CGI of the Beach Walk development plan. Image: APX Architecture.
by Sara Tilley
A new development on the corner of Tower Parade and Beach Walk promised to enhance the area and create a striking gateway into Whitstable – but it’s too big, too black and reeks of greed.
A mismatched jumble of buildings marks the entrance to the town from Tankerton.
On your right, just past the castle gatehouse, are the Wynn Ellis Alms Houses – a two-storey honey-coloured terrace that still provides accommodation for elderly people through a charitable trust.
But beyond these there is a no-man’s-land of utility buildings and waste ground until you reach the harbour.
The stretch on the seaward side currently houses an overspill car park for the Hotel Continental, a 1960s bowling alley, the swimming pool car park and the Harbour Garage forecourt.
It’s not attractive, by any stretch of the imagination, and is an incredible waste of space, given its prime location just minutes from the sea.
This is why the development on Beach Walk car park is so important.
It will set a precedent for the look and scale and massing of an area calling out for investment and redevelopment.
However, mock Arts and Crafts style architecture would not be an improvement and it’s not surprising that the scheme has just been passed on appeal.
APX Architecture have simply picked up upon the trend for new builds in Whitstable to embrace a contemporary ‘seaside vernacular’ – from Saxon Court (on the old boating lake) and the rentals overlooking the beach next to the Neptune, to the new houses on Borstal Hill and, of course, the Sea Street development (on the Oval site).
With their weatherboarding, steeply pitched roofs, tall windows and balconies, they seem to spring from the town of Seaside, in Florida (where The Truman Show was filmed) arriving here about 25 years ago.
While this style doesn’t sit well in residential streets like Diamond Road, it does have some sympathy with Tower Parade’s elevated run of shops and flats, set behind lush shrubs and trees opposite the site.
Encouraged by gentrification in the town centre, recent years have seen many of these properties renovated, to make the most of the upper storeys’ sea views, and now command high rental and resale prices.
However, where the Beach Walk car park’s design jars is in its black solidity, which reinforces the fact that it is one storey too tall.
Residents are not opposed to people building on derelict sites per se; investment in the town is a good thing and housing is desperately needed.
But it’s the associated greed of developers who build high value properties – which locals could never afford – and always make them just a little taller than any surrounding buildings, squeezing in one extra floor to increase their financial return.
Super-sized new builds diminish their neighbours and create an unbalanced streetscape which, in a low-rise town like Whitstable, should be discouraged by planning officials.
Councillor Ashley Clark is frustrated by the system in which city councillors can reject a development like this, only to have that decision overturned by a planning inspector.
He said: “The planning system is a complete joke with unelected and unaccountable tin gods called planning inspectors ignoring informed local views of elected councillors and doing the government’s bidding, particularly on big developments.
“A further source of frustration is the veiled threat that if councillors refuse to go with the officer’s recommendation there is always the risk of costs being awarded against the council on appeal. This is oppressive – particularly against a background where wealthy developers can afford the best lawyers but cash-strapped councils have no such luxury.
“Ultimately the planning committee and system at local level remains little more than an exercise in damage limitation.”
Developers will always push to see how far they can go and, by passing this scheme, the eastern entrance to the town will be a parade of buildings at least four storeys high.
They will offer apartment-living for young professionals and those looking for a weekend bolt-hole near the beach.
The clock is ticking on how long it is until planning applications are submitted for the bowling alley and Harbour Garage sites, if not the swimming pool too.
Sara Tilley lives in Whitstable and has a Master of Architecture (RIBA Pt II) from the University of Kent.
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