The Blog

Crossing a Line in Soho? The Crossrail 2 Debate Begins

All of this construction work was very much on my mind the other night as I walked to the meeting which Crossrail 2, the proposed south-west to north-east underground railway, had arranged as an initial consultation with local businesses and residents.

Everyone I know is battling something in Soho today. Take the Maltese Porno Boy, for instance. (I do know his real name, but with his now fading boyish good looks, Maltese family background, and 30-year-plus involvement in Soho's sex business, I cannot think of him as anything other than MPB.)

Usually he greets me with a big smile and a cheery hello, but he was not his usual ebullient self when I bumped into him outside his hostess bar on our dodgy little alleyway. He waved a letter in my direction. "The council and the landlord and police, they keep bothering me. Always trying to put up my rent, increase rates, I barely making a living these days. And now this.

"They trying to tell me that I march people to cash machines to pay their bills." (For the record, entry to MPB's bar is £5, but sitting with a "hostess" costs quite a bit more, and "champagne - dealcoholised" costs around £160 a bottle. It does actually say this on a menu posted in the window, but I suspect very few people who go in are actually in the right state of mind to peruse this invaluable document.)

"It's absolute nonsense," he continued. (Pause) "I've had a cash machine in the basement for years."

Ah, old school Soho. Another world entirely, disappearing at a rate of knots. After learning about the demise of the fabulously useful household goods store That's Andy on Berwick Street in April as part of the redevelopment of the Kemp House site as a luxury hotel, I've now discovered that work won't commence until August at least. The Fairtrade shop and the betting shop have already been vacated, and the remaining shops will go shortly. So in place of a useful parade of shops for the residents, we are now facing months of walking through a boarded up wasteland. Progress, indeed.

While there was a recent respite to the seemingly endless gentrification when The Yard bar on Rupert Street was saved by a vigorously fought campaign, Soho in general continues to be transformed into a rough approximation of the Klondike, circa 1896. But in place of men with sieves and shovels, there are men in hard hats clutching power drills and unloading truckloads of scaffolding, as what seems like virtually every other building is refurbished and turned into luxury flats, priced at a level only overseas investors are likely to be able to afford, with yet another "artisan" tapas bar, bubble tea lounge, or (insert vacuous hipster gimmick restaurant idea here) at street level.

All of this construction work was very much on my mind the other night as I walked to the meeting which Crossrail 2, the proposed south-west to north-east underground railway, had arranged as an initial consultation with local businesses and residents.

We gathered in the basement of the magnificent Catholic church on Soho Square - a symbolic location, as the online plans for Crossrail 2 had identified the square as a "point of surface interest", with the possibility of covering the whole area with portacabins for at least four years while building work was underway (the proposed schedule sees work on the entire project start in 2020 and continue to 2030).

As slickly-coiffured young men and suave older smoothies in suits and ties mingled with the more familiar bohemian (i.e. slightly scruffy) faces from Save Soho, the Soho Society, and other lobbying groups, our local priest (who could not look more like a Catholic Father out of central casting if he tried) dispensed tea and coffee to a room quietly simmering with tension.

The Transport for London Crossrail 2 team was led at the meeting by a very nice lady who, initially, wore the fretful expression of a Christian about to be thrown to some peckish lions. Cleverly, she immediately chucked us an enormous bone. After reviewing its plans, Crossrail 2 would NOT seek to turn Soho Square into a building site for many years to come, she told us, and there would be no incursion into the postage-stamp size area of trees and grass that gives Soho just about its only green outdoor space.

However, Crossrail 2 would seek to retain the existing construction shafts for Crossrail 1 that currently occupy all four corners of the square. These would remain in place for the years between the end of 1 and the start of 2, and then be utilised when new work commences, for an unspecified time period - a not very appetising prospect for locals who've had to endure substantial inconvenience for the last five years of Crossrail 1 construction.

An even bigger bone, but this time very much one of contention, is the future of the Curzon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue.

The massive new station at Tottenham Court Road, already facing a daily increase from 150,000 journeys per day to over 200,000 once Crossrail 1 begins operating in 2018, would see a further big hike in those numbers once Crossrail 2 kicked in. So it's clear that the safety issues of overflow and exit strategy will become paramount - and that means a second entrance/exit route is a top priority for TfL.

The "point of surface interest" that seems to excite the Crossrail 2 team most is the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Frith Street occupied by a not very distinguished building, but one that, nonetheless, currently houses one of London's very best art-house cinemas.

The proposal to build a station here cuts deeper than just the loss of the Curzon. Not only would we lose a great contribution to Soho culture, but the very heart of London's theatreland would face years of massive upheaval as the current building is demolished and a massive new station is excavated and constructed.

And beyond all this, the unspoken covenant that no major transport link would be built within what Westminster's planning department refers to as "the Soho conservation area" would be very much a thing of the past.

Why not, you might ask - and we did indeed ask at the meeting - have the spillover station placed at one of the existing sites on the borders of Soho, like Piccadilly Circus? Part of the problem, it seems is that Piccadilly Circus station itself is a listed location, and cannot be massively redeveloped. The Crossrail trains also require much bigger platforms than an existing underground station can provide. And, frankly, the whole Crossrail 1/Crossrail 2 interchange was pretty much set in tablets of stone years ago, and so one has to assume that moving any part of the thing down the road is going to add a substantial amount to Crossrail 2's already eye-watering £29billion price tag.

As a long-time resident myself, I'm very aware that we could be seen as a group of whinging Nimbys, trying to shunt off the Crossrail 2 development to outside our beloved square mile. But after five years of Crossrail 1 and now the goldrush-style land-grab which has turned our streets into one huge building site, I think concern about further major construction work that could be taking place for many years between 2020 and 2030 is understandable.

Beyond all of this lies a powerful desire to preserve the very thing that makes Soho worth visiting: its village-like sensibility and the fact that it is home to such great places as the Curzon. Losing an important cultural asset like that would be unthinkable in any part of London.

The meeting ended with the assurance that the Crossrail 2 team would continue to explore other options for the second entrance/exit station, and there would be further consultation meetings with residents and interested parties.

The powers that be have still to approve Crossrail 2, and it has yet to start its ambitious fund-raising. It certainly still has a lot of questions to answer. Just the sheer volume of people predicted to be disgorged from Crossrail's proposed Shaftesbury Avenue station into a small network of streets like Soho is surely something to be looked at carefully, if the area is to retain its unique character.

But even putting that to one side, let's at least give people some reason to continue wanting to come to Soho - and not start by demolishing and destroying the very things that make it so popular and special in the first place.

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