David Adjaye’s £100 million Hackney Walk was billed as a ‘world-class’ fashion mecca that would bring hundreds of jobs to a row of disused railway arches in Hackney.
It was built – although never fully completed – with £1.5 million of funds from City Hall earmarked for boroughs worst-hit by the 2010 riots. But today, just three years after it opened its doors, most of the units stand empty. In a recent report on its demise, local newspaper the Hackney Gazette described it as a ‘ghost town’.
Even Hackney Council, which championed the scheme and funded it, has admitted things haven’t worked out. Its planning chief said he shared local people’s concerns that the street had ‘too many buildings sitting empty’.
It is a sad end to the scheme but ,for many, a predictable one. A shabby street in Hackney transforming into a luxury fashion outlet to rival Oxfordshire’s Bicester Outlet Village always seemed, as local architect and member of Hackney’s design review panel Louise Goodison puts it, ‘an oddly misconceived project’.
So was the scheme just too upmarket or were there other reasons it didn’t bear fruit? And what now for the future of the scheme?
First Look at Hackney Fashion Hub designed by David Adjaye
In 2011, then London mayor Boris Johnson announced he would be investing £70 million in regeneration projects in parts of the capital worst affected by the riots. Hackney was allocated £2 million.
A £500,000 chunk of the money was spent revamping damaged shopfronts in Mare Street and pedestrianising the Narrow Way thoroughfare, but the vast majority – £1.5 million – was reserved for the fashion hub project on Morning Lane. An additional £3.3 million in funding was provided by Network Rail.
The proposals, put forward by developers Manhattan Loft Corporation and Chatham Works, included 6,250m² of shops as well as design studios for up-and-coming local designers. The developers also promised 450 retail jobs for locals, a pedestrian area with cafés, and free business advice for fashion start-ups.
It was too ambitious, too slow to gain approval, too upmarket, in slightly the wrong location
The idea for a fashion project was not entirely plucked from the sky. There were already nearby outlets for designers Burberry, Aquascutum and Pringle in Chatham Place, just off Morning Lane.
It was hoped that the scheme would create a creative ‘cluster’ and turn the unremarkable section of road into a global fashion hub. In promotional material from the time, Adjaye said the proposals would offer a ‘beacon’ for Hackney central.
Adjaye’s masterplan, approved in 2013, was broken up into phases with the first involving the redevelopment of the railway arches on the north side of Morning Lane (see diagram below). The second involved building two seven-storey buildings on the south side, either side of Chatham Place, on the site of a former pub used as the Pringle knitwear factory outlet and an 1850s gravel pit chapel in use by Aquascutum. However, this key chunk of the project was never built.
In 2014, plans were approved for a third phase of the fashion hub project, designed by Pringle Richards Sharratt (PRS) comprising two ‘mirror image’ infill buildings on either side of the main row of arches. Once built, one of these became the Nike building while the other was never let.
Map adjaye hackney walk ej
The scheme had plenty of critics. Many argued that the £2 million of regeneration cash should be spent on projects that would more directly benefit the local community, on youth clubs for example or for the businesses damaged in the rioting. A petition against the scheme claimed it aimed ‘only to cosmetically restore Hackney’s post-rioting image rather than invest and serve the community.’
There was also concerns over the lack of joined-up thinking behind the designs. Commenting on the planning application in 2013, local conservation group the Hackney Society said the scheme was a ‘grand, exciting and innovative idea, but rapidly implemented in either the wrong place or without the major infrastructure changes needed to support it’.
The fashion hub opened in 2016 in the Adjaye-refurbed arches and PRS-designed infill units with a range of outlet stores for high-end brands such as Zadig and Voltaire, Gieves and Hawkes, luxury cashmere brand Colombo, Nicole Farhi, and Matches.
But one by one the retailers have dropped out until today just four of 12 remain: Nike, Present, Matches and Joseph. The Hackney Gazette reported that the Present menswear store had been boarded up after being ram-raided twice.
When asked by the AJ why they moved on, most of the retailers declined to comment publicly. However, staff at two brands say the rents on the units were too high and the shops weren’t generating enough income.
