London has a big problem with underused and empty buildings. More than 22,000 commercial properties in the capital have been vacant for at least six months and 6,700 acres of land, the equivalent in size to the entire London Borough of Lambeth, remain undeveloped despite having planning permission for homes, offices or shops.
One possible way to utilise “empty London” is the increasing number of “meanwhile” projects — schemes for the temporary use of buildings and land until a permanent role has been established.
More than 50 meanwhile sites have emerged across the city, according to the Centre for London think tank, which calls the phenomenon a “new fringe for the city” — part of the discussion about the imaginative reuse of land and buildings, and about how growing cities evolve in a sustainable way that is good for the environment.
Making use of these vacant buildings and forgotten spaces to help regenerate neighbourhoods can only be for the good.
Rather than precious land and buildings remaining unused behind barbed wire or becoming security-guarded no-go zones, sites are now being opened up for community and cultural uses — from theatres, art galleries and allotments to street food markets, hipster boutiques, crèches and all sorts of micro businesses — for the benefit of local residents and workers.
Unlike casual pop-ups, meanwhile uses can last for years and are part of co-ordinated action aimed at improving the cityscape.
Property developers are falling in behind the idea because it gives them kudos with local councils when seeking planning consent. Also, meanwhile traders can be “incubated” and moved into permanent commercial premises when the development is built out.
Boutique prefabricated homes are proposed for some meanwhile housing, filling a void in the market for short-term renters.
Vivahouse is a new modular housing system that can be assembled on site in 24 hours, transforming vacant commercial space into co-living homes.
Rajdeep Gahir, the company’s founder, says rents will be half the price of conventional rented accommodation, with leases ranging from one week to several years.
Though bijou, the flatpack homes conform to all building regulations, while residents will have access to shared amenity spaces.
Projects are launching soon in Maida Vale and Shoreditch. And with an increasing number of high street retail premises falling vacant, the units could be “repurposed” to provide much-needed suburban housing, adds Gahir.
This is the plan at Clarendon, a new 1,714-home neighbourhood in Wood Green. Being built on industrial land butting up against train tracks, the project brings a new park plus 22 pockets of public green space and private courtyards as well as 100,000sq ft, more than two acres, of commercial space.
The 10-year project has only just started but already there is a thriving community of meanwhile tenants operating from five interconnected warehouses at the site.
Goodwin & Goodwin, a bespoke signage and typography company, occupies a vast space and has a microbrewery, book distributor, arts charity and group fitness club as neighbours.
The firm is run by Wood Green residents Viviane and Paul Goodwin, who have been commissioned by developer St William, the site owner, to design marketing material for the scheme.
Despite the gritty Zone 3 location, Clarendon is close to leafy Alexandra Palace and adjoins Metropolitan Open Land, a sort of green belt for the inner city. Flats in the first phase of homes, in a 15-storey tower, cost from £350,000. Call 020 3393 5926.
Bespoke signage and typography company Goodwin & Goodwin is a “meanwhile” tenant at Clarendon in Wood Green, which will be a new neighbourhood with 1,714 homes, a new park and industrial space.
The thriving meanwhile community at the site also includes an arts charity, a microbrewery, a book distributor and a group fitness club.
Company bosses Viviane and Paul Goodwin were commissioned by site owner St William to design marketing material for Clarendon.
Their company motto is “Signs with Soul” and they produce all manner of signage, from custom-made artworks to funky neon installations.
“Flexible meanwhile space is a great opportunity for a business like ours to grow without being tied into a long lease,” says Viviane, 46.
“Previously we were spread over four premises but everything is now under one roof. Most of our staff live within 15 minutes of the workshop, and we all feel part of a community even though it is going to be temporary.
"The place has quickly acquired an identity. We’re now working with a lot of local businesses and hope to put down roots in the area by moving into the new commercial space when it is ready.”
Mercato Metropolitano, housed in a disused paper factory near Elephant and Castle, sprouted up five years ago pending the plot gaining planning permission for new homes.
It has since evolved into one of London’s liveliest street food markets, with a cookery school, vegetable garden, event space and cinema.
So successful has it become that Southwark council and housing charity Peabody, which owns the land, may give it a scaled-down permanent home in the yet-to-be redeveloped site, while the market itself is opening an “artisanal food factory” at the mega Elephant Park residential scheme.
London Fire Brigade’s former headquarters on Albert Embankment is another of the capital’s big meanwhile projects. The site is being redeveloped into 400 homes alongside a hotel, offices and a new fire station.
Developer U+I, whose previous meanwhile projects include a train carriage converted into a café at a housing scheme alongside Deptford station, has given over the space to museums, charities and social enterprises such as the Institute of Imagination, which helps mentor families in Lambeth.
A pop-up arts centre at splendid Hornsey Town Hall in Crouch End, currently being redeveloped into a neighbourhood hub with 135 homes, will become a permanent fixture alongside a boutique hotel, co-working spaces, library, café plus rooftop restaurant and bar. Homes cost from £484,950. Call 020 3960 5888.
Creative Land Trust, a new charity backed by the Mayor of London and Arts Council England chair Sir Nicholas Serota, works with developers to provide affordable artists’ studios.
The trust has helped to secure space next to the new English National Ballet building at City Island in Docklands, and is working with the new owner of listed Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which famously made the Big Ben bell and the original Liberty Bell for Philadelphia, and is the subject of controversial redevelopment.