(R104) 'Grand vision' for historic park

By Alison Freeman

BBC News, London

Any proposal to build homes on a park is likely to cause uproar.

And Val Shawcross, who is championing the return of the historic Crystal Palace Park to what she calls its 'grand vision', is well aware of this.

She admits plans to build shops, cafes, flats and 200 homes on three corners of the south-east London park are controversial but says the money raised would be invested into the rest of the open space.

The London Assembly member for Southwark and Lambeth says the "tatty" park would become a visitor attraction.

"I think what people have got to be realistic about is what we can do for the park and the value of enabling this small amount of housing," she said.

"The community might not want to back that but then actually they lose some money to improving the park's surfaces and access."

The London Development Agency's (LDA) proposals for the park are on a huge scale, with a price tag of £100m.

The sports centre and athletics accommodation tower block are earmarked to be bulldozed and resituated.

Ms Shawcross is keen to point out that the actual amount of park land accessible to the public will increase despite the development.

A total of 39 acres will be opened up. Eighteen of these will be "new land" which previously housed buildings or the hard caravan park standings.

The rest will be areas which are currently fenced off.

The park was a pay and enter attraction in Victorian times and took its name from Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace which housed the 1851 Great Exhibition, which was sited there until it burnt down in 1936.

The park was under the control of Bromley Council - one of five local authorities which border the park - but regenerating proved too large and expensive a project for it to tackle.

The job was given to the mayor's business arm, the London Development Agency.

Some local people have called for the 200-acre site to be left alone but Ms Shawcross says this is not an option.

"One of the problems is that it's never been looked at as a whole. This is a park for south London, not a small council garden."

Another of the key developments would be replacing the gardens in the corner closest to the Crystal Palace shopping triangle, with a piazza of restaurants and shops, plus about 30 flats and a 150-space underground car park.

Ms Shawcross says this will help lift the fortunes of the area and create hundreds of jobs for local people.

"The economy on Church Road is not very good. Some of the shops are shut and the buildings look derelict.

"The piazza would create a natural flow into the triangle and the park, and the underground car park would encourage mothers with young children, and older people to visit."

The 1960s-built sports centre - if English Heritage agrees - would be replaced with a semi-circular construction next to the athletics stadium.

It would be environmentally friendly, powering itself via solar panels and house a new 50m swimming pool.

There are plans for landscaping and making the park generally more child-friendly with play areas and the revival of the city farm which is currently empty.

The largest development of about 140 houses and flats would be in the corner near Sydenham Hill with the remainder of the homes being sited at the bottom of the park near Penge.

None of the homes will be affordable - Ms Shawcross makes it clear the developments are purely a way of making money.

Sensitive issue

"The social value won't be social housing," she said, "it will be in improvements to the park."

Melvyn Harrison, chairman of The Crystal Palace Foundation, said: "Any proposals have to be considered in a controlled and measured way and we will be looking very closely at what has been proposed.

"It's a very sensitive issue with residents.

"But I don't see why we need commercial investment to improve the park.

"Other parks have been improved without commercialisation but obviously the LDA and the Greater London Authority see it differently."

A public consultation on the LDA's proposals begins on Thursday and lasts until December. It will be held at the park for two weeks before becoming a road show.

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20/10/05 Last updated 20/10/05