Published in The Wick, April 2023, p14 (original article here).
The shape of things to come in Hackney Wick
Spaces are opening up in new and old buildings around Hackney Wick – some with longterm security, others as meanwhile use. Is this the roadmap to secure the area’s creative future?
“It almost slipped through the net a few times and I’ve considered it lost. We got it by a wing and a prayer,” says Richard Priestley, talking about Cell Studios’ new space in Hackney Wick, located in the same spot where they first opened artist studios in the early 2000s. After seeing them bulldozed in 2017, it’s pretty special to be back: “It’s come full circle, and it’s better than we could have hoped for.”
Too many artist spaces in Hackney Wick and Fish Island (HWFI) are on shorter term contracts – this is why the permanent return of Cell’s affordable workspace is such a bright spot. Also among the good news are two peppercorn rent deals: Stour has secured a landmark 149-year lease on the Vogue building on Fish Island, the HWFI Community Development Trust has secured almost 7000 sq ft of long-term affordable workspace space at Swan Wharf.
Cell runs a third of the 36,000 sq ft affordable workspace in the new building (Mainyard Studios runs the rest) on Wallis Road, as the beneficiaries of Section 106 planning obligations to return some of the affordable artist space that was lost. Cell’s landlords are the Creative Land Trust, which put up the substantial sum to acquire the 999 year leasehold when the developer decided to sell, rather than rent out the affordable section. Few of Hackney Wick’s affordable workspace providers have this kind of cash: “If it hadn’t been for the formation of the Creative Land Trust, and the fact that they chose this space as their first acquisition, the affordable workspace here might have been lost for good.” says Priestley.
Cell is especially pleased to offer the space back to some of the visual artists displaced when the old studios were torn down. “Some of them never thought they’d get a great deal like this here again,” says Priestley – the rent is capped at a level that’s becoming increasingly rare in the area. “This workspace has the potential to evolve these artists’ careers, because they can now afford more space, work bigger, and be more ambitious.”
The 2012 London Olympics kicked off the ongoing, often brutal, changes to HWFI. It’s been an emotional journey, but fewer holes in the ground means more clarity. “We’re seeing new buildings emerging and being populated, and new studio spaces starting to be filled,” says Will Chamberlain, founder of Creative Wick. “Developers are increasingly walking the walk, and there seems to be genuine appreciation of the importance of art and culture in the new developments. Some developers are making commitments, but not much is signed yet,” says Chamberlain. “The clay is still wet.”
Meanwhile, rents are rising. Many of the new spaces are more expensive than what came before, but at least they’re new and nice, like The Trampery, the fashion cluster in Fish Island Village. That’s not the case at Queen’s Yard, which isn’t being redeveloped any time soon now, but rents are still rising significantly.
When I grow up I want to be an apartment block, reads the graffiti across from the station. “We still see apartment buildings being built that are unaffordable for local people,” says Chamberlain. “We need genuinely innovative planning decisions about how to affordably house young, creative people who want to live and work here. If you stop that from happening, you lose the lifeblood of the Wick.”
Developers are increasingly willing to open up for meanwhile use, which means fewer empty ground floor units and more opportunity for experimentation. The lockdown brought the community together (but also enabled some landlords to evict people), and in the past year there’s been more new spaces cropping up as developers have paused for breath.
Trowbridge Gardens is bustling – there’s workspaces, podcasting studios, a gym, gallery, café and more. “It’s exciting to see these things, but it’s less to do with policy and more about creative people who together and make things happen,” says Nimrod Vardi, founder of Arbeit Studios which runs Trowbridge. “The ambition is always to secure long term leases. At Trowbridge we only have about three years left, and we hope to start a conversation about the longterm ambition as soon as possible.”
Vardi agrees that some developers seem to be more interested in working with the creative industry. But a lot of people are still sceptical – what’s behind the buzzwords on the construction hoarding? Asks Vardi: “Is it going to be in the spirit of Hackney Wick? Is it going to bring in operators with good local reputations?”
With nine years until development, Hackney Bridge is the biggest meanwhile project in HWFI. After two false starts, the indebted site was acquired by SYHL, the group behind Vinegar Yard and Flat Iron Square near London Bridge, in November. “Much of what’s here is inherited. We’re just getting our feet under the table. I’ve always thought it’s a fantastic location,” says Neil Benson, partner at SYHL. Hackney Bridge will have food and drink, and maker studios and small businesses: there’s already a barber, youth charity, joinery, architects and brewery, and hopefully soon, a Sunday market. “Our lease includes obligations to have a certain percentage of the space at supported rents,” says Benson, indicating it’s lower than the “going rate” of £30-35 per sq ft. They’re also obliged to put on community events – Benson has already reached out to the Yard Theatre: “We want local partners to come to us with their ideas, so we can [work with them and] support them,” says Benson. “We didn’t buy this to flip it and sell it on. This is a long term hold. I’d quite like to be doing something that my kids can be proud of.”
Benson hopes the Wick will become a London destination: “We want people to come and spend the day. Maybe they listen to music over at Grow, then come here for a burger, and end up dancing in Number 90 or going into the Colour Factory,” says Benson. The plan is to provide a free Hackney Bridge community card to people with a Wick address, entitling them to discounts: “This way we can directly support local people.”
Much hope has been pinned on the establishment of a Creative Enterprise Zone (CEZ) as a steward of the creative economy in HWFI. “I’m proud of the projects we’ve done,” says CEZ manager Patrick Scally (who’s also this issue’s guest editor). The Space Makers grant saw £100,000 of capital funding to nine creatives: “It helped us build deeper relationships with creative businesses, and helped them access capital.”
The CEZ wants to work with the people on the ground, says Scally: “The depth and the breadth of opportunity in the area is massive.” This is a comment often heard around the Wick – that there’s so much raw talent, and a need to coordinate. The CEZ can take on some of this administrative work, and make sure everyone can participate as the area changes:
“The creative industries are a great vehicle for work opportunities, and for social and cultural connections between people,” says Scally. “Those experiences are what makes Hackney Wick so magical – it’s people who’re doing things which is grassroot and edgy and different. How can we draw a crowd which speaks to the old Hackney Wick, as well as to the future? We’d really like to try to do that.”