, a date which soon slipped to September, then to May this year. That predictably never happened either and the latest promise is "late in 2020", by which point the lucrative summer market will have slipped away. Whatever happens the ultimate termination date of 30th September 2025 can't be extended, with the whole cluster having to be taken down by Christmas so that people can live here instead. Hackney Bridge is indeed just a bridge to an inevitably residential future.