After months of consultations, the formal planning application has been filed for a massive office block to be built above Liverpool Street station.
In an area dominated by tall slender buildings, the proposal is a huge groundscraper of a building, albeit one raised several stories above the ground and plonked rather awkwardly above the surrounding architecture.
The argument put forward by the developer is that Liverpool Street station is overcrowded and needs a major overhaul, and they’ll pay for it if they can build a large office block at the same time. The station is certainly awkward in its layout and undeniably needs improving, but a closer look at the proposed scheme is not the wholescale upgrade for the station that it seems at first glance.
Currently, the station is slightly below street level, with the main concourse level with the train platforms and a raised mezzanine running around the edges at street level.
The plans would see a new floor added at street level and then escalators down to the platform level to catch trains. That would add much needed waiting area for passengers and more ticket barriers by the trains, and while it’s visually a major intervention, the scale of the work being proposed is actually fairly modest in scope.
In essence, they’re just adding a new floor by filling in the mezzanine space and putting in lots of new escalators. All very nice, and while structurally they will be doing a lot more than that, the structural changes are not to provide more passenger space, but to support a massive office block above the station.
Pleasingly, the proposal would open up views of the Victorian train shed, which were blocked by the 1990s redevelopment that added the row of shops above the ticket line, but it does feel as if the proposed development is oddly backwards.
However, the main passenger area on the lower floor will feel compressed under the new floor above, while the trains will sit underneath a vaulted and impressive ceiling, which seems a waste frankly. If it were my design, I’d have installed the new street-level floor above the train platforms instead, creating a vast and impressive pedestrian plaza underneath the Victorian ceiling.
The proposal says that the number of ticket gates to the mainline trains will be increased by nearly 50% from 36 to 53, with most of the increase in gates focused on platforms 1 to 10, which cause much of the congestion at the station today. However, that will be achieved by removing the small retail units next to the platforms — and that doesn’t require a giant building on top of the station to fund it. A similar scheme costing £30 million is currently underway at London Victoria station.
For the Underground, not much appears to be changing – and while the new lifts will offer step-free access to all lines, which is not possible at the moment and is therefore a long overdue improvement, the upgrades being suggested feel very piecemeal and not a particularly large scale revamping of the tube station.
What became apparent from a reading of the planning application is that the proposal was initiated by the Department for Transport’s (Dft) market led proposals scheme, which encourages companies to put forward commercial schemes to improve railways. The proposal did not come from Network Rail, although naturally, they were involved in the later phases to ensure it would work as a railway project.
Although much effort is made in the documents to explain how the station is in dire need of an upgrade, and the only way to fund that is for a sizeable oversite development, again, it feels like a backward argument is being put forward.
The cost of the proposed station upgrades does not feel like they are close to the £450 million being talked about by the developer, and a large amount of the structural changes being proposed seem more aligned with making the station capable of holding up a very large building above the station than it is upgrading the station itself.
If a developer were looking for a large plot of land in the City of London to build offices and a hotel, the cost of the plot of land and clearance would not be dissimilar to the amount of money being suggested, as would be spent on the station upgrade. In effect, this is an “air rights” transaction, whereby a developer has found a large plot of air to develop and, unable to buy the land underneath, has come up with a way of arguing for the office block to be built because the land underneath needs it.
If the oversite development wasn’t so vast, it might be something to applaud, but the sheer bulk of the building, sitting exceptionally uncomfortably above the Victorian hotel and surrounded by fairly low rise offices is entirely out of scale for the area.
If it goes ahead, generations of commuters will regret the despoiling of a railway station crushed by the weight of the building above.