Greenwich Pier: remember everything looks a bit shiny when it is new

Since the unveiling of the newly-restored Cutty Sark in April, people have asked who was responsible for approving the new copper-clad wooden structures at the pier nearby. I plead jointly guilty, having been chair of the Planning Board (the rather grand title that Greenwich gives to its main planning committee) in 2007, when the new buildings were given planning approval.

(The ship itself is a different story: I sat on the board when the original glazing proposed around the hull was approved, but not the bulkier version and lift tower on the east side that ended up becoming necessary).

One of the hazards of having been Chair of the council’s Planning Board – particularly at a time when an economic recession started, which meant that many schemes which were given permission were then delayed by several years – is when schemes which you voted to approve on paper start appearing in bricks, mortar, concrete and glass. Sometimes the results are very pleasing and sometimes less so.

Take Greenwich Pier: a new set of buildings which has provoked strong reactions, some positive and some very negative indeed (see Greenwich.co.uk’s take on them at http://853blog.com/2012/04/16/cutty-sark-gardens-beauty-and-the-beasts-emerge/).

To be honest, the gold (actually copper) cladding on the wooden building looks a bit, well, “bling”.

The site is incredibly important to anyone who lives in, works in, or visits Greenwich, as the arrival point from the river (I once – many, many years ago – arranged to meet a date under the Cutty Sark’s figurehead – it seemed a good place to start the evening).

Yet when the plans for the pier were consulted upon, and approved, back in 2007 – after a site visit for the councillors before they made a decision, at the suggestion of yours truly – there was hardly a murmur of complaint, from local residents, English Heritage or the amenity societies.

The old pier buildings, apart from one piece of wall and railings (which are due to be re-erected elsewhere in the town centre, according to a planning condition we imposed) were of little historic interest. A Victorian weather-boarded shelter was carefully dismantled and  relocated.

The Cutty Sark’s masts look amazing when the spotlights are on – but the lift tower to the right of the ship has been less warmly received

What about the new buildings? Those people with little interest in “brass plate sheathing”, please look away now. But the story of the cladding on the building is worth telling in detail, as it reminds us that everything that looks old and weathered was once new, and patina cannot be ordered in advance.

The overall design of the pier proposal “sought to reflect the maritime history of the area, including the Cutty Sark ship”, said the application documents. “Below the waterline of its hull the Cutty Sark was originally sheathed with brass plate (indeed, a copper and zinc alloy commonly referred to a Muntz metal in recognition of its inventor). This was essentially an anti-fouling measure and consisted of small sheets which were nailed to the timber planks. At some point in its history this was replaced by another material known as Alumbro, which is an aluminium, zinc, copper alloy. The Weathered Tecu ‘brass’ [on the pier building] is similar to the new material currently being used to clad the hull of the Cutty Sark itself, as an alternative to the Muntz copper/zinc alloy that was originally used to clad the hull,” I am told by the council’s planning department.

So, the light bronze-coloured copper cladding to the first floor of the pavilion may look a bit bright and vulgar for now, but is similar to what clad the hull of Cutty Sark when she was first launched – and apparently it has already started to weather and darken (it won’t turn blue/green like copper does).

The other bone of contention has been the signage of the chain restaurants in the new pier building, which had not obtained planning permission in all cases and which, I am pleased to see from the Greenwich Society’s latest newsletter (http://www.greenwichsociety.org.uk/docs/2012_May_GSoc_Newsletter_Low_resolution.pdf ), has already been removed at the council’s instigation. My colleague Matt Pennycook (Labour councillor for Greenwich West ward, which covers the town centre) summarises the position helpfully at http://matthewpennycook.org.uk/?p=255.

Some people object to having any chain restaurants there at all. I am not so sure. Surely there is room for lots of places to eat and drink in the town centre, and chain restaurants do deliver predictable quality and value to families on a budget. To object in principle to having the likes of Nando’s , Zizzi’s and Frankie and Benny’s in Greenwich town centre strikes me as snobbery.

I don’t think Greenwich is currently dominated by international restaurant chains – indeed the dominant presence is the Inc Group (http://www.greenwich-inc.com ), a family-owned business which owns no fewer than seven pubs and restaurants in Greenwich. But I hope the council’s action shows that the signage rules are being applied even-handedly to everyone, regardless of their financial clout.

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3 Responses to Greenwich Pier: remember everything looks a bit shiny when it is new

  1. Jamie, Greenwich says:

    Leaving the design aspect aside for a moment, Councillor, your suggestion is utterly ludicrous. In my book, placing a Frankie & Benny’s, which represents neither predictable quality nor value for money, at the entrance to a UNESCO World Heritage Site is “snobbery” is like having Nelson’s column sponsored by Pepsi. Your statement is both crass and flawed. It is perfectly legitimate to question the origins of the decision, given that placing such an establishment in that location is entirely at odds with the stunning restoration of the Cutty Sark, which I consider a truly world-class historical facility.

    A locally-owned independent bar or cafe at the entrance to Greenwich Pier would be an eminently preferable solution; it would be more in-keeping with the sense of image that Greenwich is trying to portray, would offer an opportunity to a local company to obtain a prominent spot and they inevitably would be far greater ambassadors for the town than a faceless chain with a questionable track record in customer service. The Council has clearly sold to the highest bidder and this attitude, which is also being displayed by local landlords cashing in on the Olympics, is, to say the very least, deeply unedifying. To mark opposition to that as “snobbery” is utterly reprehensible.

  2. Alex Grant says:

    Thanks for your comment Jamie. Why not tell us what you really think!

    The choice of occupant of the restaurant units, I should point out, is probably down to the Port Of London Authority, who I beleive own the building as well as the pier itself. The council cannot control exactly which restaurants occupy space given planning permission for restaurant use.

    So if anyone is “cashing in” it is the PLA, not the council, which makes absolutely no money from the pier.

  3. Pingback: The new University faculty is the best thing built in Greenwich for decades. Critics should be careful what they wish for | Alex Grant

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