Crossrail: A Catalyst for Urban Change

Crossrail is the largest engineering project in Europe with major construction currently taking place below and above ground in central London.  Its goal is to connect rail networks on both sides of London through the city’s centre, bridging Maidenhead and Heathrow in the west to Shenfield and Abbey Wood in the east.

On September 18th, Colin Smith, Crossrail’s Head of Over-site Development, spoke to ULI UK from the Crossrail Visitor Centre at Tottenham Court Road – Crossrail’s most complex and advanced worksite in London.  He discussed the project’s history and construction  progress, including many details of developments, especially those above ground.  He noted that millions of Londoners rely on a rail transport system which is increasingly under pressure, and that Crossrail is poised to make commuting easier for regular rail passengers by improving facilities, accessibility, and travel times.  When Crossrail is complete, London’s rail capacity will increase by 10%, providing connectivity for  areas of expected population growth.  Travel times across the board will fall; for example, the journey from Heathrow Airport to Liverpool Street will take just 32 minutes, compared to the current travel time of 55 minutes.

Colin spoke about the challenges of building infrastructure on this scale in central London. Construction challenges include navigating the city’s existing infrastructure, and minimising disruption to communities near to worksites.  As Crossrail spans 19 boroughs it comes into contact with numerous  landowners, residents, contractors, suppliers, and interested parties, resulting in a  great number of stakeholders for consultation.

Various challenges have resulted in each station being designed and built differently, all involving a huge amount of design integration work.  Crossrail stations will be spacious and modern and some, like Canary Wharf, will have a futuristic feel.  Mr Smith said that Crossrail decided not to have a specific architectural statement so as to better reflect the diversity of London’s architecture, adding that Crossrail will provide a lasting legacy with a good quality design.

Construction of the new stations required the acquisition of major central sites, the cost of which has totalled £800 million through use of compulsory powers. Certain major landowners, including Grosvenor Estates, Great Portland Estates, Derwent London and Aviva wished to retain an interest in these sites and this process has resulted in a number of Collaboration Agreements with existing landowners for the delivery of the over-site developments.  In short, the landlords received the right to influence the over site development  design and in some cases this led to significant changes and improvements  in station design as the two elements have to be totally integrated with the station foundations supporting the over site developments. The major landowners  entered into Collaboration Agreements with Crossrail providing them with the right to buy back the over site development opportunities after completion of the station’s development.  In exchange Crossrail obtained access to the design and planning skills, experience and resources of the top private sector firms.  Colin Smith has been instrumental in mediating between the design teams of Crossrail and the landlord to ensure that the design of the station fits the over-site development and vice versa. Apparently, constructive tension between developer and station designer has led to some good designs.

Whilst Crossrail has a Parliamentary Act which grants some planning powers, over-site developments are not covered by this and are still subject to the normal planning approval process.  This has required regular collaboration with local planning authorities.  For example, many stations were in areas with height restrictions.  In obtaining planning permission for the over-site development above Farringdon station, Crossrail and development partner Cardinal Lysander were asked to cut back Cardinal House to improve views of the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Cardinal Street is also to become fully pedestrianized.  Improved public spaces will accompany other stations, such as at Tottenham Court Road station where it is intended that St. Giles will become a new square with improved pedestrian facilities and better connections to Covent Garden and Soho.  Additionally, a new entrance to the Bond Street station will open in Hanover Square, which Westminster City Council will be redesigning to make favourable to pedestrians.

At Canary Wharf the station building will be topped by four floors of much needed retail space and is likely to result in a profitable investment after it opens in 2015.  There will also be a landscaped park, restaurant, and community facility on the top floor.

In the future, Colin Smith’s role will involve getting sites ready for sale and selling them back to collaborators. Colin noted the variability in values across the Crossrail sites, but informed that Crossrail expects to derive £540 million from the sale of sites. Crossrail’s effect on property values has been researched, and based on data from infrastructure projects around the world, it is suggested that the impact on property values will extend 500m for offices and 1000m for houses. This, however, could extend even wider where there is significant change in the locale’s accessibility.  It is expected that Crossrail will positively affect house and commercial values in London and areas along the route,  and that it will encourage major occupiers to seek closer locations.  On the whole, economists project Crossrail will bring the region £42 billion in benefits.