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Debate, development and opportunity

Information Project flyerI really enjoyed appearing at the Information Project debate last night. This was the first in a new series of community meetings intended to inspire debate about the proposed redevelopment of Crystal Palace Park by the ZhongRong Group.

What was obvious is how much local appetite there is for this kind of event. There have already been several public meetings relating to the plans, but most have been convened by Arup, who are managing the project in the UK. Positioned as consultation exercises, those meetings don’t seem to have allowed the community to properly explore the broader context of the proposals – be it the historical precedents, the level of consensus, or the focus of potential opposition. Whether or not that’s a deliberate ploy (pro-active engagement carefully managed to stifle proper debate) is a moot point. But either way, the community clearly welcomed an opportunity to share its views at leisure. If the meeting ended with a degree of positivity, I think it was because people recognised that these debates are a chance to start properly coordinating local feeling.

Reflecting on the meeting now, there seem to be two aspects to that challenge: the angle of attack, and the advocacy of alternatives. For the former, a comment from the floor towards the end nailed it for me – that wider public support can best be courted not by invoking the plan itself, but by focusing on the legislative liberties potentially being taken by Bromley Council.

Tell someone from outside the area about the idea of rebuilding the Crystal Palace and they may wonder what you’re objecting to. The idea sounds attractive in principle, and the skids have been put under enough plans in the past for non-locals to start wondering if SE19’s ‘awkward squad’ will never be happy. Perhaps they might even think it’s time the activists got their comeuppance – that this is deserved punishment for having been so closed-minded in the past.

But mention Bromley and ZhongRong’s exclusivity agreement, or the length of lease being proposed for the commercial occupation of public space, and I reckon concern would not only be forthcoming, but potentially very vocal.

As for the issue of alternatives, it was a recurrent theme – especially from the panel. Yes, the community has proposed many different uses for the top site of the park over time, but now it really does feel necessary to settle on a coherent argument for how else the space might be used. The Masterplan is one thing, but it struggles to compete with the regenerative dimension of the ZhongRong development, hence their being able to roll it into their vision.

Instead, the community needs to be clear about what an ‘ideal’ alternative looks like – one which benefits the community while also being financially viable. That way the choice will become a positive one, rather than just ‘something or nothing’.

Personally, I liked the point that emerged about how a lot of really valuable stuff – especially cultural – doesn’t need a brand new building in which to happen. Yes, the park might benefit from (and events be funded by) some kind of modestly-sized commercial hub, but a huge amount of brilliant things could be achieved by working with the open space as it currently is. (Indeed, the team behind the Overground Festival sound like they’re more than ready to devise all kinds of invaluable uses for the park.)

As for the heritage of the park, I spoke last night about how the original Palace is more enthralling in its absence than its presence. Ultimately, I think this is the thing to work with. We should celebrate the heritage of Paxton’s Crystal Palace in precisely the manner which captivates us at present. That means continuing to clean up the ruins, opening up the subway, expanding the museum facilities, and dusting off the top site so we can finally make the most of the space which the Palace originally occupied.

Because that’s the rub. As I walked home last night, I wondered what the ‘problem’ of Crystal Palace Park is. Why does the place always feel so up for grabs? Val Shawcross speculated that in some way the phenomenon is unique to South London; that this would never happen to Hyde Park, to Regent’s Park, or even to Alexandra Palace Park.

But surely, at least in the first instance, the problem is simpler than that. It comes back to that out-of-bounds area at the top; one which currently serves no public purpose (thereby complicating community opposition), while also crying out to developers. For them, it looks only like an opportunity – and I would suggest that the leap of faith required from opponents of the ZhongRong proposal is to enter into the same mindset as the developers: to acknowledge the incompleteness of the park as it stands, and generate ideas to fill the void of the top site with a creativity that does justice to the passion, talent and ingenuity of the local community.

‘Peculiar and wonderful’: an Autumn update

Photo by David Cook for the Croydon Advertiser

It’s been a long time since I posted anything here – an inadvertent hiatus caused by having to move house (damn my returning landlord!), an overflow of activity at work and, chiefly, promotional efforts associated with my new book, Strange Air.

The latter have been going terrifically well, and the Kindle edition has been flying off the electronic shelves, with a fair few paperbacks following in its wake. The whole enterprise has been massively helped by the news that Chinese developers ZhongRong Holdings are proposing to re-build the Crystal Palace in its original form and location – an out-of-the-blue endeavour which, as those who’ve read it will know, couldn’t be any more relevant to my novel. The rights and wrongs of their proposals have provoked passionate debate in Crystal Palace, and I have personally reacted with a complex mix of enthusiasm, intrigue and dread.

On the one hand, what could be better than having the Palace back at the heart of the suburb which sprang up around it, and gave the area its unique grandeur? The park needs some kind of regeneration, and with the actual site of the Palace largely unused at present, it’s difficult to mount a convincing argument about loss of green space – especially since the development is intended to bankroll existing plans to redevelop the rest of the park.

But on the other hand, what on earth are the developers (and Boris) thinking? Although superficially appealing, the idea of going back to old glories could easily be considered anathema to the core Palace principle. While admittedly crammed full of replicas of ancient artefacts, the original building was nonetheless a forward-looking enterprise: inspired by imperial exploration, and intent on expanding its visitors’ minds by bringing the fruits of those excursions back home. In short, the place was progressive, so why regress by rebuilding it?

And then there are the knotty practical arguments – how can a space that big not be essentially and intensively commercial? – regarding which we need to ask if the greater economic pay-off is worth the disruption caused to what is currently a proudly independent suburb?

Clearly, the sensible thing to do is wait until the detail of the proposals emerges, whereupon the consultation process can begin in earnest. But therein lies the biggest fear: that with the mayoral and municipal winds in their sails, the developers will be ushered through due process without the right questions being asked at the right time.

Who can say? For now, at least, the best way to experience the Crystal Palace as it was remains – he says with a marketer’s smile – to read my book. Below are a few links to articles and reviews that have appeared over the last couple of months, collected here as much to aid my memory as anything else.

(1) Lovely review from the Londonist, in which the editor Matt Brown remarks: ‘What a peculiar and wonderful novel Strange Air is . . . a true page-turner, whose ultimate outcome is as unpredictable as a blindfolded interchange at Earl’s Court.’

(2) A piece I wrote about the gestation of the novel for Inside Croydon

(3) A couple of local newspaper articles about the book, from the Croydon Guardian and the Croydon Advertiser

(4) A beautiful piece from local blogger James Balston about the magic of Crystal Palace Park, containing his fantastically atmospheric photography and a few kind words about the book

(5) A nice mention in Guardian blogger Dave Hill’s ruminations on the Chinese plans to rebuild the Crystal Palace

(6) An enthusiastic review from the website Fictional Cities, a charming site devoted to fiction about London, Florence and Venice

(7) A slightly lukewarm – and spoilertastic! – review from London blogger IanVisits

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