After years of abortive planning, a realistic scheme is finally emerging for the redevelopment of King's Cross, and it's billed as the most exciting regeneration project in central London for a century and a half. In the first of three articles in the run-up to Prescott's urban summit, Martin Spring heralds the blossoming of railway backlands
Argent chief executive Roger Madelin is the latest property developer preparing to stamp his image on central London. His chosen patch is an area of former railway lands behind King's Cross and St Pancras railway stations. Known as King's Cross Central, the 27 ha site is due for regeneration after the Channel Tunnel Rail Link terminal has been incorporated into St Pancras in January 2007.

In this venture Madelin follows in the footsteps of Sir Stuart Lipton at Broadgate and Elliott Bernerd at Paddington Basin, not to mention the Reichmann brothers at Canary Wharf in Docklands. But Madelin, a straight-talking

42-year-old, takes a much more historic perspective on his scheme. "When was the last 58.5 acre chunk of central London to be developed by one hand? You have to go back to the feudal estates developed in the early 1800s, if you want to be dramatic about it."

Certainly, the scale of the project is vast: development could amount to 800,000 m2, including 1100 homes, and the construction cost could be as high as £1.5bn. The project will be a test of a private developer's ability to deliver an ambitious urban regeneration scheme: London Regeneration with Foster and Partners failed in an attempt on the same site back in 1992. The project will also be a chance to demonstrate that current government-backed policies of high-density, mixed-use inner-city regeneration, of which Madelin is an ardent devotee, will result in better cities.

There was, therefore, a great deal of interest in the consultation document on the scheme, published this week by Argent St George, the joint-venture developer. This is the third such document published since Argent St George won the contract in March 2001, but the first to present urban design concepts for the site.

These designs show a distinct family resemblance to Brindleyplace, Argent's award-winning, mainly commercial development in central Birmingham. Instead of a mini-Manhattan of skyscrapers, as at Canary Wharf or Paddington Basin, we have groundscrapers rising from seven to 12 storeys in height on traditional tight-knit British street grids. And instead of Foster's monoculture of office buildings, we have a mixed development of offices, housing, leisure and retail. And in place of Foster's expansive new Regent's Park we have paved, pedestrianised public arenas encircled by new and historic buildings.

The high-density, mixed-use design concept goes with today's political grain. It accords with principles enunciated by Lord Rogers in his Towards an Urban Renaissance report, which were adopted by the government in its urban white paper of November 2000, passed down to regional and local authorities, and will be reviewed in John Prescott's urban summit later this month. The result is that, as Madelin puts it: "The policies of central government, regional government, with the Greater London Authority, and local government, with Camden and Islington councils, all appear to be almost entirely in line with each other. We are putting forward our proposals into a very benign policy environment."

It goes without saying that there will still be a struggle over the final plan: Camden council has welcomed the framework document as "a basis for discussion", though its environment director, Peter Bishop, says: "There are still fundamental issues for us to resolve." The good news is that the two things that property developers get most worked up about have already been resolved. Camden wanted 50% of all housing to be affordable, in line with the housing policy of the GLA. This was accepted in September by the government's planning inspector without objection by Argent St George. The same went for the provision of car-free housing "possibly up to about the 75% level".

Bishop's "fundamental issues" include the type of affordable housing provided – the council favours family homes, which would eat up more of the developer's land than one- and two-bedroom flats. Other issues are the ability of the transport infrastructure to cope with a large influx of residents and office workers, and the question of how to physically and socially integrate the development into central London.

We’ve had some fantastic conversations with local residents who say this has just got to be of international significance

Roger Madelin, Argent St George

Consultation with local residents, many of them belonging to deprived communities including asylum seekers, is one of the most sensitive aspects of the planning process at King's Cross. In the words of Michael Edwards, planning lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at University College, London: "Residents are extremely nervous about developers' intentions 10 years after London Regeneration and Foster proposed 1 million ft2 of offices and hardly any housing or community facilities."

