On 26 October, a new shopping quarter in London’s King’s Cross known as Coal Drops Yard opened its doors, offering more than 40 shops, restaurants and concept stores.
It’s the latest stage in the extraordinary transformation of what is now known as N1C. In addition to commercial development, including independent fashion labels as well as established brands such as designer Paul Smith and foodies’ favourite Barrafina, the 67-acre site is anchored by around 2,000 new homes.
Set among parks and gardens, on the edge of the canal or even within refurbished gasholder frames, the homes sit alongside offices, galleries, schools and an arts college, and benefit from access to myriad transport options.
But we would be telling a different story were it not for the dogged determination of local residents – and the state of the British economy – back in the early 1990s.
King’s Cross at that time was one of those places people mainly visited out of necessity. For many years it was a red-light district. It was nocturnal and notorious and, while it had a certain gritty charm loved by TV and film directors, it wasn’t somewhere to build office space, to eat out or to socialise after work. This was nobody’s idea of where to go on a first date.
A human city
In the late 1980s, however, a plan to create an underground rail station linking King’s Cross with the Channel Tunnel emerged. In tandem with work by British Rail, the London Regeneration Consortium envisaged the potential for new office and retail space on a large scale.
But local residents voiced their opposition – many faced the prospect of spending a decade living next to Europe’s biggest building site – and even presented an alternative housing-led scheme.
Over the course of a multi-year legal battle and delays in parliamentary approval, a downturn in the British economy saw property prices tumble and the plans scrapped. In their wake came a bolder and brighter vision. In its 2001 ‘Principles for a Human City’ document, property developer Argent outlined its mission for the project, receiving endorsements from Camden Council and English Heritage.
Philip Davies, planning and development director for London and South-East England at English Heritage at the time wrote: “We are convinced that the conservation-led regeneration of King’s Cross is the route to successful and sustainable urban renewal that both recognises the area’s unique qualities and builds around the values that people place on their historic environment.”
One of the principal reasons why King’s Cross has earned so many plaudits is the mix of private and public interests.
A study carried out at the end of 2017 by Regeneris cited “on-site initiatives promoting volunteering, youth groups and local employability programmes” and revealed that £3bn had been invested in construction on the site since work began in 2007, supporting 1,300 jobs. Some 1,500 suppliers had been used, including 300 local businesses, and generating gross value added of £33m.
Occupancy rates for commercial space stand at 97%, and scattered amid the £1m apartments and the shiny new office space owned by Google and Facebook are 26 acres of communal gardens and public spaces, including an urban nature reserve.
A new school has been built, along with a new home for the Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children. Camden Council has moved into 5 Pancras Square, which is said to be one of Britain’s greenest buildings, complete with council offices, a leisure centre and a library. King’s Cross is also home to Central St Martins – a leading centre for design and the arts.
When considering the scale of what has been achieved, The Observer’s architecture critic Rowan Moore wrote: “What have the developers ever done for us? Nothing, except the two schools, the university, the 2,000 new homes, of which 50% are affordable, the swimming pool, jobs, the cookery school, the community garden grown in skips so it can be moved around, the floodlit sports pitch, the 20 restored historic buildings, the not-bad architecture, the creation of 26 acres of open space, with fountains and trees, in what were partly inaccessible backlands.
“Apart from that, nothing.” Quite.
Lysanne Currie writes about business, travel and luxury for a variety of magazines, including Tempus, Victor, Robb Report UK, The Ethicalist and Meet The Leader.