by Paul Cahalan
from Wandsworth Guardian (online) 3 June 2009
When Real Estate Opportunities (REO) pulled the plug on its £4bn redevelopment plan for Battersea Power Station in February it signalled latest in a series of false starts for London’s much-loved industrial icon.
At its peak the red brick cathedral, built in the 1920s and today remains one of the biggest brick buildings in Europe, produced 20 per cent of London's electricity.
Its instantly recognisable four chimneys were famously glamorised on the front cover of Pink Floyd's 1977 album Animals and its rickety iron skeleton was used as a set in the 2008 Batman film, The Dark Knight.
But, music and film crews aside, the delapidated site has been left near derelict now for nearly 27 years, so it came as little surprise to dejected Battersea locals - who have watched helplessly as successive owners tabled plans only to then sell the site on for massive profit without building a thing– when the latest plan collapsed.
At a public exhibition this weekend, REO again unveils another design.
It says this project is more financially viable than the last and includes a design that “respects” Sir Gilbert Scott’s Grade II* masterpiece.
The Wandsworth Guardian was the first media organisation in the world invited to see the plan.
Below we look at how the failings of the last plan and ask how the new plan will tackle the twin problems of finding a consensus over design and how it will attempt to secure funding.
Finally we ask REO why - deep into a recession - this plan will work Rob Tincknell, managing director of Treasury Holdings, which is overseeing the 38.5 acre redevelopment concedes the failed 1,000ft eco dome project, launched last year, was on a course to fail from the start.
“With the dome we had a vision that just wasn't viable in a recession, the dome didn't even pay for itself . . . the scheme was the wrong time, the transport costings were not right and the plan was massively over designed," Tincknell said, “It was a viable plan but more of an aspirational plan in a bullish market."
"In this plan the station is very much the site . . . it is still highly sustainable but more simple to understand."
The new scheme “evolved” after consultation with the community and planning groups, he said and had received an "extremely positive reaction".
While there may be some truth in Tincknell’s view that REO ditched the dome (christened the Dyson by critics) as the economic downturn made the scheme unworkable, the intense criticism from heritage societies, local community groups and the Mayor of London were equally formidable stumbling blocks.
Nash style terracing
In the new five phase plan the doomed dome has gone - removing with it the insurmountable problem of the impact it created on the World Heritage-protected view of the houses of Parliament from Waterloo Bridge.
In its place are a series of stepped terraces "in the mould of John Nash" - the regency architect of 19th-century London.
Each of these residential buildings, designed with a knee-bend effect, will be a maximum height of 63m (an REO concession) level with the shoulder of the base of the historic four chimneys.
Designed by Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly, who despite rumours of a rift with REO remains the project's chief masterplanner, each will "rise in pace toward the power station" and will have a glass facia.
The power station building remains the bone of contention with critics. Tincknell claims "we have respected the station and opened-up to more views".
Critics will undoubtedly disagree, claiming the density and proximity of the terraces to the station is inappropriate.
The station – ironically, once London's largest polluter - will be carbon neutral and will run on bio-fuel.
Inside will be an auditorium for conferences and concerts and two floors of retail.
Both of the old turbine halls remain, while six floors of offices - which could house a hub of creative and green industries - on the top of the building will be interspersed by glass atriums.
Commercial space in the site has decreased from 2m sq ft to 1.5m, but plans include 500 more homes (3,700) than the first site.
As Tincknell admits: "Most money comes from residential, most of the retail uses don't make enough money to cover costs".
There will be a small allocation of affordable housing but REO plan to offset the usual allocation with investment in transport and infrastructure.
Designs for a running track around the building, a riverside park, a hospital, hotel and market square will complement other community space.
The important first phase, which will take four and a half years to complete, involves, contentiously, taking down the historic chimneys - which REO already has permission for and could happen as early as next year - and refurbishing the station.
The middle phases involves building further residential and commercial space, the Tube station, and a hotel. The last phases involve more residential and commercial.
