The wrong side of the tracks

Dana Rubin looks at prospects for the commercial regeneration of King's Cross as the Channel tunnel fast rail link runs into trouble
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The Independent Online
UNCERTAINTY over the fate of London & Continental Railways' plan to build a fast link to the Channel tunnel has cast another shadow over hopes for the redevelopment of King's Cross.

Twenty years of on-off investment schemes - hindered by doubts over rail privatisation, the route of the fast rail link, and now the financing of that link - have alternately raised and frustrated hopes of developing one of London's most run-down areas.

The promise of the fast link from the Continent had fired the imagination of developers across the City as they considered the commercial prospects in the area. "It's potentially the biggest urban renewal development in Europe," says Colin Serlin, managing director of London Buildings, which specialises in building residential lofts in inner London. "It's been talked about for decades."

In the wake of LCR's January announcement of a pounds 2.5bn shortfall on the cost of building the link, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott has given the operator of the Eurostar service until 31 March to find a way to finance the pounds 5.5bn project. After a rocky two weeks, it looks as if a rescue plan involving Railtrack might be hammered out.

But without the guarantee of the fast train link, the progress of development at King's Cross is bound to suffer. "It'll hold back regeneration of the area by five years at least," says Alistair Voaden, senior partner at Grimley chartered surveyors.

One complication is that the development of King's Cross depends on a number of schemes which are separate but inter-dependent; if one hits trouble, others could be endangered.

Take, for example, the most tantalising development prospect - the massive swathe of largely disused land stretching northward behind St Pancras and King's Cross stations.

More than 100 acres are technically owned by the government but managed by LCR, which will own the land outright once the rail link is complete. If it then sells the land, half the proceeds go to the government. An 18-acre chunk at the centre is owned by National Freight Corporation, a one-time government railway transport company.

This is the area where in the late 1980s a mammoth plan for office blocks became mired in local politics. The scheme eventually failed in the early 1990s.

A hodgepodge of tenants now occupy the site, among them a nightclub, a nature reserve, a cement works and a golf driving range. Although all sorts of projects have been mooted - everything from a convention and exhibition centre to an education village and a new stadium for Arsenal football club - LCR controls the land for the moment and is not spelling out its long-term intentions. "We decided not to come up with a master plan because we knew it could be very divisive," says Stephen Jordan, managing director of London & Continental Stations & Property.

Assuming LCR does succeed with the Channel rail link, he says, it will eventually "find a consortium" to come up with a mixed-use development or sell the land.

For the time being - at least the next seven years or so - the land would serve as a construction site while a tunnel is dug at the northern end, the number of tracks at St Pancras is increased from eight to 13, the length of the station shed is doubled to house the extra-long Eurostar trains, and a new underground Thameslink station is built on the western side of the station.

As for other promising sites around the St Pancras and King's Cross stations, developers say there is still cause for optimism.

P&O Developments is sticking with plans to develop eight acres of commercial and residential land on three blocks near the intersection of York Way and Pentonville Road, says deputy chairman Basil Winham. That area includes a local landmark - the lighthouse perched on top of a building just opposite King's Cross station.

On the Regent's Canal, just east of King's Cross station, London Buildings has been constructing about 200 residential lofts in new and old buildings, including warehouses and a garment factory, over the last five years. "From our point of view, regardless of what's happening [at King's Cross], people are moving in," says Mr Serlin. The company is now building a marina for canal narrowboats at Battlebridge Basin, a private offshoot of the Regent's Canal.

Of all the existing projects, the restoration of the majestic neo-Gothic St Pancras Chambers building next to the terminal is the most visible centrepiece of regeneration hopes. The three partners - Marriott Hotels, BAA Lynton and the Manhattan Loft Company - say they will stick with their pounds 40m plan to restore the building to its former glory, with 300 hotel rooms on the lower floors and 60 lofts at the top.

Designed by Gilbert Scott, the architect of other neo-Gothic London masterpieces such as the Albert Memorial and the Foreign Offices, the Midland Grand Hotel worked well for 60 years. But Scott was not known for innovative thinking about comfort. In 1935, the hotel was closed, largely because it lacked modern conveniences such as en suite toilets and central heating.

But some sceptics have questioned the wisdom of bringing back such a sumptuous hotel without the guarantee of a stream of tourists from the Continent disembarking at St Pancras. "How could you charge room rates to get back your investment?" asks John Richardson, chairman of the Camden history society.

St Pancras Chambers is not the only new hotel project challenging the parade of sleazy accommodations just outside King's Cross station. A new Whitbread-owned Travel Inn opened in late January opposite Euston station. Just to the east on Euston Road, the Shaw Park Plaza, incorporating the Shaw Theatre, will open in December, developed by the Israeli company Prosperity Hotels.

However, another concern is that no amount of tourist facilities will work if the area continues to be associated with prostitution, drugs and violence.

"It's one thing having a nice hotel," says David Bailey, associate director of BDO, a London hospitality consulting firm. "It's another having a neighbourhood where people want to go out and don't feel under threat."

The last government allocated pounds 37.5m to the King's Cross Partnership two years ago for local improvements, from close-circuit security cameras to street lighting and paving and job training for unemployed residents. "Obviously [the LCR rail link] matters, and it will affect the type and scale of regeneration," says acting director Joan Toovey. "But we feel the prospects for King's Cross are very good. When you walk out the station in five years' time, I'd like you not to be able to recognise it."