The Corporation of London has largely settled its dispute with the owners of the Walkie Talkie tower, over public access to the block’s rooftop gardens, and the layout of the gardens.
The hope is that the lessons learned will help inform other tall buildings in the capital, where rooftop gardens are becoming an increasingly popular feature. Public access is something that City planners, in particular, have sought as a planning gain, but the issue can fall foul of issues around building safety and security.
The roof gardens at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street, as the tower is properly named, in January 2015 – and were immediately criticised for falling short on what had been promised to the City. The extent and layout of the space was considered somewhat less generous than that seen in images previously provided, while the accessibility for the public was also felt to be too restrictive.
Now, following a bedding in period, the access arrangements have been further relaxed, allowing more members of the public to simply walk up and pay a visit to the rooftop gardens. The latest changes to the draft Visitor Management Plan have increased access for non-diners, and allowed a proportion of visitors to simply walk up without pre-booking. Said a report to planning committee in February: “The initial access arrangements put in place by the owner were overly cautious, partly due to the owner‟s concerns to avoid excessive queuing.
Since then, as a result of members’ views that the initial arrangements were too restrictive and experience of how the facility operates in practice, there have been changes.”
A second lift has been made available for visitors, to reduce waiting times, and there has been a modification of the arrangements for closures to limit full day closing.
The report noted that the Sky Garden has seen more than 500,000 visitors to date, with 91% of reviews on Tripadvisor describing their experience as excellent or very good.
However, there continues to be concerns about the actual lay”out of the sky gardens. Says the report: “The layout of the Sky Garden has been the subject of ongoing discussion, both as to whether changes are within planning control, and as to measures that the owner has proposed arising from its review of Sky Garden operation.”
The opening of the roof garden January 2015 immediately attracted critcism. Guerrilla gardener Richard Reynolds commented: “Frankly this garden is yet another scandal. It’s not what we were promised, is it? This was meant to be a public place – a place which we could visit for free and the visualisations made it look amazing.” And Guardian writer Oliver Wainwright commented of his visit: “It feels a lot like being in an airport terminal, jacked up in the air,” adding that the bar and restaurant resemble ” a pile of glass-walled Portakabins”.
Disquiet over the garden led to the City planning committee considering a report in mid 2015, when planning chief Annie Hampson noted the actual garden delivered was substantially different from the indicative drawings previously provided. Said her report: “The owner is of the view that since the requirement is to provide access to the Sky Garden ‘as illustrated’ on the Sky Garden drawing, the changes were permissible because the drawing is ‘illustrative’, as long as the minimum areas of publicly accessible space are retained.”
“The City is of the view that these changes are not consistent with the requirement to ‘provide and retain the Sky Garden as illustrated on the Sky Garden drawings’ as they were to illustrate the areas which non-diners could access.”
“The City has discussed with the owner what might be done to mitigate the loss of these elements which were considered significant to the amenity and experience of visitors to the Sky Garden.” Staircases had been left out, preventing a circular walking route, while terraces were different in size from those on drawings.
LPA Perspective: The City’s planning committee has plenty of reasons not to like the Walkie Talkie. They refused the project permission, only to have it approved on appeal by the secretary of state.
Then, once the building’s concave southern face started melting cars and pavements on nearby streets, the committee had to arrange for fins to be installed on the southern face of the block. The fins were actually a reinstatement, as they had been “value engineered” off the original design by quantity surveyors looking to chip costs from the build.
Finally, there was the distinct feeling that the sky gardens actually delivered were a mean interpretation of the expansive artist’s impressions that the committee had been shown earlier – while the building owners seemed intent on restricting the free passage of the public to the facility.
The latter tussles do raise two key issues. First, how enforceable is an indicative planting plan for a garden, and to what extent is planting enforcable under planning regulations. And second, how free and easy can it ever be to allow members of the public onto a rooftop of a private building.
The City planners have learnt a tough lesson, and will doubtless be much tougher over the details of other roof gardens. Eric Parry’s block for Generali at 10 Fenchurch Avenue is just one of the City developments coming through, that promises a roof garden with public access. His design for 1 Undershaft also includes a rooftop public viewing gallery and restaurant; while at 22 Bishopsgate, the new tower replacing the stillborn Pinnacle will include a viewing gallery. You can bet the designers will be much more wary of submitting vague artist’s impressions in future.