In total REO estimates the development will create 16,500 new jobs and "thousands of construction jobs".
The plans, due to be submitted to Wandsworth Council this July. If approved, work on the scheme would start late next year and be completed by 2020.
Before that can happen REO must secure its planning application and funding.
The 38.5 acre station site sits within Nine Elms (NE) and, the face of it, offers huge potential to investors. The NE corridor is larger than the whole of the Canary Wharf, which has been designated ripe for high density development - a euphemism for skyscrapers.
But the fundamental catch 22 to kick-starting the scheme - which no previous project has managed to crack - remains.
The key to unlocking the whole site rests on building a new Tube station at Battersea that will connect to the Northern line.
But finding an investor to help stump-up the £400m of private money needed to pay for it, even outside a recession, has proved impossible.
Without it - the Tube would create the necessary “footfall” and demand for residential and retail space and is regarded as an integral precursor to any planning green-light from Wandsworth Council and the Mayor of London - the plan is non-starter. And, even if an investor decides the Tube is feasible, the power station’s Grade II* listed status demands at least a further £200m outlay immediately.
Critics say building the Tube - the power station is built on piles down to bedrock 300ft below the London Clay in the Thames valley - is too complex, but Tincknell maintains the plan now has "buy-in" from Transport for London and REO will be applying for initial application (a multi-year process under the Transport and Works Act) in the next few weeks.
To fall the shortfall funding between investor payment and cost REO is leading calls for a NE business levy. But the appetite from other land owners in the area remains lukewarm.
The US embassy may feel transport links at the northern end of NE are sufficient for its need – it relocated to NE for security issues so may not be too worried about improving access. And other landowners, such as the New Covent Garden Market Association and Bahrain company Investec – will not see as many benefits from the Tube as REO.
REO's backers (several banks and Treasury Holdings) are also applying pressure on REO to move the planning application forward and nail down an investor - REO borrowed heavily to buy the site (estimated £250m) and will spend another £20m get the plan through council.
For the first time REO is seeking phased funding for the project prior to planning permission.
Tincknell remains convinced an investor, likely coming from the Middle East and one which ideally will take a stake in all phases, will come onside.
"I am meeting an interested party from a sovereign state this week and I met another investor last week. All are very excited because they realise it is an excellent time to invest. They see the economy at the bottom of its curve and NE also at the bottom of its curve . . . the phased approach makes financing the project more simple and transparent.”
The carrot for the investor is grabbing a greater share of the profits when planning permission is granted as land prices increase.
But, even if all of the above proceeds as Tincknell wishes, what is stopping REO, like all others before, running from the project once it sniffs a profit?
Tincknell denies REO is purely a property speculator and maintains it remains interested in the Nine Elms (NE) corridor because it is “arguably the world’s most exciting city project”.
“Unlike other companies REO has never got rid of all of its commercial interests in any of its developments. It is in our interests to drive people through the scheme," he said.
Should we get past the planning stage the public will see if REO’s commitment to see development of the site through to completion remains.
The former Mayor London, Ken Livingstone, to refer to the power station site as "the biggest disgrace in planning in the capital over the last 20 years".
Current Mayor Boris Johnson has said the site “is an amazing opportunity”.
Tincknell and REO’s owners have said they have listened to criticism and “evolved” the plan.
But, before we see if REO is as good as its word, it is up to Wandsworth residents to decide if this development is what they want to see in Battersea - starting with attending the exhibition this weekend.
BATTERSEA SOCIETY NOTE; Opening times of the exhibition at the Consultation Suite, Battersea Power Station (enter by gate 2 on Kirtling Street)
Thursday 4th June (12 noon – 8.00pm)
Friday 5th June (10.00am – 6.00pm)
Saturday 6th June (10.00am – 5.00pm)
Further details are available on the developers' website or you can download their latest newsletter by clicking here
Date posted: 4 June 2009