Azara Blog: The latest plans for the Cambridge railway station re-development

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Date published: 2007/06/15

The first proposal Ashwell made for the re-development of the Cambridge railway station area was rejected point blank by the Cambridge City Council. It seems that unbelievably the two parties did not discuss the application before it was made, which is totally irresponsible (it has put the whole thing back by a year).

Ashwell has just proposed a modified scheme. This time around it seems that, fortunately, the two sides have had discussions, so it is fairly likely to be approved. The modified scheme is not hugely different, which is hardly surprising given all the constraints. The car approach to the multi-storey car park has been changed slightly, and the cycle parking will now be part of that rather than separate. The tallest buildings have been lowered a couple of storeys. The number of households has been decreased. Kett House is no longer part of the development so will not be demolished.

As a result of the changes, the profit has gone down, and although the academic middle class who run Cambridge probably think this is jolly good, it is of course the citizens of Cambridge who will pay for this reduction, not Ashwell. In particular, the section 106 money that Ashwell will provide Cambridge (for infrastructure and services) will be vastly reduced (perhaps halved). Put it this way, Ashwell (and any other developer) will not do a development unless they make a certain return on capital. If Cambridge doesn't like it, Cambridge can get stuffed.

The new proposal so far concentrates mainly on transport, since that is one thing the city did not like the last time around. This is because Ashwell was not anti-car enough. The Cambridge ruling elite hate cars, and the more they can do to screw car drivers the happier they are. Indeed, the only consideration that ever gets any real attention by the Cambridge ruling elite is how to screw car drivers forever more. So they never worry about making sure Cambridge has enough decent jobs, or any of the other important things in life, just how to screw car drivers. By stressing over and over that cars are really at the bottom of the pile in all their considerations, Ashwell is playing the game properly this time around.

Ashwell is still teaming up with Richard Rogers (magically now part of something called Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners) for the development. Apparently Rogers will appear in person to wow the Cambridge planning meeting. And indeed since he is himself anti-car (surprise, he's an architect) then he will no doubt successfully wow the Cambridge ruling elite. Rogers does the odd decent building but his plans for the re-development of the South Bank in London a few years ago were rather silly, and time will tell whether he has anything really useful to contribute to the railway development. (He is also the architect for the rather anodyne Terminal 5 building at Heathrow, but that is mostly not his fault.)

The one interesting piece of detail so far is that Ashwell is planning to have a public plaza at the front of the station, and they think that people will actually sit around there and use the space. That seems rather fanciful. London commuters will hardly be customers (they just want to get to London in the morning and to home in the evening). There will be a fair number of office workers and residential properties nearby, but is that enough custom to keep the place going? No tourist would venture down that way (except to catch the train) and in most of the successful public spaces in the world, tourists play a big part. It's also quite tricky to create an entirely new public space that works. The recent Cattle Market development shows perfectly well how it should not be done. If Rogers can at least achieve something on this score, then he will have earned his pay.

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