City explores repurposing Museum of London site

Update: the City’s Policy chief, Chris Hayward, has written to the Barbican Quarter Action campaign saying that the Corporation is going to proceed with a planning application, and aims to sell the site.

I’m not sure what to make of the latest move by the City of London on the former Museum of London buildings – and I don’t think campaigners against demolition are yet sure either.

The City has been pressing ahead with plans to redevelop the London Wall West site with offices aimed at yielding £70 million to help pay for the Museum’s move to West Smithfield.

Photo from Observer article November 2022 and development consultation pack.

The campaign Barbican Quarter Action has commissioned reports showing how the Museum buildings and Bastion House could be retrofitted, and has organised packed meetings in support of that. Backstory here.

Now City policy chief Chris Hayward has issued a news release announcing market testing to see whether developers are interested in bidding to repurpose the buildings. He says:

“While demolition is currently regarded as the best option to transform the site and allow us to provide new public open spaces and cultural attractions, it is clear that there is some desire locally for these buildings to be retained. We are actively listening and exploring whether there is a viable alternative.”

Potential developers can express their interest through the Forthcoming tender page. Respondents will have seven weeks to do that, and site visits are offered.

So far I haven’t seen any substantial response from Barbican Quarter Action on the latest announcement, beyond a Twitter reply to local MP Nickie Aiken, saying:

“Let’s hope that this is a serious attempt by the City! Question is – does the market test allow for sufficient time for interested parties to consider their options and does the appointed contractor have any expertise in this field? This is not just any plot of land”.

I can understand the BQA caution. There’s a big hole in funding for the Museum move, and it seems unlikely a refurbishment option would yield as much as redevelopment. Without some other funding strategy in the background, the market testing may be seen as a smart political gesture rather than a genuine exploration of options.

It allows the City to say that it is moving behind its own policy of urging developers to consider alternatives to demolition. The news release adds:

“The City Corporation is the first planning authority in the country to issue planning guidance in which developers will be expected to carry out a detailed review of the carbon impact of development options before submitting an application.

“This policy supports the City Corporation’s Climate Action Strategy, which commits the Square Mile’s governing body to achieve net zero in its own operations by 2027 and to support the City as a whole to reach net zero by 2040”.

On the other hand it may be that the City leadership does want to better align its plans for the site with Chris Hayward’s policy priorities of better relationships with residents, and development of the Destination City programme to attract visitors. The proposed scheme has some cultural elements, but looks mainly aimed at generating funds. More here on Destination City.

Either way I hope that the latest move will generate some ideas on how the Museum buildings might realistically be used. Without those the arguments about retrofitting are technically interesting but unlikely to get wide support from the public, or from City councillors who will make a decision when the scheme goes to planning committee. The latest announcement hasn’t changed that programme. The invitation to soft market testing says:

“Separately, the City Corporation intend to submit a planning application for a scheme to replace the Museum of London and Bastion House that assumes their full demolition. This scheme has been designed by Architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Sheppard Robson with Buro Happold acting as engineers alongside many other specialist consultants. The City Corporation wish to ensure any proposals for refurbishment of the site that avoid demolition are considered separate to the London Wall West new build proposals. No contact should therefore be made to any company currently engaged on the London Wall West project”.

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