Campaign group SAVE has called on the government to halt the redevelopment of the former Foyles book store on Charing Cross Road.
The buildings are set to be demolished, following Westminster planners approving a comprehensive redevelopment for the Soho block. And, after the mayor’s office indicated it would not involve itself in adjudicating the scheme, conservationists have instead appealed to Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, asking for a public inquiry.
“Soho’s much-loved, unique character is full of history and diversity – a story laid out through its historic buildings, streets and open spaces,” said SAVE’s director Henrietta Billings. “These ‘buildings of merit’ in the Conservation Area, deserve protection and celebration, not demolition. The proposed replacement is a monolithic corporate style re-development that risks chipping away at the very fabric that makes this place special.”
The block up for redevelopment is within the Soho Conservation Area, linking Charing Cross Road with Greek Street, and bounded by Manette Street on its north side. A building on Greek Street is listed, while the former Foyles property is unlisted but identified as buildings of merit.
A scheme designed by Matt Architecture and Soda Architecture would create a new block on Charing Cross Road, while the Greek Street properties would be refurbished. The new block, on its corner site, would feature decorated terracotta panels, with a chamfered back corner. One big benefit would be the creation of a pedestrian route at ground level, linking Manette Street and Greek Street. In total the new block would be nine storeys high, largely providing office space with ground floor retail and restaurants. Above ground floor level on Greek Street would be eight flats.
“The pedestrianised walkway through from Greek Street to retail units and an area to relax is considered a key feature of the scheme and is welcomed,” noted officers in their report to Westminster’s planning committee. “The private Chapel of the House of St Barnabas becomes a focus as it is framed in views from the new walkway, creating an intimate atmosphere in keeping with the general character of Soho. To the rear a large lightwell faced with glass allows light to the basement levels and also acts as a ‘surprise’ feature within the walkway.”
Despite objections being raised by various heritage bodies, planning officers considered that on balance “the benefits of the scheme are considered to be substantial in terms of providing a new public courtyard, economic benefits, a gallery and other publicly accessible uses, along with the restoration of the listed building on Greek Street.” It also noted that Foyles had previously vacated the site, taking with them the red neon branding previously on the building.
John James, managing director of landlord Soho Estates has defended his scheme: “The Foyles bookstore moved from 119 Charing Cross Road into new premises in 2014. We were left with a building which is no longer fit for purpose, in an area which is being transformed as a result of the new Crossrail Station at Tottenham Court Road.”
“We are invested in the long-term future of Soho, and the proposals for 111-119 Charing Cross Road exemplify our considered approach to development. This site offers a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create modern, usable spaces, while protecting the best historic features.”
SAVE deputy director Mike Fox added: “We saw last year during SAVE’s campaign for the Strand just how passionately people feel about buildings of this kind. Handsome, smartly detailed, and contextual to their surroundings, they are what makes London streetscapes so interesting. We call upon the Secretary of State to intervene and save these buildings.”
And the organisation’s executive president Marcus Binney said the Charing Cross Road approval spoke of a wider problem afflicting historic areas in central London. “The proposals have been drawn up as if the Conservation Area, and indeed Conservation Area legislation, did not exist. The existing buildings have character and variety and if refurbished would, like comparable buildings in Soho, Covent Garden and all over central London, add greatly to the street scene. This is a Trojan horse of the worst and most dangerous kind and must be strongly resisted.”
LPA Perspective: While the red neon signs of Foyles were a familar part of this end of Charing Cross Road, the company has moved and had to respond to the declining book marketplace. SAVE may have a point. But this close to a major new transport interchange as Tottenham Court Road station is becoming, with the arrival of Crossrail, there is a broader strategic need to densify development, maximising sustainability in terms of creating denser employment zones close to key transport nodes. The whole character of the area is changing substantially, and as such, the retention of a few solitary elements will not be significant.
However, on its broader point that central London’s architectural gems need retaining, SAVE and its fellow heritage protectors do need to keep watch. Development pressure will always champion the redevelopment, when the alternative of a sensitive reuse is more fiddly, more awkward and generally less profitable.