The artist's impressions look idyllic. Shoppers, residents, and workers stroll through a sunlit courtyard outside shops, flats, offices, and bars in a brand-new £800 million development in the heart of Shoreditch, east London.
It's a vision of 21st-century London: modern, purpose-built high-density housing designed for people who want to work either in the City, London's all-conquering financial district, or in so-called Tech City, the nearby cluster of digital startups and outposts of American technology giants.
The developers – it's a joint venture by firms Hammerson and Ballymore – compare the Bishopsgate Goodsyard (BGY) scheme to the Barbican, the central London housing estate famous for its residential towers and theatre.
But BGY is more than just a building project: For the long list of groups opposed to the scheme – which is still stuck in the planning stage and waiting for approval after being rejected by two local authorities – this is a battleground for the area's future.
If approved, just 10% of the scheme's homes would be classed as affordable, in an area where the need for social housing is critical and flats regularly cost upwards of £1 million.
And the project's fate is now in doubt: A meeting at which London's mayor, Boris Johnson, would decide its future was planned for next week but has been postponed, apparently at the developers' request. With only a few days left of Johnson's reign in City Hall, his successor will have to deal with it.
It's a blow for the scheme and a victory for campaigners, but BGY has not been defeated yet.
But why are people so opposed to this project? And with more than 400 new buildings of over 20 storeys currently planned for London in the coming years – many of them destined to contain luxury flats way out of reach for most Londoners – is this a landmark moment in the fight over the city's skyline?
BGY is a huge proposed development project on unused brownfield land that promises to provide more than 1,300 new homes, more than 65,000 square metres of office space, a new elevated public park, and 7,000 jobs.
According to local campaigners, the project is too big, the buildings too tall, the flats unaffordable, and the effect on local heritage too great. The shadows the buildings would cast would rob many people living north of the scheme of sunlight, they argue.
What no one doubts is that BGY would be a truly huge project. Covering 11 acres, the same as about seven football pitches, it would create a walkway connecting Brick Lane to Shoreditch High Street and a new public park.
In total there would be seven towers running in a line east to west, the tallest of which would have 47 storeys – at 177 metres above sea level, it would be just three metres shorter than 30 St Mary Axe, better known as the Gherkin. The other buildings would be between 152 metres and 24 metres tall.
The site was once Bishopsgate station, a thriving Victorian railway station that served the East of England. In 1875 it closed to passengers and became freight-only. A fire in 1964 made the site unusable and it has lain dormant ever since, except for demolition work in 2003-4 designed to make the site safe to build on.
Under the scheme, the arches of the enormous disused Braithwaite viaduct running across the site, thought to be one of the oldest the world, would become the home for businesses, cafés, and restaurants. Right now, the site boasts Boxpark, a temporary shopping centre built out of old shipping containers; a five-a-side football centre; and not much else.
The audacity of the scheme is not in doubt. But there's also no shortage of people queueing up to say it should be halted.
The site falls across two local authorities, Hackney and Tower Hamlets, and both have rejected the plan in the strongest terms.
Responding to Johnson's decision to delay the meeting this week, Hackney's mayor, Jules Pipe, said in a statement: "The developers' proposals would have destroyed the heart of Shoreditch, cast a shadow over hundreds of nearby homes and businesses, done nothing to address London’s housing crisis, stifled the growth of Tech City and damaged forever this area’s unique character and heritage."
Pipe called on the developers to work with local people and authorities to come up with a plan that "works for everyone, not just their bottom line".
He said: "There is so much more potential for this site than simply the developer’s ambition to cash in on luxury flats."
In one of several precedents set involving BGY, Hackney didn't just oppose the scheme but actively campaigned against it, plastering red and black posters across buses and advertising hoardings with the slogan "A DARK FUTURE FOR SHOREDITCH".
The local authorities' objection prompted Johnson to use his planning powers to "call in" the scheme and decide its fate himself.
Of the 14 schemes Johnson had previously called in during his tenure, not one was turned down, but his own planners at the Greater London Authority (GLA) told him to refuse permission for BGY in a damning report – another first.
The GLA criticised the "density, height, massing and layout" of the scheme, as well as the low level of on-site affordable housing.
The developers declined to provide an interview for this article, but said in a statement: "We remain committed to delivering the right scheme for the Goodsyard to regenerate this site, which has been derelict for over 50 years. We welcome the Mayor of London’s decision to defer the public hearing, allowing us to continue to work with the GLA, the local community and the boroughs of Hackney and Tower Hamlets, to bring forward amended proposals to address the issues raised in the [GLA] stage 3 report and ensure that the Goodsyard and its benefits helps fulfil the capital's ambitions for long term growth.
"The development is strategically important for central London and despite the recommendation to refuse based on the amenity impacts and some specific heritage issues, we are pleased that the GLA recognises the significant public benefits offered. The report acknowledges that our proposals deliver over 1,300 homes with the maximum reasonable amount of affordable housing, a good mix of uses and restoration of the site’s important heritage buildings to bring them back to life.
"This is in addition to high quality architecture, much needed public space, offices and affordable workspace, which alongside the retail provision will deliver over 6,000 jobs for London."
