One of London’s most controversial developments over the last decade has been the replacement of the Earl’s Court exhibition centre in West London and nearby social housing estates with a new residential-led 77 acres master plan by Farrels for a joint venture of Capco PLC and Transport for London. The wider scheme and political controversy has many sub-themes but one specific controversy has involved the fairly needless destruction of the rather pretty street, Empress Place.
Originally named Richmond Place, Empress Place was built in 1864-1865 and designed by architect and City of London surveyor John Young, who prepared drawings for the London Colosseum in Regent’s Park and is best known for his creative use of polychromatic Suffolk stone and terracotta patterned brickwork.
Empress Place consists largely of two-storey Victorian cottages, though it also includes the purpose-built engineering headquarters (1907) of the Brompton & Piccadilly Railway Company. It was from this building, with its large windows designed to provide as much light as possible for the draftsmen, that the Piccadilly Line was designed. Local residents have campaigned for the street to be part of a new conservation area. They have also campaigned for the pub on the street’s corner, the Prince of Wales, to be registered as an Asset of Community Value. After support from London Assembly members from the Green, Labour and Liberal Democrats parties, this was agreed by Hammersmith and Fulham Council in 2016.
In November 2013, Capco received consent for their masterplan to develop around the existing Empress Place. It was an oddly-bad piece of urban design which blocked the existing Empress Place, created no new fully-formed urban blocks and led to a series of curious spaces which were neither fully private nor fully public.
In November 2016, Capco made public an alternative proposal for the site which would include Empress Place for the first time within their Earl’s Court Masterplan involving 100 per cent demolition of the historic buildings in Empress Place and Lillie Road. This scheme increased homes on the site from about 200 under the consented scheme to over 400. Like the first scheme, it was also a very confused piece of place making with no clear sense of the private and the public. Capco presented its new Empress Place proposals as a new public square. However, it sits incongruously in the middle of an urban block. New buildings are essentially blocks in space with no clear fronts or backs, repeating many of the errors of the old 1960s tried and failed model.
In 2017, and working with and for local community groups including Save Empress Place, the West Kensington Tenants and Residents Association and West Kensington and Gibbs Green Community Homes, Create Streets worked up a high level alternative masterplan which attempted to resolve the tension between the need for new housing, the cultural value of local heritage and the preferences of the local community. It also attempted better to integrate the approved masterplan with the surrounding streets so that the existing Empress Place literally continues on into the new ‘West Brompton Village’ portion of the Capco masterplan. We sought to join the street not destroy it. We called our proposals Greater Empress Place.
The key features of Greater Empress Place are:
It preserves the existing historic buildings;
It integrates Empress Place with the wider Capco masterplan for ‘West Brompton Village’ by extending it on an elegant curve, taking into account level changes, so that it connects up with Capco’s proposals immediately to the north;
It has no impact on the proposed so-called Lost River Park immediately to the East;
It is high density with a comparable amount of housing to Capco’s scheme or potentially rather more depending on unit mix and number of storeys;
Rather than creating urban spaces which are neither public nor private (the consented scheme) or creating a series of isolated ‘blocks in space’, it creates two clear and conventionally-designed urban blocks with clear public space and clear private space. This is the traditional model for city-making which has endured for thousands of years and which is normally linked in the data with better-loved and safer places;
It avoids the destruction of part of the proposed ‘Lillie Enclave Conservation Area’; and
It would appear to be far more popular locally. An informal poll undertaken at the Spring Market on North End Road on 29th April 2017 showed an overwhelming preference for the new design, with 462 respondents (98 percent) preferring the Create Streets scheme compared with just 10 who preferred Capco’s.
Many local residents have also been very supportive.
“This is so much better than Capco’s proposal and a welcome departure from the usual concrete and glass blocks. How delightful it would be to have a development that preserves and extends the existing heritage rather than obliterates it.” - Sally Taylor Chair of West Kensington estate Tenants & Residents Association
“What a beautiful and refreshing change to the characterless concrete and glass blocks proposed by Capco! Why can’t we have this instead of yet more tedious residential warehousing? It would enhance the charm and attractiveness of our neighbourhood as well as provide much needed additional housing.” - Keith Drew, Chair of West Ken Gibbs Green Community Homes
“I am delighted with the Create Streets approach compared to developers who demolish, appropriate place names and pay superficial homage to our architectural heritage. Empress Place must be saved and if the site is developed further, I would sincerely welcome their approach being considered.” - Anabela Hardwick, Save Empress Place campaigner
Scheme architect, Francis Terry said at the time: ‘Empress Place is a typically London street of modest Victorian workers’ cottages. It seems such a shame to destroy it – particularly when the architecture of somewhere is being replaced with the architecture of nowhere. Our alternative proposal for Empress Place creates a gentle curve to link in the old street with the existing masterplan. We ‘step up’ the density from two storeys to five without overwhelming the existing street. And we celebrate rather than ignore the pattern of streets, blocks and plots upon which London, and all great cities depend.’
It is unclear what will happen next. Capco have spent millions buying every home in the street but their master plan is now stalled. With political support for their terra rasa approach having collapsed, Capco have been trying to sell their interest in the development. Has it become too hot a political potato for anyone to handle? Possibly. At any rate, three years on, Empress Place is still standing deserted and forlorn – an obscene waste of housing in a city with a housing crisis. Suggestions by local politicians and residents that some might be used to house survivors of the Grenfell Tower disaster were not taken up.
We would urge Capco, or whoever replaces them, to rethink not just their masterplan for this part of their development but actually the underlying philosophy it reveals. Rather than seeking to tear down the past, they should benefit from it and integrate with it.
Join the street, don’t destroy it.
Team: Create Streets, Francis Terry and Associates, John Spence, Chris Rainsford.