Residents First

Tower Hamlets People Network

PA/12/2233 and 2234

I strongly object to the application to demolish the closed toilet block in Museum Gardens, and to replace it with a multi-purpose bicycle park. The application ignores the fact that the toilet block is part of Museum Gardens. And Museum Gardens (together with Paradise Gardens) is on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

 

This is a material consideration and as such the application must be withdrawn to allow the Council to make proposals which respect the site’s double protection (as part of a designated heritage asset within the Bethnal Green Gardens Conservation Area); and fully address the several problems in the vicinity.

 

The English Heritage registration of the two gardens recognises them as former parts of the manorial common or waste known as Bethnal Green, and subject to the Poor’s Land Trust deed of 1690 “for the prevention of any new buildings thereon“. Consequently, The London Museum Site Act of 1868 authorised the Trustees to sell land for a proposed museum provided that certain conditions were met. Two of the conditions recited in the conveyance were that the land was for museum buildings only; and that the land not needed for the museum “shall be laid out and for ever maintained .. as an ornamental garden“. The government which provided the museum was therefore also obliged to open the land not needed for the museum as a public garden. Bethnal Green Museum Garden was opened and “dedicated to the public forever” in May 1875. Ownership and maintenance was subsequently passed to the London County Council, on its formation in 1888.

 

In 1958, the Metropolitan Borough of Bethnal Green was urgently seeking a site for a public convenience at the crossroads. The LCC gave permission for a toilet block provided its design was approved by the LCC; and (mindful of its legal responsibilities) granted a licence which the Borough was obliged to renew on a yearly basis. The low single-storey block was opened in 1960 in a sufficiently restrained style to respect St John’s Church and Museum Gardens, and a single entrance only from Cambridge Heath Road via the ‘landing’ at the top of the northern staircase to the tube station.

 

I recognise that there is an urgent need to provide a public convenience at the crossroads, proper bicycle storage for tube passengers, and a refreshment facility to replace the unsightly and obstructive coffee stall on the ‘landing’ at the top of the northern staircase to the tube station. However, the proposed reuse of the toilet block site appears to have been driven move by the availability of funds for improving bicycle provision and a spare Automativ Public Convenience (APC) than a genuine desire to provide facilities without destroying the special character of this part of the Bethnal Green Gardens Conservation Area.

 

In my opinion, too many conflicting uses are being crammed onto this small site with no consideration given to the site as part of a doubly-protected heritage asset; and the need to ensure that the site is safe for all users and does not add to the several problems in the vicinity.