Despite its history as a working-class, industrial district, Shoreditch emerged in the 1990s as a home for artists and musicians, who capitalised on dirt-cheap rents and undeveloped warehouses. Later it became home to some of the country's most successful digital startups. "Shoreditch" and "Hoxton", a neighbouring district, became bywords for urban (and at times pretentious) coolness.
Like many areas of inner London, the area has struggled to hang on to its unique vibrant culture in the face of rampant property prices boosted by the proximity of the city's financial sector, whose brokers, business analysts, and foreign investors have unlimited wealth when compared to the average Shoreditch resident.
There have been many new developments in Shoreditch over the last five years. But for local community campaigners, BGY is a step too far.
"All it is is a wall, a monolith of luxury housing blocks stretching all the way from Bishopsgate to Brick Lane," according to Jeremy Freedman, a local photographer.
He's a member and organiser of More Light, More Power, an umbrella group representing residents' associations, local heritage associations, and business groups opposed to the BGY scheme.
Sat in the shadow of the Braithwaite viaduct one sunny weekday morning, he tells BuzzFeed News the campaign had mobilised a wide range of objectors.
"We have 11,000 signatures on our petition," he says, "98% of which are local people – we have their postcodes. Nearly a thousand people have written letters making clear their objection, both boroughs are totally against it, both directly elected mayors [in Hackney and Tower Hamlets] are against it, all the MPs in the area are against it, all the councillors are against the scheme, and now a report categorically states that GLA’s planners recommended it be refused.
"These digital photos they put out with the shopping mall under the viaducts, one of the oldest brick viaducts in the world, and on top of this viaduct they propose to build a park. It shows sunlight, but it will never see sunlight after 2pm in the summer months. It’s nuts."
Freedman says More Light, More Power isn't guilty of nimbyism – its various constituent groups all want something to be done to the Goodsyard site, which has been the subject of various plans and proposals since the 1990s.
But the campaigners are clear: They don't want this plan:
"This is a development in the heart of Shoreditch, in the heart of Tech City, in one of the most creative and vibrant and culturally rich places in the world, and what’s happening now is this alien scheme of luxury accommodation with a shopping mall underneath," says Freedman.
He says the mayor's decision to defer the planning decision is "a victory for More Light, More Power, the people of Shoreditch – everyone's been vindicated.
"Now is the time for them to go back to the drawing board and for a great scheme to come out of this."
Local politicians, including Conservatives, have also described the scheme's deferral as a victory.
But what materially do people think is so wrong with the scheme? The first and most immediate of the campaigners' concerns is the darkness. They say the development would put hundreds of homes in the shade.
Rebecca Collings, an entrepreneur who lives and works in the area, and who is also a member of More Light, More Power, tells BuzzFeed News that if it were to go ahead, her home on Redchurch Street, metres from the proposed site, would be almost totally shrouded in darkness.
"When I look out of my window I see the sky, and it’s important to see the sky, but after this I would see nothing but brick," she says. "I don't think that’s reasonable."
Collings says she was "an economic migrant from Islington" who, like many other small business owners, came to Shoreditch for the cheap office space. Her previous business address was in the house Boris Johnson now lives in.
"Of course it’s hard for them to turn it down, but if they were more strategic, they’d get more housing," she says. "One of the many problems here is that this began when Tower Hamlets was a loony borough – developers got away with murder because anyone who could produce family housing in E1 near Brick Lane got approved."
The nearby Boundary Estate would be right in the shadow of the towers. This was one of the first purpose-built housing estates in the country, created after the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 was passed to tackle poor housing in London.
It was designed to house 5,524 people in 1,069 flats, with no more than two people a room, and the open layout of the buildings was designed to provide sunlight.
Not much has changed about the buildings since the 19th century: They are physically the same and they are still occupied by social housing tenants.
But Hackney council said in a planning report: "Most of the residential area to the north, including the Boundary Estate, will be cast into shadow by the towers for many months."
In total, more than 1,584 windows would lose some light, according to a report by light consultant Paul Littlefair of the Building Research Establishment (BRE), and half of those would lose more than double BRE's guideline amount.
Analysis from the RICS Building Control Journal shows that this lack of sunlight could have a cooling effect on nearby houses and see energy bills in the Boundary Estate rose during winter by between 1% and 5%.
The developers say they have no choice but to build upwards because of the "complexity of the site" – seven railway lines run underneath – and its heritage assets, which mean only about 30% of the land can be built on.
The developers commissioned consultancy GIA to study what effect the towers would have in terms of light loss in the area. It came to a very different conclusion.
In its FAQ section, the developers' website says: "The overall levels of overshadowing to the Boundary Estate are shown to be minimal with the estate seeing no alteration to the levels of sunlight for the majority of the year. The entire estate is also fully in line with the recommendations set out within the BRE guidance."
The developers submitted revised plans for the buildings in the summer of 2015 in which the height of the towers was lowered slightly. But opposition groups pointed out that the developers had reduced the ceiling-to-floor height instead of removing floors.
