The story of the Spitalfields development

Bishops Square marks the culmination of 19 years of development of Spitalfields on the eastern fringe of the City of London. The fact that it has taken 19 years to regenerate just 5 ha of land speaks of the development’s intensely controversial nature. Disputes were mostly thrown up by the site and its location on the faultline between Europe’s financial centre and the underprivileged East End. Added to that were major issues of architectural conservation, extensive archaeological remains and, not least, radical changes in the financial sector, which powered the whole development. Here’s how two decades of wranglings unfolded …

May 1986: Site for sale

Corporation of London puts the 5 ha site around Spitalfields market up for sale in an effort to compete with Docklands in housing London’s exploding financial sector.

September 1987: SDG wins site bid

Spitalfields Development Group, a consortium that includes contractors Balfour Beatty and Costain, wins the site acquisition tender over Rosehaugh Stanhope and Priest Marians, largely because it had already acquired a site in Hackney Marsh for relocating the wholesale market. Its £200m, 163,000m2 scheme, which is designed by MacCormac Jamieson Prichard & Wright and Fitzroy Robinson & Partners with large office buildings in a traditional street pattern, wins planning approval from Tower Hamlets. Completion is set for 1994.

October 1987: An alternative scheme

Conservation watchdog Save Britain’s Heritage commissions a rival scheme that recreates the former Spital Square.

January 1989: New architects …

Swanke Hayden Connell designs a more flexible scheme, working with MacCormac Jamieson Prichard & Wright, Hunt Thompson, Allies and Morrison, Edward Cullinan Architects and Pollard Thomas & Edwards.

August 1989: … and more architects

Colquhoun & Miller, Ian Ritchie, Burrell Foley and Santiago Calatrava are all appointed by SDG to work with Swanke Hayden Connell, after the previous architects fall out with Swanke Hayden Connell and resign.

May 1991: New masterplanner

American urban designer Ben Thompson Associates is appointed masterplanner to work with EPR Architects, after Swanke Hayden Connell’s scheme is called in for review by the Department of the Environment. Thompson divides the site into 14 medium-rise buildings, each to be designed by a different architect.

Spitalfields has lost its gritty wholesale vegetable trade along with half the old market building
Spitalfields has lost its gritty wholesale vegetable trade along with half the old market building

March 1991: Veg market relocates

More than 1000 wholesale fruit and vegetable traders relocate to new market buildings in Hackney Marsh developed for £50m by SDG.

February 1992: Spitalfields market reopens

While the property market tumbles, SDG reopens the market building as a general retail market with up to 330 stalls attracting 10,000 people every Sunday.

June 1992: Foster’s first scheme rejected by planners

Foster and Partners’ first Spitalfields design, a 16-storey tower on Bishopsgate, is rejected by the Corporation of London as it threatens views of St Paul’s Cathedral.

April 1992–March 2004: Public–private regeneration

SDG chief executive Mike Bear is appointed vice-chairman of Bethnal Green City Challenge and one year later is promoted to chairman. After 1997, SDG contributes to succeeding regeneration companies, Cityside Regeneration and City Fringe SRB. Over 12 years, these three companies create more than 4300 jobs and 600 businesses, build 495 social homes and refurbish 1665 existing homes.

1992: Planning gains by SDG

Tower Hamlets develops 118 social homes and a sports centre in east Spitalfields funded by £3.75m planning gain from SDG. Total planning gains provided by SDG amount to £26m. “You have to listen to local people,” says Bear. “Their main agenda is jobs, housing and education.”

1993: Masterplan gains planning consent

The Thompson mixed-use masterplan for the 5 ha site, including 100,000 m2 of offices, is granted outline planning approval by Tower Hamlets council.

1998–2004: Archaeological digs

Intensive archaeological digs are carried out on cleared site by 100 staff from the Museum of London Archaeology Service, with £4m support by SDG. Some 25 medieval buildings, including the hospital that gave the district its name, are unearthed – along with 10,600 skeletons including the well-preserved remains of a rich “Roman lady” from circa 350AD.

1998: First office building completed

ABN Amro bank moves SDG’s first office building at 250 Bishopsgate, designed by EPR Architects.

1998: Private housing development

SDG in joint venture with St George develops a classical brick terrace of 187 houses on Folgate Street facing the conservation area.

August 1999: Foster’s second scheme rejected by Liffe

Foster and Partners’ second Spitalfields scheme, a £200m 12-storey futures exchange, wins detailed planning permission but is abandoned when client Liffe switches from open outcry to electronic trading.

January 2000: Second office finished

SDG completes its second office building, a £46m, 2300 m2 serviced office building at 288 Bishopsgate, designed by Foggo Associates.

October 2001: Third office completed

Royal Bank of Scotland moves into SDG’s third completed office building, a £111m, 13-storey 250,000 m2 tower at 280 Bishopsgate designed by Foggo Associates.

March 2001: In comes Hammerson

Property group Hammerson completes takeover of SDG.

June 2001: Foster appointed for third scheme

Foster and Partners is appointed by SDG to design £250m mixed-use Bishops Square development of offices, retail and public spaces with Allen & Overy as office tenant.

November 2001: Alsop submits counter-proposal

Protest group Spitalfields Market Under Threat commissions a counter-proposal from Will Alsop, in which a 92,000 m2 office building is raised on stilts, leaving the market intact.

January 2002: Foster design panned

Foster’s revised design for Bishops Square is criticised by CABE for its ”ski-slope” shapes.

November 2002: Bishops Square gains planning consent

Foster’s second design revision for Bishops Square, for a 108,000 m2 mixed-use scheme, wins detailed planning approval from Tower Hamlets council. SMUT pans Foster’s scheme as “the imposition of a characterless corporate environment on a successful local diverse sustainable community that is of equal importance to the success of London as a ‘world city’”.

September 2005: Bishops Square completed

The Bishops Square £285m mixed-use development is completed by Sir Robert McAlpine to Foster and Partners’ design.

And coming soon …

November 2005: Market building refurbished

A mezzanine cafe floor in the market building designed by Lyons Sleaman Hoare is being developed by Ballymore, which bought the building in 1999.

December 2006: Lawyers move in

Allan & Overy to move 4000 legal staff into Bishops Square after completion of fit-out.

2007: Final Spitalfields developments

SDG’s final developments include the redevelopment of a 1920s ancillary market building by Scott Brownrigg, and a small hall behind St Botolph’s Hall.