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Meridian – December 2007

Will it be all change for Greenwich? Mark Smulian finds out

If you replace the leg of an old chair, and later progressively replace the other legs, and eventually replace the seat and back too, is it the same chair?

If you replace enough of Greenwich with new developments, over time is it the same place?

That is the question the Greenwich Society is asking as it looks at the array of regeneration projects currently in progress in the area. They might be individually acceptable, indeed desirable, but taken together will the area's character change fundamentally as population and traffic volumes increase and new homes replace older buildings?

The Heart of East Greenwich projects will fill the site of the former Greenwich District Hospital with 650 homes in five blocks, one of which will mimic Victorian terraced housing while the others will be mid-rise flats. Half the homes will be for sale and the rest for affordable rent and shared ownership.

After initial criticism that the project contained too many flats, developer First Base has said that 35% of homes will have three or four bedrooms, to provide more family housing. There will also be a leisure centre with two swimming pools on the site, as well as a health centre, library, cr¸che and shops. The developer is proud that this will be the first 'carbon-neutral' development in London, with on-site generation of heat and power.

Director Richard Powell says: 'As we move towards submitting planning applications for the Heart of East Greenwich scheme, the views and needs of the local community have been central to our consultations. A number of provisions have been made to ensure that the scheme does not overload the existing local infrastructure.'

Mr Powell also promises improved pedestrian and cycle links to local stations and bus routes. 'Building communities, encouraging businesses and providing quality, affordable housing are central to what we are aiming to achieve at the Heart of East Greenwich,' he says.

This does not entirely impress local resident Tim Sutton, who once put forward his own suggestion for the site, which involved retaining the former hospital chimney and using it as a giant fountain (Meridian, July 2006). This rather off-beat suggestion had a serious point, he says, 'to show that developments don't have to always look the same, they could do something interesting for once'.

He adds: 'The developments are massive, carving Greenwich up. No one seems to have a complete grip on their effect. It would be nice to get something that really did have a heart.'

The furthest advanced of the projects now in progress is Greenwich Wharf, owned by London & Regional Properties. It covers massive 1.3m sq ft east of the Royal Naval College, with a river frontage of more than 300 yards taking in Lovell's Wharf, Granite Wharf, Badcock's Wharf and Piper's Wharf. The £180m project is planned to provide 667 homes, 44,100 sq ft of offices, a hotel, shops and a health club.

Like the Heart of East Greenwich, it emphasises its commitment to use renewable energy. Public open space will take up more than half the site and this will enable the Thames Path to be opened up along this stretch of river, with plenty of access routes through the site from central Greenwich. Ray Smith, spokesman for the Greenwich.

Society, fears the cumulative impact of these projects on the area. He doesn't think they are objectionable in themselves, but warns: 'If you look back two or three years, and look at what is being built now and what is on the horizon, you can see there'll be a lot more people and a lot more dwellings.

'The problem is that planning applications are looked at as separate entities, and although each has an environmental and traffic impact assessment no one ever seems to look at the cumulative effect of these projects on the area. 'No one is taking a strategic view to ensure it can all be coped with."

It is not just the obvious traffic and transport problems that worry Mr Smith, but also the effect of so many more residents on the area's health services, water and sewerage.

'Brownfield sites have to be redeveloped as we need more homes, but there is this continuing doubt about the eventual impact,' he says. 'It is difficult to judge the impact so far. I couldn't put my hand on my heart and say it's become too much yet. But I worry about the future.'

The redevelopment of Greenwich Market is less contentious; indeed the society has welcomed it as a way of providing better retail space. It is promoted by the market's owner Greenwich Hospital, which, confusingly, is the name of the charity that owns the site and is nothing to do with the former hospital in East Greenwich.

Under the Hospital's proposals, the size and shape of the market would stay but there would be a higher roof and the 1950s buildings that surround it on the island site would be replaced. There would also be a new market building with permanent stalls at ground floor level.

Historic buildings on the site would remain, but post-war buildings on King William Walk would be replaced by ones designed to blend with their historic neighbours. Market stalls would be rearranged and there would be a new market building at the end of Durnford Street. A new small hotel might be included on King William Walk.

Hospital spokeswoman Elaine Cobb says the refurbishment is needed because 'the buildings on either side of the market were built in the 1950s as fruit and vegetable warehouses and were converted later to shops, but they were not purpose-built as proper retail units and are not up to modern standards, for example they do not meet the Disability Discrimination Act'.

She insists: 'The Hospital is not intending to change the nature of the market or the shops and stalls that use it.

'There is a place for large stores, but that place is not in the market.'

The Hospital expects the effect on traffic to be minor since most visitors arrive by public transport anyway, and no extra parking space is planned. Subject to planning permission, it hopes to complete the works by 2011.

Each project has its merits, but as they are completed and joined by others, will local residents one day find that the Greenwich they once knew looks very different?

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