Nick Perry, of the Hackney Society, says the scheme was a ‘bronze elephant’ that suffered from ‘painfully predictable shortcomings’ at every turn. ‘It was too ambitious, too slow to gain approval, too upmarket, in slightly the wrong location, too disconnected from the exciting town centre and too eager to impress’, he said.
According to Perry, the piecemeal way the site was acquired was the reason for the Adjaye towers being dropped, and leaving a ‘disconnected, over-curated version of the original dream that just couldn’t compete for the big names it so desperately needed to succeed’.
He adds: ‘Had we seen Adjaye’s towers materialise and had there been a more committed attempt to mix commercial uses that joined it to Hackney Central, the story may have been different.’
Adjaye Associates, Manhattan Loft Corporation and Chatham Works Fashion Hub
Goodison, who is director of Cazenove Architects, says the ‘failure of the fashion hub [is] clear’ from the empty units and the lack of business activity in the street. ‘It always seemed an oddly misconceived project,’ she says, ‘placing a high-end luxury clothes outlet in the heart of one of the poorest areas of London, and using some of the GLAs grant money to boost the local economy after the 2011 riots to underwrite it.’
Yet Cany Ash of Ash Sakula Architects says she visited the scheme when it first opened and it seemed to ‘hold a lot of promise’, though she adds: ‘It is quite hidden; perhaps the drum roll needed to be longer, perhaps the idea of the fashion quarter, although logical was curated a bit top-down, rather than growing out of the latent energy in the neighbourhood.’
Hackney Council has said it ‘recognises and shares the concerns of local people’ about the fortunes of fashion hub. Planning and culture chief Guy Nicholson says that, despite a ‘great start’, a challenging retail environment and changes in ownership have left ‘too many buildings’ sitting empty.
But Hackney Walk executive chairman and founder Jack Barawsky insists that when he sold the site in 2017 to Camden market owner LabTech, almost all of the units were occupied and he was in process of signing a tenant for the building opposite Nike.
‘It was a success,’ he says. ‘We had fantastic events for the retail business. I’m not sure what the aspirations of the new owners are. I hoped they would make it a great success. I would love it to be busier and full of retailers.’
Asked about criticism that is was the wrong project for the site, Barawsky responds: ‘I would reject that absolutely. As far as I’m concerned it has created around 100 jobs. You know what the retail environment is at the moment, it takes time. I believe Hackney Central has great potential going forward and the scheme will evolve over time.’
Barawsky is also behind plans for the redevelopment of the Tesco superstore close to the fashion hub at 55 Morning Lane, which is being designed by Walkie Talkie architect Rafael Viñoly. It’s a site Perry says the fashion hub should have ‘always been on’.
As for Adjaye Associates, the practice says the original intention for the project was a larger masterplan with ‘an animated public realm, which would comprise the arches as shops, two towers with retail’ as well as a public green space with cafés. ‘Ultimately only the first phase was completed by Adjaye Associates, the retail units within the arches,’ it says. ‘We hope there is still potential to look at the further phases to complete the project and fulfil its original purpose.’
There are already plans in place to repurpose the fashion hub into a wider range of uses. Nicholson says he has written to LabTech to ‘kick-start discussions’ over the future of the site.
A spokesperson for LabTech said since it acquired the site it had been ‘working to reposition’ the estate, adding: ‘We are currently working with Hackney Borough Council to change the offer so that we can regenerate the arches into a mix of retail, café and leisure space.’
The pipedream was that the fashion hub would deliver a boost to Hackney’s economy. Planning documents included a regeneration ‘ripple effect’ diagram which illustrated how the fashion hub and the jobs it created would lead to events, more local businesses and eventually ‘further investment in the wider area’.
There’s sad irony in the fact that in a borough with a long history of gentrification, the council’s own attempt culminated in a row of empty shops where it seems even luxury brands can’t afford to trade.
Not to mention the fact that instead of consulting the community, the decision was made that a multi-million-pound retail-led regeneration was the best answer to the problem posed by young people looting shops.
As Perry says: ‘Ultimately the saddest failing is that money injected in the wake of the riots to rejuvenate a community and deliver hope failed to do anything of the sort.’