The outcome of the fight may help shape London’s future skyline. In one corner is a Texan millionaire DJ and property developer who has put forward plans for a 20-storey office block in Brixton, next to a conservation area and the district’s famous Electric Avenue.
Taylor McWilliams’s property company Hondo, which owns most of Brixton market, claims the proposal will “deliver” 2,000 jobs in the area and generate £2.8m every year for the local economy.
In the other corner is a group of residents whose fierce opposition has been joined by Historic England and the Victorian Society, which this month wrote to the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, saying the proposal no longer had merit in a post-Covid future where more people would be working from home.
McWilliams, a member of the DJ collective Housekeeping, first attracted local anger when Hondo served notice on a popular small shop, Nour Cash & Carry.
But, following a social media campaign called Save Nour – backed by celebrities including rock singer Skin from Skunk Anansie, – the shop will stay, albeit moved to a new site nearby.
Now McWilliams find himself facing further local censure after his plans for the tower were approved last month by Lambeth council despite almost 8,000 people signing an online petition opposing it.
The Save Nour group wants the mayor to intervene, a move backed by the Victorian Society.
“This area of Brixton has avoided the intensive development which has blighted many of London’s historic urban centres,” said Olivia Stockdale, conservation adviser for the society. “It therefore retains its character as a predominantly Victorian town centre.
“The plans to construct a building of 20 storeys next to this conservation area demonstrates a total failure to understand and respond to the context of the area.
“While buildings of this height may be appropriate elsewhere in London, this is clearly not a location where this applies. The proposed development would overshadow the surrounding buildings, including the historic Electric Avenue which, when built in the 1880s, was the first market street lit by electric lights.”
There were reports that the development had already been approved by the mayor. An email was circulated that appeared to confirm Khan had given the go-ahead. But this was later attributed to an administrative error.
In response to locals’ concerns, Hondo told the Observer that it was setting up a community liaison group “to identify and map how the local community can engage with this project, including engagement through the community space”. It claimed that the proposal had received support from more than 1,000 residents, predominantly from the local area, and a large percentage of current Brixton market traders.
Joe O’Donnell, Victorian Society director, called on Khan to consider whether London needed more office space. “This is an opportunity to respond to what is wanted by the local community. If a huge office tower block was ever really needed or viable in Brixton, it’s commercial future seems now seems doubtful as it is unclear whether London will ever return to previous levels of office demand in a post Covid-19 world of home working. We have sent our objection to the mayor to inform his decision.”
Hondo said there was a “serious need for office and commercial space, especially in Brixton”.
The company said in a statement: “Commercial space is at a premium, and Hondo feel we are best placed to address that. Despite employment rising at twice the rate as in Lambeth, in Brixton vacancy rates are virtually at zero. Studies have been undertaken by Savills which reflect that the post-Covid situation for office space will look very similar to the pre-Covid situation.”
O’Donnell said that if the plan were to go ahead it would set a precedent, opening up the area, and potentially other sites across the capital, for further high-rise developments.
“Many of the largely Victorian town centres of urban London are already blighted by massive development which has radically altered their character, for example Lewisham or Stratford. This character is becoming increasingly rare, and this is why we argue the conservation area be spared it.”
However, Hondo stressed that the new development would do justice to the area.
“The Pope’s Road development will be a landmark building and the design is of the highest quality, led by world leading designer Sir David Adjaye, who has drawn inspiration from architecture in Brixton,” the company said.
“Our proposal takes direct inspiration from the existing markets and aims to extend and implement this unique urban typology.
“A thorough research into the character and history of Brixton from both an architectural and a cultural point of view allowed us to propose a scheme which is at the same time innovative and contextual.”