Far from barricading himself in his Piccadilly offices, Madelin embraces consultation. "Of course there are suspicions, and we can't pretend that we're going to be able to passify or change them, but what I've said since the minute we were selected is that I'm the chief executive of Argent, and I will go and see anyone at anytime and answer their questions to the best of my ability.

"We have always been conscious that consultation fatigue may be very prevalent out there, but the reality this time is that people can see out of their windows that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is emerging. We tell them that it's a fantastic opportunity that's going to happen around them, so why not get excited about it? We'll teach you where you want to be taught, and we'll learn from you where we need to, and let's enjoy it."

As well as attending meetings ranging in size from "one person in a cafe" to open debates with 150 people, Argent has published a series of three consultation documents distributed to local residents. Madelin does not expect to submit outline planning application until next summer, after which statutory consultation by the local authority will formally begin.

Argent's measured process of planning and consultation wins praise from Bob West, head of the King's Cross planning team at Camden council. "It's steady, reasonably transparent and responsive so far," he says.

Developers and architects often fear that consultation will entangle their ambitious schemes in petty local issues. Not so Madelin. "We've had some fantastic conversations with local residents, who say this has just got to be of international significance. They say they want this scheme to provide opportunities for everyone who lives there now and their kids. In fact, some of the ethnic minorities have the grandest visions. They say, why can't this be like Hong Kong? Why can't we have thousands of people working there in international companies? Well, yes we agree with them. But I think they're also saying, let's try and shake off some of the stuffiness of London.

"I'm sure that they feel this will provide more opportunities over more years than taking a more traditional approach with low-density development like Surbiton or the back streets of Camden."

Post-industrial gardens

In one corner of Argent St George’s 27 ha King’s Cross Central site, three flat-packed, Victorian gasometers are patiently waiting for a decision about their future. The developer has asked four design teams to propose how these structures might be used; two of the teams have come up with unusual settings for luxury flats and another team proposes using them as an interesting twist to an office development. But if consultant engineer Alan Conisbee and Associates has its way, the gasometers could become London’s answer to Cornwall’s Eden Project. Working in partnership with Ian Simpson Architects, Alan Conisbee has come up with a £50m concept that would use the three gasometers to house an “urban jungle” botanical exhibition. Each of the cylinders would contain a themed selection of tropical plants – a rainforest shot through with ascending walkways, the country’s first major indoor swamp and a Jurassic park, complete with animatronics dinosaurs. The idea is that the scheme should retain the integrity of three interlinked grade II-listed structures and suggest their original function. Ian Simpson explains: “We want to work with these special structures. Our plan uses the whole space inside the gasometer’s frame and brings it into the public domain. And exhibitions we’ll include make it an educational experience.” Simpson says the aim is to make the spaces between the cast iron framework look as transparent as possible. A lightweight trussed roof will be fitted inside each structure; this will have its own steel structure, from which glass walls will hang, leaving the gasometer frames to act as a kind of cage. This design should also serve to show off the classical-style columns, originally cast in the 1860s, that make up the frame. Alongside the three vast structures – each with a floor area of 1300 m2 – another, smaller, stand-alone gasometer will act as the botanical centre’s entrance foyer. Conisbee and Simpson also envisage a high-tech botanical education centre beneath the cylinders. “This is an essential feature of the project,” says Conisbee. “It sets the project apart from other indoor botanical gardens.” To the west of the development – which would be situated alongside the Regent’s Canal, overlooking St Pancras Basin and the 2 acre Canley Street Nature Park – a revamped coal-drop building will house a retail scheme, including cafes, shops and possibly a large plant fair. The fate of the gasometers is still to be decided, but if this scheme gets the go-ahead, the Eden Project will be facing some serious competition. Project team:
Argent St George
Ian Simpson Architects
Consulting structural engineer
Alan Conisbee and Associates
Environmental engineers
BDSP Partnership For more info see