  1. The existing coffee stall is not only unsightly but severely reduces the circulation area on the ‘landing’ at the top of the northern staircase to the tube station. As the stallholder pays rent to Transport for London and there is nothing in the application to indicate that it would be replaced by the proposed mobile kiosk (in the proposed multi-storey bicycle park) it is more than likely to stay, and serve more customers than the less accessible proposed mobile kiosk.
  2. Cyclists are shown on the proposed site plan cycling from the ‘landing’ into the proposed multi-purpose bicycle park. This would be across the two-way flow of pedestrians on the ‘landing’ at the top of the northern staircase to the tube station. As well as cyclists using the ‘landing’ entrance, there would also be pedestrians trying to get to the proposed mobile kiosk and the proposed APC in the proposed multi-purpose bicycle park.
  3. A right-angular wall is shown projecting into the ‘landing’ from the entrance to the proposed bicycle park (allegedly to force cyclists to dismount). This would further impede two-way pedestrian flow to and from the northern staircase: adding to the congestion on the ‘landing’ and making it even more difficult and dangerous for pedestrians using the ‘landing’.
  4. As the proposed bicycle park would also be accessed from the park during the park opening times, cyclists would also cycle into or through Musuem Gardens, and through the entrance which would be partly occupied by the mobile kiosk. This entrance would be congested by pedestrians using the kiosk and by pedestrians trying to get to the proposed APC from Museum Gardens.
  5. The proposed multi-purpose bicycle park would only provide stands for 75 bicycles when there are already at least 100 bicycles chained to the railings and the pavement fences between the bus stop and the tube entrance. Furthermore, the application itself acknowledges “the likelihood of bicycles continuing to be chained to railings despite notices that will state that this is no longer an option“. Clearly, proper bicycle storage for tube passengers should not only meet present needs but also future needs; and must be accompanied by effective enforcement by the official removal of improperly chained bicycles.
  6. The mobile kiosk shown in the Museum Gardens entrance would not be “present over night“, but there are no arrangements for its overnight storage. Also shown near the proposed entrance are two tables and eight chairs in the pathway from the Museum Garden gates in Cambridge Heath Road. As the mobile kiosk would have to pay rent to Tower Hamlets Council (and would be in competition with all the existing cafes in the vicinity, including the coffee stall should it remain), the operator is likely to put out more tables and chairs to attract customers in order to continue the business and pay the rent. The additional tables and chairs would almost certainly obstruct the regular two-way flow of pedestrians through Museum Gardens and this would probably lead to tables and chairs spreading across the grassed areas in the south-west corner of Museum Gardens. I should add that I think it perfectly acceptable that people continue to drink coffee and eat snacks in the Gardens on the existing seats or on the grass.
  7. The proposed APC would not be free and apart from being totally inadequate for the numbers of users able to pay, it would not be used by other unable to pay. As a result, Museum Gardens (and other areas in the vicinity) would be more widely used as a public toilet because the shrubbed border to the east of the closed toilet block would be less likely to be used as a public toilet following the removal of the closed toilet block.
  8. In relation to St John’s Church and Museum Gardens, the proposed APC, bicycle park and mobile kiosk would be more detrimental to the character and appearance of this part of the Bethnal Green Gardens Conservation Area than the existing toilet block. Obviously this is an eyesore at present but it could and should be retained, refubished and adapted for use as a cafĂ© with public toilets. I am aware of at least one developer who was in talks with the Council to convert the block along these lines. Such an approach would not involve the Council in massive capital expenditure, and would bring an enhanced public facility back into use and (subject to negotiations) replace the unsightly and obstructive coffee stall.
  9. The bicycles chained to the railings and the pavement fences between the bus stop and the tube entrance are a separate problem which is the responsibility of Tower Hamlets Council and Transport for London: practically all the bicycles belong to tube passengers; and alternative and fully effective arrangements for bicycle storage should not be provided in the registered Museum Gardens and particularly not next to the listed St John’s Church.

 

A far less sensitive location at the crossroads would be at or near the southern end of the registered Paradise Gardens. This also has the great merit of being open to Cambridge Heath Road and Bethnal Green Road: and cyclists would be more willing to use it than the proposed enclosed bicycle park where thieves could more easily operate. However, it should not be of a size detrimental to Paradise Gardens and the listed Georgian terrace.

 

An additional and larger bicycle park could and should be provided on one or both sides of the very wide footpath between Cambridge Heath Road and Bethnal Green Library. From here it is but a short walk to the south-eastern staircase to the tube station (on the corner of Cambridge Heath Road and Roman Road).

 

Both alternative sites would provide stands for all the bicycles currently chained to railings and pavement fences; and the wide footpath to the library could accommodate more stands as necessary. Furthermore, neither site would involve the cost of demolition, and the available funds would probably more than cover the costs for both sites. As practically all the bicycles belong to tube passengers it should be the responsibility of Transport for London to remove improperly chained bicycles in the vicinity of the tube station.

 

The provision of the two alternative sites would remove cyclists and their bicycles from one of the busiest pedestrian areas in the Borough; and allow the refurbished and adapted 1960 toilet block to be reopened as a more than adequate and safe refreshment facility and public convenience for people using Museum Gardens, Paradise Gardens and Bethnal Green Gardens (including visitors to the Stairway to Heaven); and tube and bus passengers, local residents, visitors and tourists, especially those staying at all the new hotels in Cambridge Heath Road.

 

Having allowed these hotels, the Council should at least ensure that, after years of neglect, the heart of Bethnal Green ‘town centre’ is improved to the highest possible standard to complement the Stairway to Heaven and associated improvements in Bethnal Green Gardens, near the south-eastern tube entrance.

Yours sincerely,

Tom Ridge

 

September 29th, 2012

Posted In: Bethnal Green Gardens, Conservation

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