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8th March 2012.

Local community groups in Spitalfields, London, win first round in battle to save the heart and soul of one of London’s most evocative historic quarters.

 Today the groups – the Spitalfields Community Group and the Spitalfields Historic Building Trust – announce their intention to commission an alternative scheme for the 9,000 square metre site of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, Dorset Street and the White’s Row multi-storey car park – roughly the size of the pitch at Wembley Stadium.

All structures are within the Fournier St Conservation Area, none are individually listed (although the Exchange on Brushfield Street and the flanking Gun Public house and a bank are all fine 1920s structures) and all are owned by the City of London Corporation, which is working in collaboration with developers Exemplar – best known recently for their association with the large area of derelict land in Fitzrovia formed by the demolition of the Middlesex Hospital.

The developers proposal, primarily for offices and shops on the site but with no housing, and designed by architects, Bennetts Associates – was unanimously rejected last Tuesday by all five members of Tower Hamlets planning committee. The rejection was in the face of recommendation for approval from Tower Hamlets own planning department.

The councillors are to be highly commended for the wisdom and courage – and for heeding the voices of more than 500 local objectors and petitioners to the proposed scheme.

This rejection presents local groups with the opportunity to demonstrate how the site should be developed to respect the diverse architectural character of the area and to reinforce the rich mix of uses that give Spitalfields such distinction.

A visionary scheme is needed that builds on history to create a new development in the heart of Spitalfields – that will continue the social and commercial renaissance of the area and enhance the established architectural and social character of the conservation area.

The rejected scheme retained only the Brushfield Strret façade of the Fruit Exchange – the Gun pub, the bank, and Dorset Street – which originated in the late 1670s as a street of weavers’ houses – were obliterated. Significantly the developers proposed no housing element on site and doubts surrounded the amount of long-term and sustainable local employment the scheme would create wile removing a considerable number of existing jobs in the area.

Tower Hamlets refused the scheme planning permission specifically because of the loss of current employment on the site and the failure to provide specific details of future employment opportunities; the failure of the scheme to include residential accommodation as part of the range of uses; and because of the proposed demolition of the Gun Public House. In addition Cllr. Denise Jones stated that in any revised scheme the developers must consult in a meaningful and fruitful manner with the local community groups. This means no just going through the motions of listening but listening and responding. She also made it clear that the views of English Heritage must be responded to. Notably EH as urged the retention of historic Dorset Street, which the proposed scheme obliterates. Significantly Tower Hamlets conservation department’s analysis of earlier proposal for the site stressed the importance of retaining Dorset Street. Developments in conservation are meant to reflect, retain and enhance the established architectural and planning character. Naturally this means street pattern. It is incredible and virtually unprecedented for an historic street – albeit it now reduced to a service road – to be eradicated in a development in such an important conservation area.

In addition points raised by the three objectors who spoke at the meeting also need to be addressed.

Dan Cruickshank, who spoke on behalf of the Spitalfields Trust, condemned the bland and placeless nature of the rejected scheme that, he argued, does not respond to or enhance the special character of Spitalfields.. “A very significant fault is the failure to realise the opportunity – or even respect – the setting of Christ Church on Commercial Street – one of the most important 18th century Baroque buildings in Britain.’ What is NOT required  ‘is the sort of dated, dead-hand architecture that the current scheme represents.”

John Nicolson, of the Spitalfields Community Group says:  “The fact is that Exemplar has always refused to talk to us or the Trust about saving Dorset Street, preserving the old street pattern and breaking up the monolithic nature of the development.”

Peter Boisseau, a local resident speaking for SCG said: “Every day I step outside my front door in Spitalfields my spiritual batteries are recharged. Walking round corners with their odd views and old charm – the nooks and crannies – all makes Spitalfields very special. And all to be lost if we face developer blight and the Fruit and Wool Exchange is pulled down. Exemplar, the developers, say they want to enhance the area. We say they want to remove everything that makes Spitalfields unique. They want to replace these useful and sound buildings with a mammoth, soul-sucking office block with a lifeless personality. We look to our local politicians and town planners to see sense.”

The community group scheme – to be unveiled in outline next week (and designed for the group by local architects, Johnston Architecture & Design, retains the Brushfield Street façade of the Fruit and Wool Exchange, the Gun Pub and bank, retains Dorset Street from which diagonal views of Christ Church will be gained (in the spirit of the Baroque plan of Rome. Arcades will be introduced along Brushfield Street and Commercial Street. Housing, studios and apartments will line Dorset Street and White’s Row with commercial elements at upper levels on each side of Dorset Street connected by elegant high level bridges and gantries of the type that service Wapping High Street and Shad Thames.

The alternative scheme doe not follow the developers brief because we believe that brief is wrong and will bring deadly gloom, not life, to the centre of Spitalfields. Our brief respects a reasonable balance of uses – housing, office and commercial – that will help in the remarkable social transformation that has taken place in Spitalfields to make it one of the most pleasant and most visited and vibrant places in London. The dominant office use proposed in the rejected scheme is wrong. There must be a significant housing element on site. Even Tower Hamlets planners – who supported the rejected proposal, admit that a scheme with such a high office content in an area ‘outside the agreed office zone’ is unusual.

Spitalfields is now characterised by its rich mix of uses and architecture, by people living and working in the area, and by diverse communities coexisting in productive and mutually beneficial harmony. We believe our scheme would reinforce these characteristics and – in its uses – generally benefit local employment.