Light loss is becoming a frequent problem in the area. Earlier this month, plans were approved to build a 62-storey, 278-metre skyscraper on Bishopsgate, a stone's throw from the BGY site. The developers persuaded the City of London Corporation to use its powers to sidestep the planning process and approve the development in spite of concerns of locals over light loss, because of the scheme's importance to the City.
A similar row emerged in February over plans to expand 120 Moorgate. Eventually the developers agreed to pay compensation after the owners of neighbouring buildings complained about light loss, the Evening Standard reported.
Then there is the affordability question. More and more developments are springing up across London that are way out of the reach of ordinary Londoners. BuzzFeed News recently visited the launch of a new block of flats in Shoreditch where the minimum price for a studio flat was £695,000, with no affordable housing on-site.
BGY would take at least 15 years to build, raising questions over how affordable a housing scheme that's 90% available on the open market would be by then, given London's exorbitant property prices.
The BGY developers say it's only viable for them to make 10% of the 1,300 flats affordable – 48 "intermediate" or shared ownership and 93 "social rent" homes – a much lower level than the 35% London boroughs typically require new developments to provide.
All the affordable homes would be in Tower Hamlets; Hackney was offered a £12 million payment instead, an offer it described as "extremely disappointing".
After the GLA took over the planning process, the developers increased the proposed payment to Hackney to £21.8 million, which they say would take the overall affordable housing contribution to 15.8%.
The developers say they're committed to providing homes for Londoners but admit there would be interest from overseas buyers. Their planning application said they would struggle to raise the required debt to finance the project if they added any more affordable homes.
But a counter-assessment from BNP Paribas, commissioned by Tower Hamlets and Hackney, said the developers could afford to commit to 31% affordable housing and a £12 million payment. BNP dismissed the developers' concerns about securing debt for the project.
And even "affordable" homes – defined as being available to rent at 80% of the market rate – doesn't always mean actually affordable.
As Hackney council pointed out in its response to the plans: "With neighbourhood sales prices regularly at or above £1,000 per square foot, 'affordable' housing at 80% of market rate is beyond the reach of virtually all but the luckiest."
Tower Hamlets, in its response to the plans, pointed out that many of the two-bedroom flats the scheme proposed "would fail to meet the Mayor’s minimum housing space standard and the government’s nationally described standard".
Aside from the practical issues, there are aesthetic concerns.
The GLA says in its report that the "development is not considered to be of excellent architectural design" and warns that it "could impact negatively on a number views of" various local historical landmarks and heritage assets.
The Spitalfields Society is one of several groups that sent objections during the consultation period. It said: "The proposals are grossly out of character with the surrounding area because of their bland, corporate style that has no sensitivity, reference or relevance to the prevailing style of large brick warehouses and apartment blocks that characterise the townscape of the Shoreditch area or the lower highly varied terraces of smaller properties that characterise the Brick Lane and Spitalfields areas."
The society's letter was written by Rupert Wheeler, an architect who lives and works in the area. He tells BuzzFeed News that if the scheme went ahead, it wouldn't offer much to local people.
"It’s modelled on other city developments, it’s corporate-style architecture designed to provide the sort of large-scale glitzy office space you see in the City for lawyers, bankers, and insurance companies," he says.
“I think it’s particularly Hackney [council]’s worry that with this style of architecture, it's just not the sort of places that the youthful technology and media industries want to work in.
"They very much gravitate towards the big old brick buildings and warehouses and showrooms of Shoreditch, as they have in New York and Sydney and Vancouver. All these early 20th-century and 19th-century commercial buildings – that’s where these people like to go."
Wheeler is on the conservation and design panel for Tower Hamlets, which reviews new applications, and says it’s not unheard of for new housing developments to remain mostly empty after all the units are sold – he worries the same thing could happen at BGY.
“You’re in an area where people are very progressive and entrepreneurial – no one here is afraid of tall buildings or afraid of development, it’s just all so wrong in this instance.
“The worry is that we’re building the slums of the future.”
So what happens now?
Boris Johnson has left his successor with an unwelcome choice: Either grant permission to a hugely controversial and unpopular development, with the right amendments and changes, or say no entirely and face accusations of being anti-business and against building much-needed new housing and business space.
In many cases across the city, developers have dodged the 35% affordable housing regulation with viability assessments that say the scheme would be at risk if it had that many affordable homes.
Typically, developers instead provide homes elsewhere or pay millions of pounds towards a local authority's affordable housing fund as part of their contribution under section 106 of the Town & Country Planning Act. It often works: Local authorities are pleased to receive the extra funding and a private company provides hugely expensive works that often have some element of public amenity, such as a new park or walkway.
But with BGY two councils have said no to such an offer, along with City Hall's planners, meaning that if the scheme is finally rejected by the mayor it could set the tone for how councils deal with developments like this for years to come.
The battle over Bishopsgate could be seen by future generations as a line in the sand.
The developers now propose to pay the borough of Hackney £21.8 million in lieu of building affordable homes. A previous version of this article only mentioned an earlier, lower offer made by them to the borough.
Patrick Smith is a senior reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Patrick Smith at email@example.com.
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