Government heritage advisor calls on Westminster council to reject ‘incongruous’ Oxford Street redevelopment proposal

AHMM’s proposals to redevelop a run of Oxford Street shops behind a handful of retained facades are “incongruous” and would rob the shopping mecca of part of its history, the government’s heritage advisor has warned.

Historic England said the practice’s proposals for 29-43 Oxford Street and 16-19 Soho Square – which would essentially deliver one new eight-storey building with a roof terrace at its southern extremity – were the “antithesis” of everything that gave the area its special qualities.

AHMM’s plans, drawn up for King Sloane Properties and Element Capital, would retain the facades of 29-39 Oxford Street – and a greater part of the grade II-listed 35 Oxford Street, which was built in 1909 to a design by Gilbert & Constanduros. (See building numbers on the second image in the gallery above.)

But the remaining buildings would be removed to make way for the new structure, which would also be built over Falconberg Mews. The proposals would deliver a gross internal area of 12,192sq m – with retail uses on lower floors and office use above. The figure represents a 65% increase on the current buildings on the site, which AHMM described as a “disparate set”.

Nos 29-43 Oxford Street. the two buildings that would be completely demolished are at the right.

Source: Google Maps

Nos 29-43 Oxford Street. The two buildings that would be completely demolished are at the right.

In a formal letter of objection to the proposals, Historic England’s Michael Dunn said the organisation had serious concerns about the impact of the scheme on the Soho conservation area, and in particular over the loss of Nos 41 and 43 Oxford Street.

Dunn, who is the organisation’s principal inspector of historic buildings and areas, said the AHMM scheme would loom a full two storeys above the retained facades on Oxford Street and said the “serious” harm the proposals would do to the conservation area were not offset with public benefits.

Sketch of the new Oxford Street elevation under AHMM's plans

Sketch of the new Oxford Street elevation under AHMM’s plans

He said both 41 and 43 Oxford Street made a positive contribution to the character of the Soho conservation area, describing the former as “an interesting arts & crafts-style commercial building from 1910”. He said the latter was “an important and rare illustration of the pre-commercial late-Georgian domestic houses that once lined Oxford Street.

“The two buildings form an important part of the long run of surviving historic elevations that characterise this part of Oxford Street. It follows that their loss would cause harm to the significance of the conservation area,” he said.

“The proposed replacement building, with its rigid composition and large windows appears incongruous in this setting and would cause harm through the way it interrupts and imposes itself on the eclectic group of diverse historic elevations … that are integral to the special character of this part of Soho conservation area.”

Dunn said the “the fine grain and small scale” of the eastern end of Oxford Street were important elements that contributed to the conservation area. “The creation of large floorplates and uniform shop units here is the antithesis of that special character,” he said.

Dunn said Historic England believed the proposals caused “serious harm” to the setting of the conservation area, although he accepted that the degree of harm was “less than substantial”.

Significantly, however, he said the public benefits claimed by the scheme’s project team did not outweigh the degree of harm it would cause. Such a balancing exercise is a key part of the rationale for approving an application under the National Planning Policy Framework.

“We are not convinced that the public benefits described in your documents and in your presentation to the [local authority] would outweigh the harm,” he said.

“While we have no objection to the provision of a public roof terrace on the proposed building at 16-19 Soho Square, we do not consider this to be a public benefit that would outweigh the harm set out.”

He said Historic England woud submit a separate appraisal of the impact on the scheme on 35 Oxford Street.

Westminster council has indicated it plans to determine AHMM’s application in May.